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December 6, 2023

Kate Urban, Sr. Research Writer

Interpreting job criteria: Helping employers and students bridge the divide

Handshake and SHRM conducted a joint study to learn how students and recent graduates respond to job qualification criteria, and whether employers expect emerging professionals to check all the boxes.

A job description is often the first point of contact between a job applicant and an employer. But are employers and early-career candidates on the same page when it comes to the qualification criteria in a job description? Will “emerging professionals”—students and new grads with up to a few years of workplace experience—apply to jobs for which they’re not “fully qualified” on paper? From an employer perspective, are “required” skills, degrees, and years of experience really required?

To find out, Handshake and SHRM conducted a joint survey of thousands of employers and emerging professionals. Here’s what we learned:

  1. Many students and recent graduates will apply to a job if they don’t have 100% of the required skills and experience, but fewer will apply if they don’t feel they have the right major or degree.
  2. Less than half of employers say it’s “very important” that an applicant meet all of the listed requirements for experience, skills, and academic background.
  3. A majority of employers say they count coursework related to the field as “relevant work experience” when evaluating emerging professionals.

How do job criteria factor into emerging professionals’ application decisions?

A majority of students and recent graduates say they would probably apply to a job that interested them even if the criteria included skills or experience they didn’t have. However, emerging professionals tend to assume more leniency in experience requirements than skills requirements. Only about 1 in 7 say they probably wouldn’t apply to a job that listed more experience than they have; by contrast, about 1 in 4 would probably not apply to a job that listed skills they don’t have.

When it comes to major and degree requirements, however, emerging professionals are more likely to steer clear of roles that don’t match their background. Fewer than half would probably apply to a job that wasn’t directly related to their major or degree, and almost 1 in 3 would be unlikely to apply.

In contrast to other research showing women are significantly less likely than men to apply to jobs when they don’t meet all of the criteria, there were only minor gender differences in emerging professionals’ responses to these questions. Women are slightly less likely than men to apply to jobs that list more experience than they have (64% of women and 70% of men would probably apply), but are no less likely to apply when a job lists skills they don’t have or isn’t directly related to their degree.

Do employers expect emerging professionals to meet 100% of job criteria?

In a word—no. Although most employers say meeting the criteria in the job description is at least somewhat important, those that rate it as “very important” are in the minority, especially when it comes to having one of the specified majors or degrees.

Does coursework count as “relevant work experience”?

For students and recent graduates, it can be discouraging to see “2-3 years of relevant work experience” listed in the requirements for an entry-level job. But from an employer perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate needs to have worked full-time for years to qualify. In fact, more than half of employers say they’d count relevant coursework as work experience, and the vast majority would count internships and part-time work.

Recommendations for employers, emerging professionals, and career services

These findings have important implications for employers, emerging professionals, and career services professionals:

  • Employers should consider omitting unnecessary criteria from job descriptions, especially when it comes to a candidate’s major or degree, and actively encouraging applications from candidates who don’t check every single box. Adopting a skills-based hiring approach and recognizing skilled credentials can help you keep your job criteria focused on what really matters.
  • Emerging professionals should err on the side of interpreting job criteria as guidelines rather than strict requirements when deciding whether to apply to a role, and keep in mind that most employers are open to candidates with a range of backgrounds. Learn more about how to read an entry-level job description.
  • Career services professionals should coach students and new grads to interpret job criteria broadly, and help them connect the dots between their coursework, internships, and part-time work experience and the qualifications an employer is seeking.

Handshake and SHRM will be releasing more findings from our joint research in early 2024—including data on early-career workforce readiness, top skills employers are seeking from emerging professionals, tips for success in job applications and interviews, the benefits early talent values most, and more. To stay in the loop, follow Handshake and SHRM LinkedIn.

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