is over-selling yourself in an interview the norm?

A reader writes:

I was interviewed by my company over a year ago, and I felt the interview went really well. Being a technology company, there were lots of questions about technologies I’d worked with before, and I answered them honestly and clearly.

Now the yearly review came along and I had my meeting with my manager and it went well, with him praising my technical ability. The thing that caught my attention was when made the remark that “most people overstate what they can do, so we didn’t appreciate that you could do exactly what you said you could.”

So I’m left feeling as if the fact that since I was honest about my abilities I actually undersold myself. I’m not complaining, to be honest, since my manager is pushing for me to get a sizable raise. Should I have been less honest? Is overselling your abilities the “norm”, so if you don’t you’re doing yourself a disservice?

It is actually a hypothetical question, of course, since I can’t really envision myself saying that I can do things I can’t, but it seems like an interesting question on which to get your viewpoint.

No, over-stating your abilities is not the norm — but certainly there are an awful lot of candidates who do it anyway.

Here’s the thing though: It usually ends badly for candidates who do this.

Often they do it poorly, so good interviewers with decent BS detectors will see right though it. It’s pretty easy to spot candidates who are over-inflating their own skills, because they can’t talk with the amount of nuance you’d expect them to have about the work and how they’ve applied those skills in the past. They tend to talk in sweeping statements and can’t be pinned down on details. Good interviewers see that and know what’s happening — and it’s usually a deal-breaker.

Or, if the interviewer doesn’t detect it and hires the person based on their faulty claims, it’s going to be pretty apparent once they’re on the job that they don’t know as much as they said they did. And guess how that reflects on them? Very, very badly. They may struggle in the job, or even get fired for it. Or in cases where the manager decides it’s worth their while to invest in training the person, the person is still going to be marked as Not Reliable and Possessing Poor Judgment. Those aren’t things that help in people’s careers.

{ 124 comments… read them below }

  1. Beancounter in Texas

    I’m flabbergasted that the company “didn’t appreciate” the fact that the employee didn’t overstate their qualifications. Perhaps “pleasantly surprised” would be appropriate, but who tells an employee who apparently is performing better than expected that they didn’t appreciate their honesty?

    1. Relly

      I think they comment was meant to be read as a compliment. “We assumed you were overstating your skills, and didn’t recognize or appreciate the fact you were as skilled as you said you were.”

      1. DMC

        That’s what I thought, too. That it was a compliment and the “didn’t appreciate” part was a joke.

        1. LJL

          Or that “didn’t appreciate” was synonymous with “were not fully aware of” as in the common use of someone “not appreciating the importance of the situation at hand.”

          1. Beancounter in Texas

            That makes better sense. I primarily equate the word “appreciate” to “gratitude” not “understanding.” Thanks.

            1. TeapotCounsel

              >I primarily equate the word “appreciate” to “gratitude” not “understanding.”
              And now, thanks to this thread, you appreciate the difference.

              1. Mad Non Hatter

                Yes it was meant as “was not fully aware of” and was definitely phrased as a compliment.

    2. Just Another Techie

      I read that as a turn of phrase meaning that at interview time they didn’t fully comprehend that the OP didn’t overstate her qualifications.

    3. olives

      I read it this way at first too, but on second read I agree with Relly (since otherwise the rest of the letter makes no sense – they were clearly rewarded for this ability by the company!). I think it’s the sense of “did not appreciate” that effectively means “didn’t quite understand / comprehend”, rather than “didn’t like / enjoy”.

    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      Huh, I almost think that’s a typo since the OP says they were praising him. Or they meant it as “we didn’t fully realize” (which “we didn’t appreciate” can also mean).

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

        Yeah, that’s my read. “Didn’t appreciate” as in “didn’t understand” rather than “didn’t like.”

      2. LizNYC

        I thought it was too, but on the 4th reading, I finally got it that didn’t appreciate = didn’t realize.

      3. Paul

        I avoid using the word altogether because of the ambiguity (along with “quite” and “nonplussed”)

    5. The IT Manager

      “Appreciate” to mean: to be fully conscious of; be aware of; detect ie “to appreciate the dangers of a situation.”

