Enter Keywords:Enter Location:
e.g. part time, sales manager, etc.e.g. London, Kent, Manchester, etc.

How to Read a Job Ad

If you’ve read our guide to job hunting, you’ll know that simply looking through job listings shouldn’t be your primary activity when you’re on the look out for work. (If you haven’t read it, you should!)

However, it still needs to be done, and as you’re going to be spending your precious time, both at home and at the Job Centre, sifting through job ads, it’s important to be able to glean all the information you’ll need from them as quickly as possible. This guide will tell you what to look out for and help you decode some of the vague and confusing language such ads are prone to using.

The Process of Elimination

The key to a successful job hunt is focus. You need to know exactly what you’re looking for so that you can concentrate your efforts and make the most of your time. When it comes to replying to job ads, this means you need to be quick to eliminate vacancies that don’t fit your requirements and move on. Before looking at the job description in detail, it’s best to first take the time to consider the practicalities of taking the role.

Therefore, two details you should immediately look at are the salary and the location. Ads can sometimes be vague as to the precise location of the business premises, but with some online research you should be able to find it and, using a service such as Google maps, you can even see what your commute would be like. If it’s an impractical distance, forget about it and move on. Likewise, if the salary is below your expectations, keep looking. Don’t waste time applying to jobs you might be happy with. Find the ones you know you want and focus your energies there.

Next, look at the skills that are listed as an absolute requirement. In a jobs market as crowded as this, there’s very little point taking the time to apply for a role that you don’t even have the minimum level of experience for. (There’ll be more on this later.)

After this, focus on the company offering the job and, if you’ve never heard of them, be sure to start conducting further research so as to ascertain if it’s the sort of company you’d be willing to work for. Obviously, to do this it helps if you have clear image of the type of company you want to work for, their standing in their industry, their ethos and their culture. If you have no idea, our guide to choosing a career path can help you with the difficult task of making up your mind.

Once you’ve done all this, your next step is take a long hard look at the language. By studying the ad’s choice of words closely you’ll be able to get a good idea of whether it really is the job for you.

Decoding Job Ad Jargon

Job seekers’ propensity to exaggerate or even lie about their skills in job applications and interviews is well documented, and newspapers often carry shocking statistics about the number of people who economize with the truth when on the hunt for employment.

However, this only tells one half of the story. If candidates are willing to play it fast and loose with the facts to help them land a great job, then, by the same token, employers might also be a little less than up front in their efforts to attract talented applicants.

This doesn’t mean that you should conduct your job search in the frame of mind that everything you read is a lie, but, as shown in our article ‘Scams Aimed at Job Seekers’, it does pay to keep an eye out for signs that not all is as it seems when reading a job ad.

Just as you will do your utmost to sell yourself as the type of person who’ll make a great addition to the business, the business will (usually) also be keen to sell itself to you as being a great place to work. With that in mind, you’d be wise not to take everything you read at face value- after all, it is an advert you’re reading.

With a view to helping you decode the reality behind the jargon, we’ve compiled a list of some the most common stock phrases and buzzwords that are used to describe vacancies and work environments and given a more straight forward explanation of what they generally indicate;

‘Self Starter/ Self Motivated’

Ads frequently specify that you will need to be a self starter. This is basically a way of saying that in order to do the job, you’ll need to be able to motivate yourself, and, to a large extent, take responsibility for managing your own time.

At best the phrase suggests a laissez faire style of management where you’ll be able to make the most of your talents for taking the initiative. However, it could be that being a ‘self starter’ is only essential because there are no resources to supply you with support should you need it, that you’ll essentially have to fend for yourself.

Likewise, if a job demands an employee to be self motivated, you might (if you’re being cynical) infer from it that motivation is unlikely to come from anywhere else. Of course, making such assumptions depends greatly on the role actually being advertised.

If it’s a role with a lot of genuine responsibility, you’ll need to be self motivated to stay on top of things and manage your projects. If it’s lower down the ladder, perhaps a sales role, self motivation might be needed to deal with constant knock backs and a lack of encouragement in the working environment. For example, you might need to generate all your leads yourself.

If you need feedback, support and clear direction, this might not be for you.

‘Positive/ Can Do Attitude’

This is another very popular stipulation. Obviously, nobody is going to hire a candidate who has a negative, ‘can’t do attitude’, and nobody is going to present themselves in that light either. So why do employers waste precious advertising space asking for positivity?

It could be a sign that you’re going to be expected to routinely deal with unexpected problems, possibly due to the organisation’s had hazard approach, where unforeseen circumstances arise and have to be readily accepted and tackled without reservation.

Obviously, having to occasionally deal with problems is unavoidable in life, but bear in mind that if you’re being asked to have a ‘can do’ attitude, they’re probably not referring to the tasks in your actual job description. Obviously you have a ‘can do’ attitude toward those. Therefore, this expression might hint at the fact that you’ll end up taking on various other duties, rather than sticking to your main area of focus.

‘On Target Earnings’ (OTE)

In many lines of work commission makes up the bulk, or at least a substantial part, of your take home pay. If you are paid on commission, theoretically your potential earnings are unlimited. Job ad writers will often use this fact to advertise a role as having spectacular performance related ‘on target earnings’.

