We all have dreams of grandeur and of being wildly successful in our careers, without having to do much of anything at all. But then reality sets in, and all of a sudden you remember that in order to succeed in your career, you have to actually put in the work. You might want to become a CEO, but in most cases you need to start somewhere below that.
So when you’re applying for a new job at a company that is hiring people at a number of different levels, should you shoot for the moon and apply for that manager position, or should you go for the safe route and apply for the entry-level position? It can be a tough call, since picking the wrong level could result in your resume and cover letter being thrown in the trash without a second thought. When the position level for which you should apply is not abundantly clear -- or you don’t have a specific job title in mind -- you’ll need to tread carefully to ensure you’re given the chance you deserve.
Here are some tips for determining the position level for which you should apply.
1. Read the Job Description Carefully
When it comes to applying for jobs and getting it right, it all starts with knowing as much as you can about the position, and then tailoring your resume and application materials to the job at hand. That starts with thoroughly reading and understanding the job description. Even better, print it out so that you can make notes in the margins, and underline important points.
Naturally, the part of the job description that talks about the ideal candidate’s qualifications is the part that will give you the most helpful information. If the employer talks about the number of years you need to be on the job, great -- you’ll have an easy way to understand what’s required of you. Ideally, you’ll have that number of years of work experience, but also don’t overlook volunteer or "side-gig" work; this can count among that number of years of experience, since those experiences will have likely added depth to your experience.
If the job description is vague and only mentions words such as "mid-level," "mid-career," "executive level" or other more ambiguous terms, you’ll have to rely on some standard definitions of those phrases. (And by the way, if the job is described as "no experience necessary," then you can assume it’s an entry-level job -- which may or may not be a good fit for you and the stage you are at in your career.
2. Look at Standard Definitions
While the company to which you’re applying may apply its own set of standards, there is a "Global Grade" system out there, designed to provide a systematic grading system for jobs. The Watson Wyatt Worldwide system includes the following guidelines:
- Entry Level or Junior or "Level 1" positions are defined as those with 0 to 2 years of professional experience. Depending on the job, it may also require a bachelor’s degree or a specialized certificate. For these positions, only basic skills pertaining to the field are required.
- Intermediate Level or "Level 2" positions are those that require between 2 and 5 years of professional or on-the-job experience. For these positions, you’ll typically need advanced skills pertaining to the industry, as well as the ability to adapt or modify your knowledge or be more innovative in your position.
- Senior Level or "Level 3" positions require 5 to 8 years of experience and the use of advanced skills pertaining to the industry in which you work. Once again, a senior-level person will need to be able to use those skills creatively and to adapt them to innovate new solutions in the industry.
- Lead Level are the executive and management positions, and are among the top tiers in the company. Lead level positions typically require 8 or more years of professional experience, and often, also a higher-level degree.
Companies may also assign the "senior manager" level to managers with extensive management experience, as well as various titles for its executive staff.
While these guidelines will give you a general idea of the levels of various positions, they’re not a hard-and-fast rule, and the companies to which you’re applying may or may not follow those guidelines.
3. Research the Company
If the job description and the standard definitions aren’t feeling right, another way to get a sense of where to position yourself is to research the company as much as possible. If you really want the job, you should be doing this anyway, as a way to be fully prepared should you land an interview.
Check out the company’s website as well as the LinkedIn profiles of any employees you can find there. Look at the employees’ job titles, and read their resumes to get a sense of where they came from before landing their current position. That research alone will give you a sense of what job titles and career tiers the company uses. You can also visit the company’s human resources Web page -- if it has one -- to get a sense of the other positions the company is hiring for, and how the experience, job titles and other requirements match up to the other jobs you’ve seen advertised. In the best-case scenario, the company will even have a "corporate structure" chart or other explanation of how to move up in the company, making it easier to determine where you might start out there.
4. Contact the HR Department
When all of the above advice hasn’t helped and you’re still in the dark about where to position yourself, another option is to be the squeaky wheel. Call or email the company’s human resources department and let them know you’re interested in a certain department or position. Then explain your situation, and ask for help determining where you fit in. Let them know that you’re really interested in working with the company, and that you want to put yourself in the best situation possible to get hired. Ideally, the HR professional you reach will appreciate your effort in positioning yourself properly, and he or she may even remember you when it’s time to start sorting through resumes and cover letters for that position. Professional, targeted contact, with someone at the company is a good thing -- but remember to treat the entire interaction as part of your job application. Don’t waste the person’s time with unnecessary communication, thank them for their time, and just generally follow the guidelines for good business etiquette.
5. Find out to Whom You'll Report
Another way to be the squeaky wheel is to get in touch with the person under whom you’ll actually be working. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a job description with a person’s name attached, contact that person and ask about your positioning. Once again, it can be a good way to get your name out there and to get someone to remember you.
6. When You're on the Cusp
So what happens when you’re right on the line between two position levels? Should you play it safe, or go for the top? This can be a tricky one, but as a general rule, if you think you have what it takes to truly succeed in the higher-level position, go for it. Just use your cover letter to explain that you’re aware that you’re right on the line -- but then give a few great reasons why you’re still highly qualified. If you’re applying for a manager position that requires past leadership experience, but you don’t have any formal experience, be sure to mention the leadership roles you’ve taken in your community or volunteer positions, or underline the fact that you’ve just completed a management training course. In your cover letter, also mention that you’d be willing to take the more junior-level position as well, because you’re committed to working for that company. The same goes for any job in which it is completely unclear where their levels lie. Explain that you think you belong at this one level, but that you’re willing to stand corrected and want to be considered for other related positions as well.
If, on the other hand, you’re far below the level that’s required for a certain position, it’s probably best that you don’t apply. Even if you do happen to land the job, you may just find that your lack of experience results in not knowing how to handle certain situations. In other words, you could be setting yourself up for failure. In that case, it may be better to take the lower position in which you can gain confidence before applying further up the ladder.
Whether you’re an entry-level, intermediate or senior-level candidate, always make sure that your skill set matches to the one described for the job, and that you’re fully prepared to talk about how you can apply those skills should you get asked in for a job interview.
Now go out there and think big. Even if you’re not at a senior level just yet, usually the only way to get there is to start somewhere.