      Is this an uncommon usage? It’s very common for me and that sentence didn’t trigger any confusion or grammar twige in me.

    6. Liane

      I read it as “Because so many candidates overstate what they can do, we didn’t realize at your interview that you told us exactly what you were capable of.”

      1. Anonymous Coward

        And on top of that, we can also see that they do appreciate that the OP can do everything he said he could.

        I love language.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius

    I interviewed a guy who kept talking about all the people he knew in high places. He’d talk about all these grand plans and strategies. Every time I’d ask him for specifics, he’d just relist all the people he knew.

    What’s funny is that I knew all the people he listed too. A lot of people knew those people because it was a specific line of work. At one point I said that, but in a subtle way. I don’t know if he understood what I was getting at or not, but he kept doing it.

    He bugged me for weeks after that via email. Much like a bad date, I wanted to say, “On what planet did you think that went well?”

    1. Artemesia

      Someone told him that getting a job was based on ‘who you know’ which of course it pretty much is, but he misunderstood what that means.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius


        I’ve been sitting on this story for years, and I never connected that bit of advice to it.

        Putting it into that perspective, I never realized how dumb that advice is too.

        1. LJL

          I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily dumb advice, just advice that can be badly misapplied. As did your candidate.

        2. Beancounter in Texas

          I don’t think the advice is dumb, but ill-applied in the interview. All jobs but my first were found through people I knew, not job boards or advertisements. (I still had to interview and win the job.)

      2. Fucshia

        I’ve always heard “it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you” since you want to be the person people think about when they need someone.

    2. Stephanie

      Your first sentence triggered the exact opposite in my mind and now I have that Garth Brooks song stuck in my head.

  3. sam

    I’m a pretty adept computer user, for an attorney (in fact, I’m working with our IT department to design/develop a document management system for our legal department because I “speak IT”). But I’m amazed at the number of lawyers who think they should put that they have Word/Powerpoint/Excel skills on a resume because they know how to open a new document and type things, but know nothing about any “power” features of the programs.

    People who draft entire word documents in “Normal” and then claim to know how to use Word should be forced to use a typewriter (I’ve offered to give lessons to people on how to use styles, and they look at me like I have three heads).

    And don’t get me started on Excel – I’m pretty good at Excel, FOR A LAWYER. I even know how to make pivot tables and whatnot because I had a project manager at one company I worked at see I was interested and good at picking up this stuff teach me how to do that, but that’s only scratching the surface of what Excel can do. They teach entire classes on that software in business school.

    1. kozinskey

      I consider myself pretty computer literate, but I have yet to see any use for the Styles function of Word. What am I missing?

      1. JoAnna

        Basically you can assign styles to different levels of the document (sections, subsections, paragraphs, and so on). If you have a large, complex document, it can be much faster to format it by applying the relevant styles to the appropriate text, instead of manually adding text formatting and indentation. Plus styles can make it easier to generate and format a document outline or table of contents.

      2. Lindrine

        Using Styles helps you use fonts and colors and more consistently throughout a document. I first started really using it when writing a book. We now set them up as part of our branding for documents used internally and externally in our company. Saves a lot of time. You just have to pick “Title” or “body” from the drop down and start typing.

      3. MnGreeneyes

        Oh, Styles are amazing if you have to do anything with diverse formatting, i.e. headings. They are amazing on resumes because you can set them up to be Job title, location, school, achievement, etc., all with different formatting and its a one button operation to get all your job titles to be exactly the same! And if you decide you want to change the style of your whole resume or document, you only have to change the style and tell it to automatically update and everything with that style will change in the whole document.

        If all you ever do in word is type in Times New Roman 12 pt., styles will make no sense. Also, did you know that Word now has a function built in for creating automatic footnote, endnotes, and works cited citations?

        Sam – I surprise people all the time when I say I have advanced Microsoft Office skills and actually do. ( I am an admin and the level of surprise from managers scares me a bit about what others mean when they say they have excellent skills in Office!)

        1. LJL

          They’re especially useful with long documents with many sections to ensure a consistent feel throughout the document. It also takes some of the tediousness out of formatting.

