how to get hired if you’re under-qualified

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I’m continually surprised by how many people don’t realize that the “required qualifications” in job ads are like wish lists, not inflexible lists of requirements. Those qualifications are a composite of someone’s idea of the ideal candidate. Believe me, they will look at people who don’t perfectly match it. So when a job posting requires four years of experience and you only have two, you’re not automatically disqualified. If you think you could do the job, apply anyway.

That said, if you’re a bit under-qualified, you need to work for it more. Here’s how:

1. For starters, you must write a fantastic cover letter. If you don’t do this and you’re under-qualified, you have no shot. (See tips on writing a great cover letter here.)

2. Learn a ton about the company you’re applying to, and let it show in your cover letter. I’m impressed when people know more than the basics about my organization and tie it into why they want to work for us. It’s like the way it’s far more enticing when a guy I’m dating talks specifics about why he’s interested — as opposed to seeming like he’s looking for someone to fill the “girlfriend” slot he has open.

3. In your cover letter, acknowledge that you don’t have every qualification they’re looking for, and explain how you’ll make up for it. (Be realistic here — if they’re hiring a graphic designer and you have no design experience, this won’t work.) Acknowledging it is good because (a) it shows you paid attention to the ad — something most people don’t do — and indicates an attention to detail that hiring managers love to see and (b) it shows that you’re not one of those insanely overconfident candidates with no humility or sense of your own weaknesses.

4. Be likable. This is always important in a job search, and it’s especially so when your qualifications alone aren’t going to rocket you to the top of the pile. This means be friendly, not pushy or overbearing, and genuinely interested in the job, the organization, and your interviewer. Make it easy for us to want to help you.

5. From the cover letter on through the interview process, really paint a picture of things you’ve done well in past jobs (including volunteer jobs, if the reason you’re under-qualified is because you’re a recent grad or stay-at-home parent with little work experience). I recently interviewed a candidate with no direct experience in our line of work. However, she had worked as an assistant to a high-profile local personality, and it was clear she had juggled an enormous workload, stayed highly organized, and been generally indispensable in making his life run smoothly. I love those skills, and they can rarely be taught. So I don’t care that she’s never worked with the databases her potential position would require; I know enough about her now to know she’ll pick it up quickly.

Remember: Job ads are wish lists. Don’t be deterred if you’re not a perfect match.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this posting! I am going to graduate soon, and start the job hunt. (yikes!) I recently encouraged a friend to apply for jobs even if she wasn’t completely qualified. This post explains why, and shares what we can do that may help us stand out, even if we lack some of the “specifics”. Thanks again!

  2. Anonymous

    I wish I had found your blog entry just a little earlier. I went ahead and applied for a position I am underqualified for, yet really think I could do well if given the chance. It’s hard to get that across to prospective employers…or I suppose it could have been put into the cover letter I wrote, but I debated on whether or not it was a bad thing to draw more attnetion to the fact that I do not have 3 years of experience in the field.

    *sigh* one can hope!

  3. yep

    Not glad you posted this, because I knew this already and was always able to land great jobs even if I was a little underqualified.

    I would laugh to myself when I’d hear people complain they can’t apply for a position just because they didn’t meet all of the qualifications.

      1. yep

        Sarcasm =).

        Always take a risk. If they say no, you’re in the same position as never having applied.

  4. If Only

    Good thing you’re not one of those insanely overconfident candidates with no humility or sense of your own weaknesses.

  5. iDuckie

    Sadly, I wish that were true in all situations and jobs. I found a local company that is awesome to work for, and I fit every qualification they have except having a Bachelor’s degree. A friend of mine (who has a BA) and I applied for the same job, and we have the same qualifications (except for the BA.) In her opinion, she felt I was better qualified since I am more internet savvy than her. But, after applying, I received a denial email while she got SIX interviews with the company before being told they went with someone else (who was able to start sooner than her.) Even with the current company I am with will not look at your resume unless you meet 100% of their “desired” and required qualifications.
    A part of me realizes that many companies are giving those with BA/BS’s preferential treatment as many grads are having a hard time finding work out of college, but having a BA/BS doesn’t make you automatically better at performing your job. I should note that I am currently working on getting my BA, but even then companies won’t take that into consideration.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, it’s important to remember that no advice will work in all situations 100% of the time. There’s variation, of course. But people shouldn’t look at one bad experience and draw conclusions about how things will be in other situations! (That’s something I see people doing a lot in the comments here, and it’s disheartening to me.)

  6. Anonymous

    In today’s employers market, it is the rare person who is underqualified. With competition at its highest level in years, this article doesn’t paint the true picture. There are qualified and overqualified applicants for almost every position and every bullet point asked.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm, I don’t know what you’re basing that on. My mail is full of letters from people wondering about applying to jobs they’re under-qualified for, and certainly when I’m hiring I see plenty of under-qualified candidates!

    2. Karthik

      That’s not exactly the case. There is an enormous skills gap — yes, there are more net job seekers than jobs available — but many of the available jobs have requirements that most people don’t have the skills to match. Is an accountant going to be able to fill a circuit board layout position or CAM machinist role?

