when a job ad says a skill you don’t have is “a plus”

A reader writes:

In preparing for an interview, I have been reviewing the job posting and one phrase has me a bit flustered. The posting mentions (twice, in fact) that a certain skill set is “a plus.” I have very little experience in this area and would not say it is a skill set I currently possess. It is something I would happily learn if needed (especially if the resources to do so were offered to me).

This skill set did not come up in initial phone interview. If it comes up in the next interview, I plan to be honest that I have not had much exposure in that area but am eager to learn. However, what should I do if I am not asked about it? I don’t want to be misleading in any way or cause any issues if I am offered the position, but I’m not sure that volunteering that I have a weakness in an area which is only considered “a plus” is the wisest interview strategy either. What is the best way to address “____experience a plus”?

I don’t think you need to make a point of bringing it up. If it’s something they’re concerned about, they’ll ask about it.

You can typically take it at face value when an ad says that X is a plus. It means that it’s an advantage, but not a requirement. If two candidates are otherwise equal but one has X and one doesn’t, the one who does might win out … but in reality, it’s very, very rare for two candidates to be perfectly equal.

In practice, this can play out all sorts of different ways: They might love you and be willing to overlook the fact that you don’t X. Or they might not be fully sold on you, and “well, she doesn’t have X” might be what pushes them into a “no.” Or a desire for X might never even come into play in their deliberations. Or X might turn into a requirement somewhere in the process. Or X might only become a factor with candidates who don’t also have skill sets Y and Z (and complicating it further, Y and Z might not have even been mentioned in the original ad — ads aren’t perfect, and hiring managers’ understanding of what they’re looking for can change during the process as they talk to actual candidates).

But there’s no way for you to know what’s behind that mention that X is a plus, so the best thing you can do is to assume that it’s just a bonus qualification, no more and no less, and that they wouldn’t be interviewing you if your lack of it were an obvious deal-breaker.

Of course, if you want to know more about how important X might be and why, you can certainly ask about it. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Your ad mentioned that experience with X would be a plus. Can you tell me more about how important that is and how it might come up in the role?” That can give you insights into all sorts of things.

And if you don’t ask about it and it doesn’t come up in your conversations with them, you can always ask about it at the offer stage. At that point, you could say something like, “I recall that your ad had mentioned that experience with X was a plus. Clearly my lack of it didn’t end up being prohibitive, which is great, but can you tell me more about how X might play out once I’m in the role, and whether there’s anything you’d want me to do to strengthen my skills in that area?” You might hear “nah, it was more of a wish list item but not a big deal,” or you might hear, “yes, we’re going to need you to really cram to learn more about X during your first month,” which would be useful to know as you’re evaluating the offer.

But I wouldn’t be worried about drawing their attention to it as a weakness of your candidacy. If it’s a big deal to them, they either already noticed you don’t have it or should ask you about it themselves — and besides, if your lack of it would weaken you as a candidate, that’s not something you want to hide, because if they hire you, you don’t want them to have any surprises.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Stephanie*

    I see this happen a lot in regard to advanced degrees (for the jobs I apply to): “MBA/MS in Teapot Thermal Sciences a plus, but not required.” In those instances, should I say “And I’d be interested in pursuing an advanced degree part-time” or just not bring it up in an interview?

    1. LBK*

      If you genuinely had been interested in getting that degree anyway, I can’t see how it would hurt – I might not bring it up proactively, but definitely if you could organically tie it into another question (like if they asked you about the education you do have).

    2. Dan*

      I got to an interview for a position with that listed in the ad. I specifically asked about it during the interview, and the response was “If we cared that much, you wouldn’t be here.” IOW, at that point, education wasn’t a screening tool where it may have been for candidates who were too weak to make the interview cut.

      Places who say that advanced degree is a plus want it now (like government contractors who bill you out and need it to get a particular rate) or don’t care if you never get it.

      Don’t bring it up.

    3. Robin*

      Don’t bring it up in that context. I think if anything, it could hurt you, because they will be wondering if you will be leaving to go back to school, or tired / overworked from going to night school.