        2. kozinskey

          Thanks for the explanation, to you & everyone. You’re spot on that 99% of what I write is in Times 12 (or Arial 12) so it’s definitely NBD for me to go through and emphasize the very few headers I have the way I want them. I could see a more creative field needing the Styles function but I just….don’t. Maybe it’s personal preference, but if I’m sending something out where formatting matters I have to proofread the whole thing a couple times anyway, so I don’t mind editing heading formatting as I go.

          1. sam

            I’m not in a “creative” field, but part of my job is to write prospectuses and SEC disclosure documents, which can be extremely long and have massive numbers (and levels) of headings and subheadings, bulleted lists, etc.

            Let me tell you – when someone says, 90% of the way into creating a document, that “wouldn’t it be better if this heading was bold instead of italic”, you’ll be really freaking happy when all you need to do is change the “heading 2” style from bold to italic instead of manually wading through 400 pages of disclosure.

            Or, when you have to take last year’s disclosure document, the only “current” version of which is the one on the web, and reconvert it to word, creating a convenient style set and then spending an hour re-tagging the headings and paragraphs with the correct styles will save you about 100 hours on the back end in terms of manually updating the formatting for every paragraph in the document.

            1. sam

              I will also admit that I was actually forced to learn styles by my first secretary in my first legal job. She was a fairly senior admin at the firm and I was a lowly junior associate (lest you think that the secretaries work “for” the attorneys in such situations, you will be set straight). She taught me about styles and then flat out told me that she would not work on any document that I gave her that was not properly created. Stuff from other firms that wasn’t done right was a different story, but she was all about getting me to create documents “right” the first time, because it didn’t actually take more time to do it right at the start and saved so many man-hours on the back end.

              She eventually got promoted to manage the firm’s entire word processing department.

            2. Kelly L.

              I learned it on the fly a few months ago, when a table of contents was driving me crazy. Voila, with styles it updates itself with just a little prodding from me!

          2. Mander

            It’s definitely worth learning the basics if you do anything with captions, a table of contents, footnotes, and so on. If you ever use the outline view they are essential. Sometimes word seems to do crazy things of its own accord and some of that can be traced back to styles, whether they are applied incorrectly, automatically updated, and so on. They drive me batty but they are very useful.

      4. Emily, admin extraordinaire

        Styles are a feature commonly used in publishing software, and having them in Word is awesome. They make it super-easy to make sure that the formatting stays consistent. Instead of highlighting your headings and clicking bold, underline, 14pt on each one, you set your Heading 1 style as bold, underline, and 14pt. Then all you have to do is click your cursor in the heading somewhere (you don’t even need to highlight the whole paragraph), click “Heading 1,” and boom, you’re set. If you decide later on that the underline is overkill, all you have to do is edit the style itself, and every single instance of that style is automatically updated to the new format.

        The Styles function is also the very best way to create a dynamic, interactive Table of Contents. You assign a style to your headings (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), and tell Word what styles refer to which level in the ToC, and hit “create,” and voila– an instant table of contents, complete with links to the relevant page. If later edits change which page the heading appears on, or if the text itself for the headings get changed, all you have to do is update the table. Two clicks, done.

        I can’t tell you how much time using styles has saved me.

      5. hodie-hi

        If you are not using styles, you’ve probably only scratched the surface of using Word.

        If you know enough, you can do things with Word that most people think are impossible. If you try to do rather ordinary things, like write a 50 page report with a table of contents and multiple levels of headings, and a few tables and graphics, and you don’t use features like styles, it’s way more difficult than it needs to be.

        1. CC

          Oh yes. MS Word styles aren’t a very good implementation of structural writing, but without them, trying to write a moderately complex document with sections, figures, tables, table of contents, and other structural features is virtually impossible. They are presented as a formatting option instead of as a structural marking option, which is probably why so many people don’t think they’re anything other than a way to make a document look consistent. But if you don’t use styles consistently, you can’t get an automatic table of contents/list of figures out of that document.

          I may have Had Words With colleagues who messed up the styles in a document that I “owned”. They didn’t see the difference, but the difference isn’t visible the day you make the change.