      People have had to hire people with less experience than they would ideally want because the people who know what they’re doing are really in demand now and already overbooked. Smart companies hire only the best people during bad times — they’re more expensive but also more productive — and by the time some (non-smart) management figures that out, there are no more superstars left.

      1. Karthik

        And I should add to this that by superstar, I mean *proven* superstar. Which is why you should do exactly what AAM says and apply anyways. You might have the potential to be really good with a few years experience and a superstar by the end of your career, and if you’re in one of those areas where there’s a skills gap, take advantage of the situation while you can.

  7. Anonymous

    Do you have any examples of the best ways to use your advice in your third point about acknowledging that you do not meet all of the required qualifications in the cover letter? Off the top of my head, I cannot think of how one would word that without it being awkward.

    Thanks for putting out such a great blog! I heard about it through Allison Jones over at allisonj.org

  8. Nyxalinth

    2. Learn a ton about the company you’re applying to, and let it show in your cover letter. I’m impressed when people know more than the basics about my organization and tie it into why they want to work for us. It’s like the way it’s far more enticing when a guy I’m dating talks specifics about why he’s interested — as opposed to seeming like he’s looking for someone to fill the “girlfriend” slot he has open.

    –Please excuse the post necromancy; I have a question about this.

    What sort of info could we state that shows them we did our research? recently, an online job app asked us to state “What do you know about our company?” I didn’t know anything, so I did a Google search and found some info “You’re in industry X, you employ this many people, you’ve been in business umptiscrech years, and you brought in a bajillion dollars last year.” (Well, not like that, but you get the point!).

    What e;lse might i have looked for that would show them Point #2, without being all stalker-weird about it? (“Your company president likes Spongbob Squarepants and has a cat named Gary”)?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You don’t really want to just recite back facts to them; it’s more than you want to draw conclusions from those facts and work those in. For instance, that the company is rapidly growing, or in a period of transition, or has a new product out that’s exciting, or puts an emphasis on __, or has a non-traditional approach to marketing, or whatever. In other words, it’s about interpreting what you learn, rather than just parroting back factoids. Make more sense?

  9. Anonymous

    This is a great post, as I was actually one of those who sometimes applies/not apply when I haven’t met the minimum number of experience! Any suggestions when it comes to dealing with IT consulting firms (who are really recruitment agencies), on how to imply knowledge about them?

  10. Laura

    I was wondering the same thing that Anonymous July 20, 2011 asked. I am applying for a job that asks for fundraising experience. Although I do not have direct fundraising experience I do have several of the skills necessary to be successful at it. I was wondering how to frame this so that it wasn’t awkward?
    This is what I have and I think it is too direct is stating what I can’t bring to the table.

    “Although I have not worked directly in a fundraising role I am familiar with the practices that are involved with implementing effective fundraising strategies through my exposure in several non-profit organizations as well as …”

    Thanks,
    Enjoying your blog as I attempt to re-enter the workforce

    1. Dan

      Laura,

      I think that your sample language may be a good way of addressing your lack of direct fundraising experience. As long as you have an interest in or passion for the organization’s work, you can easily learn fundraising. Check out my blog for some insights into the field and feel free to reach out for further insight.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think the gist is good, but I’d make it a little less jargony — like:

      “Although I have not worked directly in a fundraising role, I’m familiar with effective fundraising strategies through my work in several nonprofits, as well as…”

  11. Jake (Got Hired) Getton

    Read this post and have to say that I completely agree that the skills section is a “wish list” because most of the time people get hired for jobs although they are missing one or more of those attributes. I think that a majority of the hiring process is based off of intangibles.

  12. Wilmer

    Hello Allison,

    I am not sure if you are the same person… But years ago I was living in Maryland, I was attending college, and I had applied for a position for a no non-profit organization in the capital of DC. May that have been you who I was corresponding with when I went through the interview Process? If it is, I am happy to see that you are doing well! you were a breath of fresh air during my job searching time in a city that I was not accustomed to yet. Thank you for all your help! =)

  13. Anonymous

    I am a recent grad and had to complete a 160 hours internship in order to graduate. This is my only experience, however, I just started to volunteer to gain more exposure and practice.I am always doing research on the company I am applying to, but sometimes they want to stay anonymous.
    I am getting discouraged by the fact that so many employers are asking for a MUST have experience of 3-5 years including many years of proficiency in various softwares.
    The acknowledgement “though I don’t have experience in this and that, I am willing to learn” does not get me to the top of the pile and to an interview as you described under point five.
    Any advice?

    1. Cassie

      I’m in a similar position, being a year out of college and looking for entry-level work that requires 3+ years related professional experience. What I’ve done is count all my work/volunteer/research experience from college towards that work experience requirement. I’m also volunteering and taking classes at a community college to learn more about skills I’d like to develop. I’m also researching and learning about some of the most commonly used softwares in my industry.

      I would avoid saying how you lack experience or skills, and instead, focus on the transferable skills that can compensate; for example, I don’t have accounting experience for some non-profit program assistant jobs, but I have experience fundraising, budgeting, and completing audits for student groups and am very proficient with Excel, which I’ve used to evaluate health programs/services. Even without explicit accounting experience, I can still show that I’m capable of using spreadsheet and databases in financial analysis, fiscal management, and financial reports.

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