how to apply for a job you’re not fully qualified for

A reader writes:

Reading one of your older posts about those who may be a bit under-qualified for a job, you said that the applicant has to offer a way that they can make up for their lack in experience. Can you give a few examples of what you mean by that? Would offering to start below the starting end of the salary range be a good idea?

Noooo, do not offer to take a lower salary than what they’re planning on. Hiring managers want to hire the best person for the job, they’ve budgeted a certain amount for the position, and they’re not going to take a weaker candidate just because she offers to work for less than the budgeted salary. At least no good hiring manager is going to do that.

The reality is that it’s pretty hard to get hired for jobs that you’re under-qualified for in this market. (The post I think you read was from 2007, when the job market was different.) When employers are flooded with highly qualified applicants, there’s no incentive for them to consider someone less qualified. So if you really consider yourself under-qualified, you might be looking at the wrong jobs. You’re going to have the best chances applying for jobs that you’re qualified for; you don’t have to be a perfect match, but you should be fairly close.

However, there are degrees of qualified. If they want 10 years of experience and you have two years, this probably isn’t the job for you. But if they want 3-5 years of experience and you have two years, and you can write a really good cover letter and point to excellent achievements in those two years, go ahead and apply.

But those caveats about the really good cover letter and the achievements? Those are the key.

Overall, the idea here is to put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. What should make them excited about hiring you? That’s what needs to be reflected in your cover letter and your resume. If you can’t figure out why they should be excited about hiring you, then there’s no way you can expect them to figure it out — and that means you need to move on to a different opening, one where you can make a compelling case for yourself.

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    I second this. I currently hire in a hotter employement market (not the USA) and I have certainly considered applicant’s who don’t meet my full wishlist – WHEN they write a kicking cover letter.

    A kicking cover letter in my books tells me what’s great about you. What you can do and what you’re really good at. What special talents or unique abilities you have.

    A kicking cover letter does not include statements that you “work well with people”, are a “quick learner” or are willing to “work hard”. Even in a red-hot employment market, these are givens. I expect everyone to work hard, get along with folks and be quick on the uptake. Putting that in a cover letter takes valuable space you could be using to wow me.

    1. bo bessi*

      I completely agree with not including statements like “hard worker” and “outstanding communication skills”. None of that actually means anything other than you think you work hard and are a good communicator. Leadership skills is one I’ve seen over and over with nothing else on the resume to back it up. Also, please don’t include inspirational quotes in your resume or cover letter.

  2. KellyK*

    A rule of thumb I’ve seen is 80%. If you have 80% of what they say they ask for (ideally with some or all of the “nice-to-haves”), then it’s worth applying. Particularly if you don’t meet the qualifications in one area but meet them in another (for example, if they want 6 years of experience and a bachelor’s and you’ve got 5 and a related master’s degree, or if they want 5 years of Chocolate Teapot Development with at least 2 of handle design, and you’ve only got 4 years but all 4 included handle design).

    1. ChristineH*

      This is where I struggle. I tend to think very all-or-nothing, and have a hard time comparing my qualifications with a job’s requirements, especially when it’s not an exact, 100% match.

  3. Scott*

    Sometimes if you don’t fit all of the skills in a job description, you may have other skills that you can still apply (or even uniquely apply) that might be appealing to a hiring manager. As Alison alluded to, it can depend on the volume of resumes and candidates they get.

    I remember applying for a job to develop and produce fundraising content for a public radio. Going in, I had no experience in fundraising, major market radio and radio production. Plus, I was not well verse in the station and audience. However, I got hired and I exceeded expectations.

    They felt that while I didn’t have some of the requirements that I could apply other elements of my background in advertising, copywriting and other forms of production. Not everyone is willing to take that leap though.

    Another factor was they probably realized finding someone with all of those qualifications (without having to relocate someone) was going to be a challenge.

    1. Jen in RO*

      I applied for a tech writing job that required a couple of years of experience and familiarity with a certain software. I had 0 experience in the field and I had never seen the software, but I had been a copy editor and content writer, and I downloaded a trial copy of the program before the interview. The job market at the time (not in the US) made me the most qualified and I got the job.

  4. Darcie*

    The career counselor at my university told me something similar to what Kelly said, that the job posting is their “dream candidate”. But, it’s hard to tell which items they require and which they are willing to train/be flexible on.