      6. bridget

        For lawyers specifically, they are super helpful because you can have pre-set styles for legal documents and pleadings. When I file a motion in California it has to look different than a motion I file in Utah, and it has to include my firm information, bar number, blah blah blah in specific ways. That’s all pre-set-up with a firm template, which is in turn connected to a firm style that pre-governs the outlining, headings, etc. in the document. Saves a ton of time.

      7. super anon

        you can also use styles + outline mode to easily manage really long and complex documents. i wrote a 50 page report for oldjob and outline mode was my saviour. styles also apply to automatically generated table of contents in words. they’re really powerful and useful stuff.

        1. AcademiaNut

          I was trained on LaTeX for writing technical documents, so I don’t think it ever occurred to me not to use styles – I still find wysiwyg editors frustrating on occasion.

          The glorious thing about LaTex is that you can alter one word in the document, to apply a different style file, and it can change everything from the section headings and spacing to the detailed style of the references, to the location of the Figures. So I can print a document in pre-print style for ease of editing, and to typeset for publication, all that’s needed is to change to the style file of the journal.

          Not to mention that documents I wrote 20 years ago are still fully useable, with no compatibility issues.

          1. blackcat

            When I left my old job, I told the IT guys to put a TeX editor on my replacements’ computer. If she wanted my documents, they were all in LaTeX. I was a teacher. This was a very strange move in that environment, but it’s how I was trained in college…

          2. Mander

            I love LaTeX. It’s rarely if ever used in my field but I taught myself to user it for my PhD and it was amazing. I wish word styles were that easy!

      8. BananaPants

        I use styles all the time when writing test plans or test reports, as we have a standard style set built into those document templates. It ensures a consistent look for the entire document and use of styles makes it a snap to generate a table of contents and to insert cross references (I tend to use a lot of those). I’ve used the same styles for writing long reports for grad school and am always surprised when classmates or coworkers have no clue how to use them.

        I’m an engineer, so not in a “creative” field, FWIW.

    2. L mc

      Pfffft yes. There are people who list proficiency with excel when they actually mean “i can type things into boxes.”

      1. nk

        My cousin once had an interview for a job where Excel skills were required, and told me she planned to tell the interviewer about how much she loved Excel, and to prove that was going to mention how she even used Excel to make a schedule of the TV shows she wanted to watch. Speechless.

        1. Stephanie

          Oh. I’ll cop to using an example like that in a cover letter once. It was for a technical role, but it was at a creative, popular company that received tons of applications for each opening. My contact there said they received tons of applications saying how much people loved [iconic brand] and how they’d love to work at the company and suggested I tweak it to sound less like an automaton. (Also, my last field was law and I was in the habit of writing fairly stilted cover letters.)

          I didn’t get an interview, though, so who knows.

    3. Stephanie

      I think is why postings need to be specific when they ask for “Office.” There’s a huge difference between “can type things into the boxes” and “can create pivot tables, macros, and formulas.”

      1. Yep

        THIS. I’m perfectly willing to truthfully explain where I’m at with the software, but if you are just asking if I’ve used it, then the answer is “yes”.

      2. sam

        For a *lawyer*, I’m the most proficient excel user that I know. But I also know that I know about 15% of what excel can do. The difference being, other lawyers know about 1% of what excel can do.

        And this is only because I’m both naturally good with computers AND happened to have a job for a while where learning things like pivot tables, conditional formatting, etc. was really useful in my job. Most other people just roped a project manager into doing tables and reports for them, but I had someone just teach me how to do it so that I didn’t have to hunt someone down every time I had to do a report on how many contracts we had signed or the licensing status of our business in 120 different countries.

      3. Elsajeni

        Yes, and more specific than just “basic/intermediate/advanced” categories, too — everyone has different ideas about what those mean. List some specific stuff that you need done, or just give your applicants a test of some kind.

      4. AW

        Particularly since some jobs actually are only looking for “can type things into boxes” level of competence when they put that in the posting. They’re really just asking for basic skills on the level of not needing help for things like changing the margins in a Word doc. (And just to be clear, I’m not snarking on people who do need that help.) I’ve actually been told to put it on the resume for that reason.

