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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

How to Apply for a Job You're Overqualified For

These days, it’s not uncommon to apply for a job you’re probably overqualified for. For example, when I was hiring my last intern, only a single application came from an undergraduate student—most applicants had graduated more than a year before and were squeezing years of internship experience onto one page.

But when it came around to hiring, we went with the undergrad.

Why? Because none of the others had convinced us that they weren't on the lookout for something full time—and wouldn't jump ship if they found it before the program was over.

This, though, doesn't have to be the case for you. Whether you’re an intern or a senior-level director, having too much experience should be a boon to an employer! You just need to tell the right story.

To learn more, I spoke with HR professionals on both coasts. Here’s their advice for how to approach interviews when you're overqualified, no matter what the situation.

1. If You're a Perpetual Intern

Many 20-somethings get stuck in this pattern, bouncing from internship to internship even after graduation. It’s a rough job market, and sometimes getting your foot in the door and gaining experience as a part-time unpaid intern is truly your best option. But many hiring managers balk at hiring an intern who is no longer in school, concerned (like I was) that the applicant will leave before the program is over to take a full-time job elsewhere.

The Approach

It’s important to be clear on why this particular internship is important for your career growth—and articulate that to the hiring manager. Are you researching a specific business area or trying out an interest that’s different than your past internship experiences? Even if you’re applying to your third editorial internship at a fashion magazine, find specific reasons it’s a great move for you.

What’s just as important is to clearly express that you understand the time commitment involved and won’t leave your employer hanging. Even if you are looking for full-time work, let the recruiter know that you are willing to put your job search on hold and wait until the end of the internship to resume it.

2. If You’re a Layoff Casualty

When you’re a victim of a round of layoffs (especially a big one) your first instinct is to find a new job—and fast. Meaning that, you may consider gigs that are a notch down on the career ladder. And while HR people understand that layoffs happen, they also may be concerned that you’re taking whatever you can get now—and will jump ship once you have more time to find a position at your level.

The Approach

It’s OK to acknowledge that the job would be a step backward, just be sure to follow that up by how it would be positive in the long run—whether it’s to be part of a company you’ve always longed to work for or to gain expertise in a new functional area. As a New York City-based recruiter told me, “I need to know why the position would still be a challenge for them or at least a good step in the right direction.”

As a side note, be as positive as possible about your situation. No hiring manager wants to hear you badmouth a former employer or complain that you have to find a new (lower-level) job.

3. A Career Changer

More and more people are abandoning the linear career path these days, trying something entirely new after years in one field. And even if you’ve got 10 years of experience, a drastic move may require a step down to gain experience. While this makes perfect sense to you—hiring managers can be concerned that a formerly high-powered professional won’t be quite satisfied with an entry-level position.

The Approach

Lay the foundation for the interview in your cover letter, articulating the reasons behind your career switch. In the interview itself, continue that narrative without being negative about your previous experiences or coming off as desperate for a change.

Then, establish from the beginning of the interview (as well as in your cover letter) that you understand that you might have to start at the bottom and that you’re eager to learn the ropes. That in itself isn’t a convincing argument, but it you are able to speak about the position comprehensively and genuinely, it’s a great kick-off to a conversation that can then focus on the important things, like your transferrable skills and comparable professional situations.

4. The New Guy in Town

People move for a number of reasons, and not always work-related. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of living in New York, or you want to be closer to the mountains, or your spouse was offered his or her dream job halfway across the country—the list goes on. And when you’re moving to an entirely new city where your network is nil, it can be tempting to take a job that’ll get your foot in the door somewhere. Hint: Recruiters know this.

The Approach

In your interview, make sure to emphasize why you’re excited about both the job and the move. The person interviewing you needs to be confident not only that you won’t pack up and move home, but also that this gig won’t just be a placeholder while you search for something better. So, share your passion for both the position and the place. “Make conversation about what excites you about moving to your new city and what makes it so great,” says one LA-based HR manager.

Oh, and even if you are just looking for an "in" in a new city, “please don't say that to the person interviewing you!” (It happened.)

And one last thing: the money question. A pay cut often comes hand-in-hand with taking a job for which you’re overqualified. Be honest with yourself, have a range in mind, and be forward with that information. Caution against saying that you’re negotiable if you’re really not. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time, and you certainly don’t want to leave a bad taste in a recruiter's mouth. After all, he or she may be the person who jump starts your career!

Happy job hunting!

Photo courtesy of Fuse / Thinkstock.