  5. Sam*

    “The reality is that it’s pretty hard to get hired for jobs that you’re under-qualified for in this market.”

    Yes, I definitely agree. It’s a buyers market. But at the same time, I’m seeing a lot of job ads for purple unicorns. I’m guessing that the hiring managers know there is a surplus of candidates and therefore assume they can ask for a long and unnecessary set of requirements. And in this landscape, job applicants may be “unqualified” per the job ad, but perfectly capable of doing the actual job. Alison’s advice here is great. I’d also add that it can be quite compelling when an applicant can show that it would be faster to hire and train them, as opposed to the company continuing a long job search for a perfect purple unicorn.

    1. Hugo*


      I definitely agree here. Especially when I look at internal job postings and compare the “qualifications” they have listed to the actual people I know who are working in those roles…I feel like telling HR or the hiring manager that they’d have to terminate 75% of the current staff if they really required them to have the quals spelled out in the posting.

    2. Anonymous*

      Asking for purple unicorns to work crazy hours for below market rate is a pheomenon that seems to be increasingly common right now.

      1. Katie*

        yes, I have seen a frightening amount of ads that want someone with a graduate degree or two, fluent in several languages to work odd hours for like $15 an hour.

        1. Anonymous*

          Lived in a college town a couple years ago that “required” a graduate degree in counseling of some kind, ideally also with fluency in a second language, for secretarial jobs at the university. Those jobs paid 22-23g/year for “outstanding” candidates. And you know what? They got them.

    3. AP*

      This is also because that job used to be filled by 2-3 people with unique skill sets and now it needs to be performed flawlessly by one person!

  6. Mimi*

    The problem is, if I’m screening applications and a candidate doesn’t meet the min quals – say, having 2 yrs of experience instead of 4 – then I can’t consider that candidate and not others who also have less experience. We have to do a lot of reporting, and we have to show that the applicants considered for each job at least met the minimum qualifications for the position.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just to clarify this for readers who don’t know, most employers don’t have rules like this. You tend to see it in the government or other large, heavily regulated (or sometimes unionized) workplaces. You won’t generally find it at more agile companies.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes, and some ISO registered companies with badly written job descriptions.

        Before certification I went though ours with a fine tooth comb and trained HR in the difference between a requirement and preferred.

        A good job description will put under requirements only that which you wouldn’t bend on. If there is any wiggle room then load it in the ‘preferred’ field, that way you aren’t tying your hands.

        1. Mimi*

          That’s interesting; usually we have to train hiring managers on the difference between “requirement” and “preferred”.

    2. Aaron*

      I can’t consider that candidate and not others who also have less experience

      Why?? Unless you’re in some unusual position where you have to do your hiring with the expectation you’ll get sued by unsuccessful candidates, I can’t think of any upside to this. Rigid requirements for “reporting” purposes = job that will soon be done by a computer.

      1. Mimi*

        See Alison’s response above. We are a large, heavily regulated (and also unionized) organization. We definitely have to show that the candidates considered all met min quals. Anyone who didn’t meet min quals, we have to document why.

        1. Aaron*

          …which is, of course, an answer, but not a reason. And this is why, even though well-run unions could do some good in a lot of non-unionized workplaces, unions are going the way of the dodo.

          1. Aaron*

            (Not to call out you personally, of course. Your answer was obviously helpful to the OP, and I’m sure you do a great job. Excuse my politics.)

    3. KarenT*

      Do you have a set cut-off? I know some companies are very rigid, but there has to be room for at least some subjectivity. For example, what if your posting read must have 4 years experience, and the strongest candidate had 3.5?

      1. Mimi*

        We have “preferred qualifications” for some positions, so that allows some flexibility, but the min quals have to at least be met. And for many positions, the min quals are general, so the applicant pools aren’t that confined.

  7. Anonymous*

    I saw a lot of absurd qualifications listed for a while in the tech jobs I was looking at (more years of experience with a program than years the program existed, my favorite, 10 years of iOS programming experience). In these cases the person writing the description has no clue what they are talking about, I did apply and get interviewed for some of these and for the most part the hiring managers seemed to get it but translation was lost thru HR. The cases where the hiring managers didn’t get it I was very glad to leave those interviews.