        That said, it makes sense to leave it off or clarify that you have basic Microsoft Office skills for jobs that use the power functions. I figure any job description that includes duties like number crunching, design, or data management that ask for Microsoft Office skills are looking for power users. Same with postings that name a specific product. A posting that says “Familiar with Microsoft Office” may only want basic skills but someone asking for “Experience with Excel” *definitely* wants a power user.

  4. it happens

    It really is on the interviewer to probe to assess the candidate. I can’t tell how many times I brought people in for an interview based on their resume and they weren’t able to back up its claims. When the resume says: “Accomplished X% improvement in Y” – I would ask – “how did you do that?” sometimes it would take four or five additional “what did YOU do?” for it to finally become crystal clear that they were tangentially related to the improvement and didn’t understand what the team actually did to achieve it. Argh. How can there be managers who just accept what the resume says? It encourages resume inflation – hurting people like the OP here who state factually what they’ve done.

    1. Artemesia

      I was hiring researchers/teachers who couldn’t answer rather simple questions about their ‘own’ research — nothing super technical but things anyone would know about things they had studied. We would get ‘well it has been awhile and I would have to look at the research report to be able to be specific’ — well no. I may not be able to quote statistics from a project I have done, but I can certainly discuss the questions studied, the methods used and the general findings without having to go to the document. On further examination it turned out that the candidates who did this were rather peripheral to the work they were claiming.

      I have also asked people with PhDs whom I was hiring to teach rather high level seminars for managers questions like ‘If we asked you to teach the seminar on X (one of the subjects listed in the ad) what are a couple of the theorists you would draw on to design your instruction.’ to be told ‘Oh I didn’t know this was going to be a technical interview and I didn’t really prepare for that.’ I am sitting there thinking ‘as a reasonably well read person in a related field, but not even this one, I could think of a few social science theorists I could pull in and talk about — why can’t this guy applying for the job to do this manage to to come up with something plausible.’ It is not as if we asked him to summarize the work of some particular scholar — he could have chosen anything and made it work.

      1. Duschamp

        Ooh, this makes me cringe! I absolutely bombed a final stage interview for a prestigious fellowship by being completely unable to talk about my own research. It was a professional (rather than academic) fellowship, so all of the previous interviews had been focused on my professional experience and the role I would be performing if I were to be chosen as that year’s fellow.

        Basically, I prepared for it as if it were a job interview, and immediately drew a blank when asked about my PhD. Between nerves (I was interviewing with the director of the institution), expecting to talk about something else, and it being a telephone interview (which I am not awesome at), I could not order my thoughts in a coherent manner.

        Normally, I can talk about my research ’till the cows come home, and will get needlessly specific and in depth responding to what are clearly casual, social questions. And yet, in this interview I couldn’t seem to say anything that wasn’t vague and unhelpfully general. I swear he left the interview wondering if I’d lied about having earned my PhD at all.

        1. Alex_H

          I totally understand your situation though. If I have a non-academic interview, I will be surprised and be caught off guard if I am asked to talk about my research. Just because you’ve worked on something for many years doesn’t mean it’s easy to succinctly discuss it — especially something like a complicated dissertation topic.

        2. teclatwig

          I am cringing too. Yours is an entirely reasonable assumption, but I would probably bomb that part of any interview. In case this provides any insight or alternative ways to understand interviewees…

          As part of the way my mind works, I need to be immersed in a thing in order to pull details to mind (hello, suspected ADHD). So, when I am in the middle of my research or during conference season, I have all details to hand. When teaching a class, I am mired in context. At a job interview more than a month or two on the other side of that immersion? I would falter and stumble, especially if I had heavily prepared for an interview using a different set of interrelated data points.

          In other words, I will always be the sort of person who needs to refer back to notes, files, and memory aids. If I don’t know to bring those to an interview, I will look like someone who either didn’t do the work, or like a very dim bulb indeed.

    2. AW

      finally become crystal clear that they were tangentially related to the improvement and didn’t understand what the team actually did to achieve it

      I’m reminded of the question posted today by the person frustrated that people are trying to take advantage of the fact that the LW is going the extra mile rather than doing the work themselves. The people trying to ride that LW’s coat tails are going to end up in this situation if that’s how they approach all of their work.

