Remember those annoying “reading comprehension” questions on the SAT exam?  Boy, I hated those.  While I’m generally pretty good with the English language, the idea that there was only ONE acceptable interpretation to a given story always got under my craw.

For example, I specifically remember one question that asked “Who built the Erie Canal?” and forced you to choose between 1) Irish laborers; 2) New York government officials; 3) Mules; or 4) Civil engineers.  To this day, I don’t have a clue what the right answer was to that one, given that the word “built” could have so many different interpretations!  Still makes my blood boil, just thinking about it…

But anyway, my own bizarre hang-ups aside, there’s no question that reading comprehension is a key ingredient to job hunting success — especially when it comes to responding to published advertisements.  To put it bluntly, if you’re going to go through the trouble of pursuing an advertised opportunity, make sure to read the job description carefully so that you can demonstrate a strong comprehension of the employer’s needs, challenges, and requirements in your cover letter!

For example, not long ago a client of mine asked me to review a cover letter draft they’d put together for a job that specifically asked for:

•  Minimum of 2-4 years of experience in partner relations, account management, or related roles in the digital media space
•  Knowledge of the online video space and/or vertical ad network space preferred
•  Knowledge of Salesforce.com and Excel is preferred
•  Knowledge of basic Javascript, HTML and APIs is preferred
•  Results oriented, extremely proactive and a highly responsive individual with excellent communication and negotiation skills
•  Interest in working within a start-up environment
•  Minimum of a Bachelor’s degree

When I opened and read the cover letter, however, I was shocked to discover that my client hadn’t emphasized a SINGLE ONE of these points in this correspondence.  The letter didn’t contain any trace of words/phrases like online video, Salesforce.com, or Javascript.  It didn’t mention any experience or understanding related to vertical ad networks.  And it didn’t explain why he’d be specifically interested in working for a start-up firm, versus a larger organization.  Instead, it talked about his management experience in a rather generic way, in addition to emphasizing soft skills like teamwork and tossing around some cliched statements like “I’m looking for a steady and secure job” and “I have a proven history of hard work and getting results.”

In short, there was very little evidence in the letter that the candidate had even READ the job description in question — or seemed to care one whit about the needs of his customer (the employer) and what they were trying to accomplish.  For all practical purposes, it instead appeared as if he was just “going through the motions” and copying/pasting/sending the exact same letter to every advertisement he came across, a habit that instantly makes an applicant appear lazy, self-serving, clueless, or d) all of the above.

Long story short, when you’re selling yourself to employers in today’s competitive market, you’ve got to get right to the point and show employers that you “get it” and have an excellent grasp of the qualifications and outcomes they’re seeking.  And silly SAT questions aside, achieving this goal starts with a healthy dose of good old-fashioned reading comprehension!