      1. Stephanie*

        That was sort of my take. I figured if they called me, it wasn’t a deal breaker that I didn’t have an advanced degree. I had gotten advice to say “Oh, I’d do an evening/distance/weekend MBA/MS degree”, but that felt a little too hard-sell-just-close-the-interview for my tastes.

        1. Meg Murry*

          I think if getting that advanced degree really is something you’d like to do in the future, it might be something you could mention in the “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question, but I don’t think you need to bring it up on your own, unless you already started the process of taking classes or applying for the program. And definitely don’t bring it up if you are still on the fence about it.

    4. PEBCAK*

      I think it’s often a “plus” at big places where you have internal applicants. In explaining why I want an outside candidate instead of promoting internally, I can say “advanced degree” and shut that conversation down in ten seconds. Without it, I’m going to have to spend a little more time justifying that decision, and often more than once.

    5. Oryx*

      I always wonder about this as someone WITH an advanced degree since I wonder if they’d try to lowball on salary since the higher degree isn’t actually required for the position.

  2. Fillintheblank*

    I just interviewed for a job that required skills in two areas, which I have. The job was described as an even split between those two areas. A few days after my interview, the job title was changed and the skills in one area were listed as a plus. It still constitutes half the job. Guess they don’t care if the new person isn’t particularly competent at half of the job.

    1. La munieca*

      They might also have done some reflecting on which of those two skills is more coach-able, whether because of intrinsic coach-ability or the expertise they have on staff to support a learning curve.

      1. Fillintheblank*

        The “plus” skills are much harder to learn and do well. It’s just that the people served by those skills are not as great a priority to organizations overall and there is a tendency to not really care about their needs. The interviewer had no experience or skill in the plus area and seemed to know very little about it.

    2. Stephanie*

      In addition to the second skill be coachable, it could be that the first skill is more of a priority.

      1. fposte*

        Or they just hired somebody else in the office with some of the second skill and don’t need it so much now.

        1. Fillintheblank*

          It wouldn’t cost more to hire someone who knows what they’re doing. I think that the interviewer was the wrong person to find the right candidate. Like so many people with no experience in this area, she probably thinks it’s easy, without realizing how difficult the job really is. Thus, she doesn’t how much time it will take a person of lesser ability to do the job, and how it will make that person spend far less time on the area she’s apparently prioritized.

  3. James M*

    I’d suggest doing a little research into X skill. If it’s something you’d like to learn, you could express interest in learning X during your new job as a way of admitting you don’t have X in a positive way.

  4. Mimmy*

    I ran into this with a job I interviewed for a few years ago–they’d listed Quark as a plus (I think that’s what it was called?? I remember it began with a “Q” and was related to desktop publishing). During the phone interview, I’d asked about it, and the woman said it wasn’t a deal-breaker and admitted that she was just learning it herself.

    I’d say just see how the conversation goes. If it’s just a technical skill, as in my example, I think it’s fine to ask about during the “do you have any questions?” part of an interview if it’s not brought up prior to that.

  5. hayling*

    Sometimes it’s something they’d really like to add to the team but know that it’s realistically not something they’re likely to find. It might be a less common skill, or it might be a lot to ask for someone applying for this particular job (especially if it’s more junior). Or it might just be something they’re hoping to get but isn’t critical.

    For example let’s say you need a marketing assistant. You need someone who can write and who has done social media. It’s a bonus if they have graphic design experience because that would be a value-add to your team. It’s also a bonus if they’ve used marketing automation software because that’s one less software/concept you would have to train them on.

    1. Cary*

      I’ve used it like that before. I know I can find some one with x and y, but their unlikely to have z. It would be a great bonus, but not a deal breaker.

    2. Bwmn*

      I used to see this a lot with language skills in my field.

      While the vast bulk of the job required English fluency at a native level, having a high level of proficiency in the local language was a huge asset. (And in this situation – Arabic – some night classes over the course of a year would get you no where near the desired proficiency) Putting ‘Arabic a plus’ was more a sign that they didn’t expect to receive any qualified candidates with all of the professional and English skills as well as Arabic. That being said, if you were ever up for a job and that candidate was in the pool – the other candidates were at a severe deficit.