  5. A Non

    On a related note – I recently presented something to my manager that I was nervous about. It was an assignment that was a big stretch past what I’ve done before, and I’d told him as much. When I was done he looked at me and said “I’m disappointed in you. You said you didn’t know how do this, and then you did it beautifully.”

    I can’t for the life of me tell if he was teasing or if that’s an actual criticism. I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t know how to put that project together – I spent the previous two weeks figuring it out. And thanks to previous asshole bosses, “I’m disappointed in you” is a major hot button that gives me an instant adrenaline dump. (Augh, I can feel it coming on right now just thinking about this.)

    What do you think, would you reprimand an employee for underestimating their abilities? Is this an actual flaw I need to address?

    1. Cici

      Yes, lack of confidence in learning new skills or taking on stretch assignments is something I try and coach out of my employees. How did you express your nerves to your manager? I hear a major difference in attitude when I’m told, “I’ve never done this before, so be patient with me while I figure it out” compared to “My work product is not going to be as good as you’d want because I’ve never done this before.”

    2. LJL

      No. It sounds like the flaw was in the awkwardness of the manager’s comment. I’m sure he meant well.

    3. LUCYVP

      I agree that is wasn’t an actual criticism.

      If there was any ‘critique’ it sounds like he was sharing his disappointment in your lack of confidence and although the tone rattled you it is obviously something for you to work on.

  6. Ed

    I was fortune enough to have a manager that challenged everybody on everything. He was a jerk in general but he was absolutely brutal in interviews. He fancied himself an expert in every technology (and he was damn good) so he would tear down every candidate. Candidates would almost be in tears by the time they left. I picture him as the hiring manager when I write resumes and that keeps me from ever stretching the truth or listing something I can’t defend. I’m pretty solid overall so if anything, I tend to sandbag a little and undersell.

    I give a little more leeway with overselling to entry-level candidates though. When you need to fill up a resume and you’ve never had a real job, there is going to be some garbage on there.

    1. JM in England

      This also ties in nicely with the underpromise & over-deliver ethic when you start a new job.

  7. IT Kat

    I think over-selling oneself is fairly common for the tech field too (the OP mentioned it was a tech company). I’ve seen resumes that had a list of skills that looked quite impressive… until you talk to the person and realize they just listed ever single technology they’ve ever used. I’m sorry, but don’t list “Cisco routers” when your sole contribution was plugging network cables into ports or occasionally logging in to set the VLAN on a port.

    It’s something that rigorous interviews still haven’t fully exterminated at my workplace… it would be so much easier if people were just more upfront with their skills.

  8. Ann O'Nemity

    Alison is right – overselling yourself can end so badly.

    We hired someone who claimed to be an expert in a key program that we regularly use. “Expert” was such an overstatement. It turned out that he was self-taught, and while he had enough experience to sound knowledgeable in the interview, he was actually incredibly inefficient. This significantly hurt his productivity and reputation in the first few months. Now it’s more than a training issue – it’s a trust issue.

    1. jamlady

      I never understand people who do this. I always get general requests like “so tell me about your experience with such and such program” – these give me room to sound positive and explain the experience that I actually have, but to end with an honest “however, I’ve never had to opportunity to learn X and X parts of the program, though I am always looking for the chance” and maybe an “I’m curious as to how pertinent those particular skills with such and such program will be to the position” and an open discussion about the learning curve (if there is any). They always appreciate my honesty and 9 times out of 10 they’re willing to train (because I was honest and otherwise qualified). I can’t imagine going into a position and then having to fake my way through something because I lied about my skills. Ahhh!

      1. OhNo

        It’s kind of funny, I was sitting in on an interview today where the candidate said something similar to this. They had some experience with X in a classroom setting, but were a little worried about their ability to apply it in a professional setting, and wanted to know how much of the job it was. I rated their response far higher than the other person who just said they were “very comfortable” with X, because they went out of their way to be honest about their fit for the job and actually asked how much of an impact that would have on their work.

        I feel like most things, even technical details, you can train for if you have to. But there’s something to be said about being honest and genuinely trying to make sure the job is the right fit for you AND the employer.

