This is it. You’ve found the one—the perfect job that ticks all the boxes. You believe in the mission, you’ll be creatively challenged, and there is plenty of room for growth. What a dream! There’s only one problem: You’re overqualified.
Whether the position requires a B.A. and one to two years of experience and you have a PhD along with eight years in a related industry, or it’s an entry-level position and you have management experience, it’s frustrating to find a job that you think you don’t stand a chance of getting. In some ways, it can be harder to overcome being overqualified than it can to surpass being underqualified, surprising as that may sound. One reason is that underqualified candidates can be shaped and trained in a way that overqualified candidates usually can’t, and some hiring managers struggle with this idea.
Perception matters here, too. Underqualified candidates are often seen as enthusiastic go-getters who are reaching as high as they can, while overqualified candidates may be regarded with skepticism—why would someone with 10 years of experience be applying for a mid-level position? Still, all is not lost. There are ways to overcome questions about your level of experience and prove that you’re the right hire. In fact, there are concrete steps you can take to make sure that you’re selling yourself in the best possible way.
1. Get Clear on Your Goals
Think first about why you want this job. Do you want to pivot your career from something corporate to something creative? Are you coming back to work after taking time off? Are you trying to develop or strengthen a new skill? When I changed careers, I did it so that I could connect with people and influence greater change rather than isolate myself by doing endless research. I’m still in higher education, but I shifted my focus when I realized my mission and goals had evolved, and that meant moving from a tenure-track professorship to an administrative role in the career development office .
Maybe you too have discovered that in order to be fulfilled at work, you need to believe in the mission and social impact of the company, and if you’re somewhere where you no longer understand or support the mission, it might be time to make a move. The fact that there are fewer linear career paths is in your favor. Being overqualified is a challenge, yes, but it can also be an advantage if you frame it correctly. Your skills, potential, and fit are always the most important thing for employers, and it’s not unheard of for passionate and accomplished people to work in amazing jobs that they're technically too qualified for on paper. So, while your management experience may not be necessary for your new gig at the advertising firm, your proven ability to work well with a team, keep colleagues motivated, and complete projects on time will be.
Whatever your reasoning for the change may be, knowing your goals will help you communicate your story more clearly throughout the entire process.
2. Understand Why a Hiring Manager Would Hesitate
You might think to yourself, “Why does it matter if I have more experience or education than they want? That just makes me an extra perfect candidate, right?” Not necessarily. The primary reasons that employers are wary of overqualified candidates are typically related to money and investment. They’re worried that they won’t be able to pay you enough and that you may have unrealistic expectations of the role’s advancement. In addition, they’re concerned that you’ll be bored in the position and will leave as soon as something better comes along.
Long story short, the main issue on the company’s end is that you won’t be committed, and that makes the organization hesitant to commit to you. When you understand why you may not be the most desirable candidate, you can focus on addressing potential issues: Make it clear that you’re comfortable with the salary range even if it means a pay cut and that you understand the trajectory of the role and your potential expectations.
3. Set Up Coffee Meetings
While it’s always a good idea to try to get face-time with someone who works at the company before you apply, it’s especially important when your resume might raise eyebrows. In the case of being overqualified, you want to find out what qualities and skills are most important to the organization, get a better sense of what the job looks like day to day, and figure out how to make your case that you’re right for this position. If you know someone at the company, start there and ask him point blank what he thinks your best approach would be.
If you don’t know someone already, there are some easy ways to write cold emails that’ll get responses. If you’re able to snag a short meeting, be honest about your experience and qualifications, but don’t express worry or anxiety about them—own them! At the same time, be direct about your intention to be challenged and inspired by new endeavors.
4. Don’t Downplay Accomplishments
And while you’re owning your achievements that would make you an asset to the company, don’t downplay qualifications for fear they’ll take you out of the running. Frame impressive high-level accomplishments in a new way. If you’re applying for a creative position, think about discussing a time when you were able to bring your creativity to your corporate position, and how challenging and fulfilling that was. Or, if you’re coming from a large company but want to join a startup, you can emphasize how your upper-level experience with generating leads or building client relationships can give a newer company an edge. A hiring manager may not know she needs someone with your experience until she sees your application.
It’s equally important not to sound like you’re too good for the role and assume you’ll move up the chain of command quickly. It may be more difficult to get out of your own head here, but the best thing you can do is treat this position like any other, emphasizing your skills and the value you’d bring to the company. Of course, in order to do that sincerely, you have to be honest with yourself about how long you'd be comfortable and content without a big promotion.
5. Emphasize Why You’re a Good Fit
You don’t ever need to explicitly address the fact that you’re overqualified, but if a hiring manager expresses concern, take it as an opportunity to emphasize why you want the job and why you’re the right person for the role. Avoid bringing attention to reasons that you might not fit.
So, instead of saying, “You’re probably wondering why I even want this gig, right? Haha,” say, “I’m really excited about the challenge of bringing innovative ideas to your team.” Don’t point out that you’re competing against candidates with half your experience; instead, try saying, “I know I’ve been in more senior positions, but I’m really excited about this particular role and the ways I can help it grow.”
Once you see an opening to discuss the hiring manager’s concerns, you can talk about how you’re excited to work for a company whose mission you strongly believe in and how excited you are to learn and thrive in a new environment. Make it a point that you will be challenged by this role in the best way possible. When it comes down to it, most employers want to find a good fit (i.e., pleasant colleague) who will deliver results and exceed expectations.
Not all of our “dream jobs” pan out. And not all of them turn out to be the dreams we thought they were. So as you go through the process, make sure at each stage that you really do want this position—and that financially you can afford to take the inevitable pay cut. And if you still really, really want the job, give it all you’ve got. Avoid letting your past accomplishments get in the way of your future successes.