  8. UK HR Bod*

    I’ve been screening for a role today. I have a great long list of things I’d like to see, but to be honest, even in the current market, I have to accept that I’m not likely to be that lucky. Out of the people I put in my ‘interview’ pile, around half didn’t have quite the level of experience I was looking for, but they qualified this by showing me where the experience that they did have met what I was looking for. Oh, and they bothered to actually mention why they wanted my job, with my company, rather than any old job, and demonstrated that they had some empathy with what we do (we’re NFP). On the flip side, some of the candidates in my backup and no-interview pile had enough or more experience, but because they didn’t address the broader picture they didn’t make the cut.
    Of course, it’s a bit easier here because technically it’s illegal to request a certain number of years experience (although tell that to the lawyers who still advertise for X years PQE) – it’s irritating as an employer, but then it does benefit people with less time experience who can show that they’ve done it.

    1. fposte*

      Wow, it’s illegal to request a years cutoff? I’d think something quantitative like that would be less subject to discrimination than subjective statements about experience. Don’t you end up with de facto requirements anyway?

      1. UK HR Bod*

        Yes – it’s where our employment law gets a bit over-detailed. It’s to do with age discrimination – I have a sense from this blog that US age regs only kick in from about 40. In the UK (& Europe), it includes both ends of the scale. The idea is that if you ask for 5 years experience, someone who is 20 will have had no chance to get that. On one hand, it means that we scrabble around trying to find other ways to express it, but then I guess it also stops us getting lazy, as we stop using years as a shorthand for what we are really looking for.

        1. Min*

          And yet both the minimum wage and the statutory redundancy payments discriminate against those under age 21. I find that discrepancy really interesting.

  9. Liz in the City*

    I agree that most employers aren’t looking for someone who’s under qualified. However, consider what isn’t qualifying you and whether some of those skills are transferable. I just got hired in a different industry than what I previously worked in, but with a similar title and job function. I was upfront that I was unfamiliar with the industry-specific processes, but wanted to learn them, since this is where I see my career headed. I was hired because I’ve got the years of office experience under my belt (I can behave in front of others…usually), and my needed skills were universal to both jobs: writing, proofreading, social media.

  10. Holly*

    I once saw a job posting requiring 10+ years in online social media experience. Or, in short, they wanted you to be in on the social media craze BEFORE MySpace was even created.

    I may have decided they were crazy and applied anyway (with 3 years experience) but didn’t hear back. Good luck finding that guy, random company!

    1. JT*

      That’s silly.

      Though I could argue truthfully that I’ve been on online social media since the mid-1990s through Usenet (a pre-WWW messaging, news, discussion, publishing that’s still around, though not well-known now). Do I get the job??!!!!

      And there were attempts at social media within large organizations (particularly in the tech field and sometimes in academia) more than 10 years ago. Large mailing lists with many participants contributing might be considered social media.

      And then there was The WELL, started in the 1980s or early 1990s I think.

      1. Omne*

        TIES circa 1974

        MECC/MERRITS circa 1976

        They were timeshare systems with multiple online users interacting directly in talk programs/games/projects/social groups etc.

        I remember when we dreamed of owning a 300 baud modem and a CRT terminal instead of a teletype and a 110 baud acoustic coupler.

      1. Lulu*

        You just made me think of that quote about irony from “Reality Bites” – seriously, I think there are quite a few things like “social media” that some companies/HR people/managers hear bandied around a lot so figure it’s something they NEED, despite not having much background in what you actually DO with those things. (This is my current theory re: Photoshop being required for everyone: if you really just need to be able to occasionally crop or slightly adjust pictures, you can use Paint, people.)

          1. Lulu*

            LOL well that was kind of my point (I should have emphasized everyone: if you’re a DESIGNER, of course you should avail yourself of the full complement of Adobe products. If you’re the receptionist or calendar-keeping admin, perhaps it’s not at the top of the list of “requirements… Unless all the other admins out there have been required to do extensive design work and retouching and my previous employer really WAS underutilizing me…

            I actually ended up having/wanting to do some “design” (and I use the word loosely), creating some signage and invitations for events that I would have liked to make more interesting via the fabulous Photoshop, but where I worked it wasn’t seen as a useful purchase for someone who wasn’t actually required to use it regularly (or at all, for that matter). So I worked with what I had. It was frustrating given that I was aware it would have been useful to learn, but realistically did I NEED an expensive and complex design/editing program to do my job, and did I do anything design related more than once every couple of months? no. Could I have learned it if it suddenly became necessary to use it regularly? probably. But for cropping and pasting and changing the color of a picture from red to blue for a departmental handout… You don’t need Creative Suite knowledge to do that. Yet somehow, this appears on the majority of job listings I see.