      1. Bea W*

        This is what happens with the “plus” items in the listings for my position. It’s unlikely we’ll find someone with much if any “plus”, and putting it as a requirement would severely limit our applicant pool even more so than it already is. A candidates who have it would peak our interest a bit more though.

      2. Lynn Whitehat*

        Yes, this is what I’ve usually seen the word “plus” used for, skills that are so unlikely (at least in your candidate pool) that you know you can’t require it. But boy, wouldn’t it be great if someone did walk in the door randomly already speaking Arabic or possessing a top secret clearance or whatever.

      3. Monodon monoceros*

        My current job had this in the ad (Scandinavian language was a plus). I wrote in my cover letter that I was interested in learning. They told me after I started that they would have used language as a tie breaker, but knew the job could be done without it so didn’t want it to be a requirement.

        1. Bwmn*

          Yeah – as someone not proficient in Arabic, it was just a somewhat frustrating reality of the job hunt. Also with Arabic specifically and the city where I was, there were all sorts of people who’d put Arabic proficiency on their resume after taking a few semesters in college and knowing written Arabic but knowing little to no of the local dialect of spoken Arabic. And as it was a position that didn’t really need Arabic there was often a nagging feeling that it was something you could fake your way through. But I always just told myself that any employer who could be that easily fooled on language proficiency probably wasn’t the greatest to work for anyways.

  6. Jillociraptor*

    Coincidentally, I just interviewed a candidate who didn’t precisely have the skills I listed as “a plus.” This candidate is still really competitive in spite of the fact that other candidates DO have the “plus,” because even though this person doesn’t have the direct experience, they have so many of the raw skills that would make someone successful at it.

    YMMV of course–if the “plus” is a very specific skill or piece of knowledge, this probably doesn’t apply–but if you can, you might also think about what skills you do have that would make it likely you’d be successful at the “plus” you lack.

    For example, when my own position is advertised (there are a handful of “mes” throughout my organization), it almost always lists MBA as a plus. I don’t have an MBA, but I can point to things like quant/mixed-methods research, business process improvement, project planning to solve problems, and similar in other past experiences to show that I’ve been successful with a lot of the skills that an MBA might teach.

    If you’re getting an interview, they’re at the very least intrigued by the sum of your experience. Good luck!

  7. nyxalinth*

    Last year I interviewed for a small call center job. The company sold things like garden and tool sheds, etc. the interviewer asked if I had any experience with construction, which the ad never said anything about. I said no, and I recall that my interviewer looked disgusted/annoyed by that. I wasn’t hired, but this year I sent them my resume again. I figured what the hell, maybe things changed? turned out they had. I had a phone screening yesterday, and supposedly the guy I talked to will call me back during this week to set up an interview (he had to get with HR and figure out a date/time). Last year it was a different process. Anyway, the point of this is that remembering last year’s interview, I asked if construction experience is something they required (I didn’t reference last year’s interview.) the guy I talked to said no, but that it was a very good question. So I think that It can’t hurt to ask about ‘hidden requirements’ based on the industry. Otherwise, I’m going to agree with the others and not proactively bring up a lacked skill or background etc. that would be a plus.

    On a related note, if the ad says “skill/Degree/Background preferred, but not a requirement” is that the same thing, or the same idea more strongly stated?

    1. Diane*

      When I was hiring in public higher education, HR insisted that the requirements were the bright-line bare minimum needed to do the job, and preferred education/skills were things I actually wanted to see in a successful candidate. So, if I required three years experience with teapot making, anyone with 35 months’ experience wouldn’t make the cut. Because they were so rigid, I made the requirements fairly low, but would only realistically hire someone with most of the preferred skills. Pluses would be over and above.

      Of course, some people managed to get around that and hire favorites who did not meet the bare minimum for similar jobs, but that’s another story.

  8. Dan*

    In “my field” however loosely I want to define it, PhDs are often listed as “a plus.” I don’t have one. Given my success (or lack thereof) of applying to jobs where it’s “a plus”, I’m generally assuming that companies are able to find the degreed candidates without too much trouble.

    But I also don’t think it’s a superfluous requirement — that part of my line of work generally does require a lot more theory than what one learns in a Masters program. If they need/want it, they go the PhD route and I have to suck it up.