Take these figures with a pinch of salt. You have no way of knowing if the ‘targets’ in question are in any way realistic. You will see jobs that advertise ‘on target earnings’ as high as 60k, with a basic salary as low as 20k. Ask yourself if it seems likely that you’ll really earn three times your basic in the role in question.

Similarly, if the role is advertised with a scaled salary, for example ‘between 24-30k’, you’re better off thinking of the job as paying 24k. If your minimum requirement is 30k, it’s probably not worth your while applying.

‘Competitive Salary’

This expression sounds as if it means that the salary is ‘competitive’ in the sense that it’s high enough to attract talented candidates away from other firms. However, more often than not ‘competitive’ simply means that it’s in the ball park that you’d expect for the industry, normally towards the lower end of the spectrum. As a general rule, if the salary is a real selling point, it’ll speak for itself.

‘Hit the Ground Running’

If a company needs an employee to hit the ground running there’s a definite suggestion that they will not be providing any sort of thorough training or orientation. As with ‘self starter’, the implication is that they will leave you to your own devices and see if you sink or swim.

‘Entry Level’

This is basically a more palatable way of saying that you will be at the very bottom rung of the ladder in terms of your place within the organisation and your level of pay.

The phrase ‘entry level’ can seem as if it means you could step into the role with a minimum of experience, or even none at all, but this is rarely the case. Don’t be tempted to apply for a role you aren’t particularly qualified for just because it’s advertised as an ‘entry level’ position. It just means that it’s the first step for somebody wanting to get into that industry. It may well require a degree and relevant work experience. Read ditto for phrases such as ‘ground floor.’

‘Great Organizational Skills’

This request is another one that, though it seems innocuous enough, is worth questioning. Why are great organization skills such a must? Are things in disarray? Aren’t there systems in place that keep things fairly organized anyway?

‘Varied/ Multifaceted Role’

This sounds great, after all, one of the key reasons people become frustrated in their jobs is having to do the same things over and over. However, you have to wonder whether this ‘variety’ will come from them expecting you to be a jack of all trades, handling various different aspects of their operation. If so, it suggests a lack of clear structure, which is normally a bad sign.

Specialisation is the cornerstone of capitalism. If employees don’t have clearly defined roles, it doesn’t reflect that well on the acumen of the managers. It could also mean that you find yourself answering to various different people who are above you in the chain of command. Having multiple bosses could prove stressful.

‘Must Work Well Under Pressure’

If you see this written in a job ad, rest assured that they don’t mean ‘…just in case’. It’s there to let you know that pressure will be part of your everyday working life. If you can handle that good, but if not, be aware of what you’re getting into.

‘Fast Paced Environment’

All businesses want to operate at a fast pace. Generally, they achieve this by having smart working procedures in place. If people need to work franticly just to keep up with things, it suggests the business could be run in a more efficient manner. It could even be a sign that they’re understaffed.

Of course, it could also just mean that there’s a high demand for their services, which is great. But either way, be prepared for potentially stressful deadlines to be imposed on you.

‘Some Over Time Required’

They could just be saying this to cover their backs, but it’s a very good indication that over time is seen as a normal part of the culture. If working more hours than you’re going to be paid for is a deal breaker for you, this should be cause for alarm.


This basically just means that they want you to have enthusiasm. Don’t be confused into thinking the presence of such a word means the job will actually involve anything that could literally be termed ‘dynamic’. You’ll probably spend all your time at a desk, very much static.

On a less literal level, be aware that this word is so overused that most companies that put it down don’t even know what they mean by it, they just know it’s the type of thing that usually goes in a job ad. Don’t necessarily take it as a sign that you’ll be free to contribute new ideas or help innovate new ways of working, or you could be disappointed.

‘Team Player’

Obviously, this is a fair enough stipulation to make if you’re going to be working closely with others as part of a team. However, it could mean that you’ll be expected to put other people’s priorities before your own, and deal with problems not directly related to your job.

If the role in question is something that you’d be doing pretty much on your own, the request that you be a team player might look a little suspicious, the suggestion being that you’ll need to be skilled at diplomacy in order to deal with the various demands being placed on you by different people.

‘Customer Focused’

When you see this written in an ad it’s highly likely that the customer’s you’ll be focused on will be unhappy ones. Going the extra mile to make people happy will be one side of the coin, but the employer will also expect you to be able to remain cool when taking flak from disgruntled clientele.

If you like dealing with people but can’t stand confrontation, a ‘customer focused’ role might turn out to be a terrible fit.


Ironically, this term get’s used in lots and lots of job ads. Strictly speaking of course all jobs are unique, which makes the use of this term all the more silly. If the employer is dressing up the job in this way, you have to wonder why they’re so desperate to increase its appeal.

‘Opportunity’ is another word that you should think of in the same way. Any job is an opportunity, so there’s no real need to describe it as such. Again, it sounds like a hard sell.

‘Fast Growing Company’

It’s rare that a company which is a leader in its field will describe itself as ‘fast growing’. Indeed, the fastest growing companies in the world tend not to describe themselves as ‘fast growing’. They don’t really need to.