          2. moss*

            I wrote and maintained for several years a small real-estate company’s website using only Paint and a text editor.

  11. mel*

    Aw man, I applied for a job that didn’t list required experience and still got the “you don’t have what they’re looking for” response.

    Instead I was directed to a personality test and a career exploration site. I… I’m beginning to feel like I just bumped into the giant bouncer of this bumpin’ exclusive club of admin workers and he’s telling me to get lost.

    1. Anonymous*

      I think some places just say that as their standard rejection. One company some friends in my field and I applied to several times a few years ago has a standard rejection letter that says they rejected you because you “do not meet the minimum requirements for this position.” We’re prety sure it didn’t matter what the requirements were or what you had, that was just what they told everyone because that was their form letter– which I thought was pretty crappy of them. Why not just “we’ve selected other candidates” like everyone else?

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Keep in mind that even though they didn’t list required experience, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have specific things they’re looking for. They just might not have done a good job of conveying it in the listing (in fact, they definitely didn’t if they didn’t list any requirements).

      1. giraffe*

        This just happened to me and i wrote to AAM about it. I more than met the qualifications, but i got that same response. It was worded strangely like they implied they did not read my resume.

        It kills me because they said i wrote a solid cover letter, but it did not matter. Whats worse is that its almost like an entry level position.

        1. KellyK*

          On the bright side, someone who doesn’t read resumes that are attached to solid cover letters may not be someone you want to work for anyway. Honestly, that sounds like they have someone in mind and they’re going through the process of advertising it externally because they’re supposed to. That or it’s a badly written form letter.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          giraffe, I actually responded to your email about that last night. They weren’t saying they didn’t read your resume; they were saying that wouldn’t be further reviewing your application.

  12. jesicka309*

    I think it’s worst when you’r einternal and you get to see the people they end up hiring.
    I got rejected for a job in sales as I didn’t have enough “admin, clerking and data entry experience” (whilst working in their data entry department for two years!?!).
    To then see them hire three (!) uni grads hurt. Especially because HR had put my CV in the pile without a cover letter where I could explain why I wanted to be there. They were trying to help by keeping yet another internal application off the intranet system, but it sucked that they hired people with less experience than me, and I can’t understand why. I assume it’s because they had awesome cover letters. :(

      1. jesicka309*

        Mm but they didn’t even interview me! I was fully expecting to go back to entry level wage, which is only a 4 grand pay cut. This was in November, and I had only gotten bumped up from entry level in the June. Believe me, I didn’t care about getting paid more, and they’re super strict about wage bands here anyway.
        You would think they’d take more care, knowing that the internal applicant they just rejected and didn’t tell until they asked three weeks later can see who you hired…and it impacts on morale.

  13. Steve G*

    Isn’t the dilemma the OP facing also a sign of the times in terms of the changes in job content, regardless of the recession?

    I know at my job, they aren’t hiring people to “scan documents, file, update contact lists, coordinate calendars” they are hiring people do those things within a framework of a larger picture, such as “drive customer participation and satisfaction in xxxx program, including maintenance of Salesforce database of all documentation for xxxx program”.

  14. Nyxalinth*

    One I see a lot in call center jobs and entry level admin is “Bachelor’s Degree or equivalent experience required.”

    So…a degree in anything at all makes one qualified to work in a call center or entry level admin work? Or are they implying it means you’re intelligent enough to do the work if you have a degree? I find that a little insulting if so.

    1. Katie*

      Interesting… Intelligence is not really an asset in a call center, except social intelligence, I guess.

    2. Waiting Patiently*

      I see that Bachelors or equivalent refereence as a ‘hey you stuck to something long enough so you’re capable of holding down a full time job.’

      1. Anonymous*

        Yeah, I think they’re looking for entry-level, but not first job ever or highschoolers. Just proof that you’ve held down something full-time. It doesn’t really bother me.

    3. Lulu*

      What Waiting Patiently said, although as we’ve discussed before, it’s kind of ridiculous. Especially for jobs like a call center, where most college grads would probably want to shoot themselves fairly quickly (despite A job being better than NO job). Although I suppose you could argue years of practicing critical thinking means you’d be better at sorting out people’s issues, but I’m guessing that’s not how most college students anticipated using their skills.