  9. anya*

    I would say it doesn’t really matter. Most job ads this days ( and i’ve been on both sides of creating and applying) are quite a wish list of “the perfect person” which doesn’t exist really, or if it exists, it’s a consultant payed 4 th times the budget for the job. Mostly, i would say there is a list of technologies that you (might) use in the job. Some are really transferrable from other technologies, some are core and need a bit of focus ( experience wanted) . My husband’s old firm is famous for creating and ad with so many technologies and years of experience wanted that it was illogical ( older than the technology mentioned itself, and in many cases more than the average jobseekers age). Lots of people who had “some” but “definitely” not all of the required experience applied, and the most suitable one was selected.
    My philosophy is apply if it seems you fit as a profile ( and it’s something you want to do) and discuss the technical details and day-to-day aspects in the interview.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      Yeah, I’ve seen those. “10+ years of mobile app development required.” iPhone apps have only been around for maybe 5 years, so unless you really want to hire the guy who wrote Snake, it’s pretty much impossible.

      1. Stephanie*

        Haha. You’re making me nostalgic for my Nokia brick.

        Yeah, software requirements can be amusing with things like “Must have six years’ experience with Teapot CADWorks v. 3.0” when Teapot CADWorks v. 3.0 is only two years old.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          Yeah, or “must have 12 years experience in social media” when social media’s only been around since 2004 or 2005, barely.

  10. Adam*

    In my experience “____ a plus” is kind of like putting chocolate chips on a sundae. They aren’t essential to the concoction, but it’s sweet when they’re there.

  11. Bill*

    Another context I’ve seen a skill listed as a plus has been in a core skill of the job, where they simply don’t expect to find a candidate who has that skill, and may expect you to learn it on the job. It is a plus if you already know it, but if you don’t they may be prepared (and possibly expecting) to teach you.

  12. Leah*

    You can also try to get an idea of what is involved with that skill. I was interviewing for a job that listed a specific certification as a plus. That certification requires at least two years working directly in the field. I have zero but lots of transferrable skills and a number of my would-be colleagues don’t have the certificate either, so it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. I looked up the study guide for the certification exam, so I could at least speak knowledgeably about their work, using their lingo. If you poke around the internet enough, you can find a lot of study guide and videos to point you in the right direction. If it is software, there are definitely tutorials just waiting to help. This way you can say, “This is what I have learned about that skill.” rather than “I don’t have that skill.” You might get part of a bonus point with the company. Do not pretend to have the skill, but show initiative and that you understand what the skill involves.

  13. Neeta*

    In my experience it could also be a skill that you’d be using often, but the hiring managers are perfectly willing to consider people who’d learn on the job.

    I have seen this for a lot of programming job postings, where the reasoning is that “well we work with those things daily”. On the other hand, most of the current team members had to learn those skills on the job as well, so there’d be plenty of people to show the new colleague the ropes.

  14. Laurie*

    My thoughts on the skills set is a plus. I have seen that in my work a lot where the job posting would also say that certifications in this and degrees in this is a plus. I have to say that I have been interviewed where I have tons of experience not only for every requirement, preferred requirements or skills sets a plus (with education and certifications) for every single item, I have lost the job to someone that gets it because they had something that was not listed at all. I had that happen one time where I was the front runner, I had more experience and skills (technical) for the management position; however, the person that they picked, they claimed he had more consultant skills (even though I was a consultant for over a year). I never know what employers want since it changes all of the time. My favorite job posting was for an internal position where I have TONS more experience with the applications that we are using then any external or internal candidates but they gave it to their buddy. Now, I get to constant answer his questions about our technical capabilities.

  15. Joe*

    We list certain skills as a plus on our job descriptions when the job really needs those skills, but we know there are not a lot of people out there with those skills right now. I’d much rather get someone now who is smart and can learn skill XYZ than wait 6-12 months to find someone who knows skill XYZ but might not be as good a candidate overall.

    If there’s something we absolutely need a person to know on day one, we list it as a must-have. If it’s something someone can learn on the job, we list it as a plus.

  16. Don Hesh*

    I think it’s all about the Interview. Most Job ads are prepared by copying the Ad from somewhere else. If you can show the company that you are capable of learning skills that you are lacking you can get the Job.

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