If you see this phrase in a job ad, its safe to assume the company is relatively small and, at best, moderately successful. It shouldn’t put you off, but at the same time, be aware of the likely reality of the situation. The chances of the company rapidly expanding, handing out pay rises and promotions as they go, aren’t necessarily that high. That’s the simply how it is for most companies.

‘Ninja/ Rock Star’

This was something of a fad a that started a couple of years ago, where young companies, in an effort to show off their fresh approach, would add words like ‘ninja’ or ‘rock star’ to the end of job titles.

Needless to say, if you land a role such as ‘Admin Ninja’ or ‘Programming Rockstar’, you will not be required (or indeed allowed) to spend your days in ‘stealth mode’ or playing loud music! It’s simply a way for a company try and communicate a sense of humour and indicate they’ll be fun to work for. (Of course, inflated job tiles are nothing new, and there are some incredible examples. Subway, for instance, call their employees ‘Sandwich Artists’…)

If you find the idea of a company trying to make jobs more attractive in this manner ridiculous, patronising or just plain unfunny, it suggests you might find the company culture grating to say the least.

Scarecrows: A Side Note

Despite the long list of things that employers will say to make their vacancies sound more attractive, in some cases a recruiter will want to do just the opposite…

The jobs market is a very crowded place at present, with a huge number of talented people applying for every available post. This might sound like the ideal situation for a firm looking to hire, but it actually makes things quite difficult. The business of bringing in new personnel is expensive and time consuming, and this is only exacerbated if the best applicants have to picked out by sifting through a veritable mountain of CVs.

As a result, companies will occasionally try and scare away less experienced job seekers by making their job ad more intimidating than it really needs to be. The most common way of doing this is to exaggerate the skills set and years of experience that are required.

Some go so far that they actually make the specifications of their job ad impossible to fulfil. In the technology sector for example, it has been known for ads to demand that candidates have two or three years working experience with a cutting edge technology that hasn’t even been around that long!

Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to the skills that are listed as requirements, and those that are merely preferred. If you’re meeting the majority of the criteria, say 80% or so, the chances are you’ve got a decent shot of being called to interview.

Again, don’t be too perturbed if you fall a little short of the experience they’re asking for. If they require at least three years experience and you’ve only got two, you might be able to overcome this gap. Bear in mind that some employers would also let you count time spent studying and on work experience towards the total they require.

Of course, these exaggerations in the job requirements aren’t solely intended to put off less qualified candidates. They are also intended to attract high quality professionals. If you yourself are highly experienced, with a great track record, and you see a job ad that seems pitched at your level, it could be worth considering whether the add is deliberately trying to attract you to a role that might otherwise be beneath you.

Responding to a Job Ad

If the details provided in the ad pass your process of elimination, and the language hasn’t put you off, you need to go back and conduct another close reading of the ad, this time with the aim of using it as a starting point for making your application.

The ad will help you to reconfigure your CV to make you as attractive possible. Just as some experts suggesting mirroring your opposite number’s body language in a job interview, you should attempt to mirror the language of the ad in your CV. Be sure to emphasise the areas of your CV that demonstrate the skills they’re most eager to see, and try and echo their key words where possible.

If they’re pushing for a candidate that works effectively in a team, rework your key achievements to emphasise the aspects of team work inherent in them. If the tone of their add is bright, energetic and lightly humorous, try to avoid coming across in a very dry manner. Likewise, if the ad’s tone is very formal, with emphasis on traditional professionalism, write your cover letter and CV in the same style.

For more tips on writing your CV and cover letter, read these helpful guides;

Writing a CV

Writing a Cover Letter

Other Key Terms Explained

Finally, here are some technical terms that appear on job ads that you may not be familiar with;


This means ‘per annum’ and is used to give detail of the salary. For example, £18,000 PA tells you what you’ll earn in a year.


This means per week and will be used to give the details of the wages for jobs that pay on a weekly basis.

Pro Rata

This might be written next to a yearly salary to indicate that you’ll be paid for your time in proportion to that level of compensation. So, for example if the role pays £20,000 pro rata, but you only work half days, you’ll be paid £10,000 a year.


This refers to the level of pay after tax and other deductions are taken away.


This refers to the level of pay before tax and other deductions are taken away.

Market Related

This means pay will be related to industry standards at the time of writing. You should be able to get an idea of the pay level by doing some research using a salary survey.

Working Knowledge

Confusingly, this term doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need strong experience of working professionally with the tools in question, you’ll just need to know how they work in practice and have some familiarity with them.


Proficiency on the other hand implies that you are an expert at the task in question and have a strong track record of professional success in this area.


If a skill is listed as being a requirement, you absolutely need to be able to provide it. If you can’t, you’re probably going to be wasting your time drafting up an application.


These are skills that you would ideally have, but aren’t 100% vital. The more of these you have the better, but don’t be too perturbed if there are a few criteria you don’t meet, after all, nobody’s perfect.

Proven Track Record

Your application will need to include details of your achievements in the area in question. If you can’t provide such details it is very unlikely that the employer will take a chance on hiring you.