      I know multiple people without degrees but with years of experience (i.e. in their 40s) who still find themselves dinged for not having a degree on their resumes. I can better understand the concern if someone is younger and doesn’t have demonstrated responsibility/skills to compensate, but really, there are many reasons people don’t go to (or complete) college that have nothing to do with intelligence level. As much as I’ve complained that my degree doesn’t seem to have done much for me in the Real World, I am glad I’m not fighting that particular battle – it’s a tough one.

      1. Waiting Patiently*

        I agree, I remember between 95-97 before I got my degree, I was clearly a job-hopper but some employers didn’t necessarily care. The job market coupled with my own sense of wanting to find the best paying job (plus I really wanted to do data entry and call center work) I bounced around pretty frequently. It was like a high for me. Work 2-3 months sometimes 2-3 weeks then quit to find another job. I held more jobs doing that period particularly 1996 than the years I’ve been with my current employer. Luckily, I found some kind of footing (before getting my degree) in a similar field hospitality and realized I wasn’t suited for center type work (foremost I hated being confined). More than lucky that I don’t have to go back that far anymore on my resume!
        So I don’t buy into the bachelors = intelligence thing completely for certain fields. I just think it’s an opportunity for employers to weed out certain types of people in a tight job market.

      2. FormerManager*

        I once hired for a company that required a bachelor’s degree for low-level work. It frustrated me to no end some of the entitled, no nothing people we hired (not by me personally, more before my time there) when I personally knew of people without degrees who would have been excellent on the job. Unfortunately, I was too low on the pole to recommend waiving the degree requirement.

  15. Kelly*

    I can totally relate to this. I recently got a job where I knew I was slightly underqualified but also KNEW I could do the job, and do it well. I applied, had a fanastic phone interview with HR, then had a fantastic interview with (my now) boss. Got a call a week or so later saying that while they loved me, I just didn’t have enough experience for the job. (by the way, the listing asked for 5 years experience, I had 4. Every single job duty listed I had experience in.) Naturally I was really let down about it. Then randomly, a few days later, they called me back and said they had changed their minds! I did a skills test and had a second interview and was offered the job a few days after that. Crazy! What happened was (because she told me this) the manager realized she’d rather hire someone outspoken with passion for the work (me) than someone who has tons of experience but it would just be another job to them. Plus our personalities clicked right away and she knew we could work well together. That’s probably a bigger part of it than people realize.

    What sold it for them to decide to hire me happened in the interview. So if you are confident that you can do this job, come prepared to prove it with stories and relatable experience. If they don’t see it then it’s not the right job for you.

  16. Marie*

    I got my first semi-professional job (typist during college) by writing a good cover letter. I said that I had no experience in their area, but here was my typing speed and here was my A for English in high school. The manager said she hired me for chutzpah.

  17. Sarah*

    I think AAM’s advice is correct, but you should also make sure you are not underestimating yourself. Maybe you feel doubtful about your experience and always feel like you’re not good enough. Your perspective may be tainted because you are just a pessimistic person who tends to assume the worst. A lot of high performing people are super hard on themselves.

    In general, I think you should go out there and prove you can accomplish what you want for yourself. Don’t be hung up on reasons why it won’t work. You may have to be strategic about it and take it step by step, but try to see possibilities rather than a bunch of closed doors.

  18. OP*

    Thank you for all the comments. My situation falls into the second category of almost meeting the required number of years of experience (minimum asked for was 3 years and I have 1.75). Fortunately, I omitted the bit about taking a lower salary and instead tried selling myself on other parts of the job that I thought were important that weren’t listed in the job requirements. I turned in the application yesterday so….fingers crossed.

  19. Hannah*

    What about specific skills? I’m currently applying for a job that lists “Strong skills in XXX software are a must” – I have strong skills in a software that is similar, but not much experience in the one they are asking for. I’m confident I could learn it quickly, and I’d also be willing to take a course to re-train if necessary. I think it should be addressed in my cover letter so that they don’t just assume I won’t be able to handle working with a new software, but how do you acknowledge something like that without drawing attention to the fact that you’re under-qualified?

  20. Joseph B*

    A job posting says a bachelors degree is required, I have 15 years experience successfully doing much of what the position is looking for but no degree. I left college to start my own business which was acquired by a much larger regional company. Should I still apply to the position or is the lack of a college degree keeping my CV from getting the attention it deserves?

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