        1. jamlady

          It’s also worth mentioning that entry-level people who do things like this have likely learned the easy way that this gets you places – in that it’s just kind of just who they are, so they’ve always done it, and have more often than not been praised for it. I am honestly the most transparent person in the world and I was actually told early on by peers that I shouldn’t be so honest about my faults. However, I totally disregarded their advice and the further in my career I go, the more I realize how much employers appreciate my honesty. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses – what’s important is that I recognize them and that I’m always willing to improve. No one’s perfect – just own up to it, you know?

    2. LBK

      But with technology, you might not know how little you know if you’re self-taught. He could have legimately considered himself an expert and therefore not intentionally betrayed your trust, it just wasn’t until people with more formal training looked at his work that it became apparent he wasn’t as much of an expert as he thought.

      1. Joey

        The problem is you shouldn’t designate yourself as an expert unless you’re making appropriate comparisons.

    3. Steve G

      I’m curious about what program it is. I’m looking for a job as a Business Analyst now w/ about 6 yrs experience in this type of work…everyone is asking for VBA, C++, HTML, SQL. I am truly advanced in Excel (meaning I help other people think out/ write long formulas at work even if they technically know the individual functions they are stringing together). VBA, I’m pretty weak but I know the basics. I’ve never worked someone that required SQL.

      I don’t have anything to quantify it, but when I see the # of people applying to certain jobs on Linkedin, I can’t help but think that other people less knowledgeable than me in either programs are rating themselves as super-users in both, and it makes my job harder, because I aint’ gonna lie!

  9. TV Researcher

    Ooh, yeah, I can vouch for overselling yourself being a bad idea. On the other hand, that’s how I got my job. Not because I oversold myself, but because he did. He said he was able to use a specific proprietary software that he did not have even basic skills with. Within six weeks, he was looking for a new job. It worked out great for me because right around that time they were discussing what to do with him, they called me in to interview for another (lateral) position within the company. Midway through the interview, I knew that I wasn’t interested in another lateral move, but the next day the EVP called me to say that she realizes I’m probably not interested in the job I went in for, but would I be interested in this other position. Three months and one homework assignment later, I got the job. It also gave me a bit of insurance in that my boss would be hesitant to fire two people within two months of hire (once I proved I had the basic skills my predecessor lacked). When I first went in for the interview, it was a bit of a stretch position for me, but three years later, I haven’t been fired yet (knock on wood).

  10. Joey

    Here’s a really obvious sign. If you continually say “we” did this or “we” did that the bs meter starts sounding a warning light. Most good interviewers will respond with something like “I apppreciate that, but what was your specific role in that?” If you don’t start saying “I”. The bs meter buzzer goes off confirming that you’re bs’ing.

    1. CrazyCatLady

      Oh no! I say “we” all the time, but I totally have imposter syndrome, too. So even if it was only “me” who did something, I tend to say “we.” :-/ I always think it sounds weird when I say it, but it’s my habit.

      1. Christina

        I do the same thing for the same reason (and also thinking, well, I’m part of a team and it was “our” project, even if the accomplishment I’m describing was solely my responsibility), but I’m trying to train myself out of it for the reason Joey said above.

        1. CrazyCatLady

          Yeah, same. I figure, well SOMEONE else participated in some way, shape or form, whether it was approving it, or having the initial concept, or whatever. But I will have to train myself out of it too.

    2. Mandi

      But every SINGLE project I’ve ever worked on in my entire career has been a collaborative effort. I always say “we” — but then again ,I’m a project manager…so I’m managing the team who does the actual work. Hmmm

      1. Joey

        Me too, but when someone is interviewing you having an understanding of the team’s work is only used to put the work that YOU did in context. We want to know what YOU did and how it fit into the project. Because remember we’re considering hiring you, not your team.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yes! “We” is great when you’re already working there. But in an interview, I don’t care what a group did; I want to know what you did.

  11. LadyMountaineer

    Obviously overstating will lead you only to mistrust but understating in tech can leave you left out. I’m directing this comment mainly at women in tech. If you have a hard time selling yourself then think of it as talking about what you’ve done. Something like “I’ve used that technology in this capacity.”

    Also, do not be afraid to ask “what does that mean?” Because if the interviewer won’t answer he’s a jerk and you don’t want to work for a jerk.

    I had an interviewee (analyst position) when asked about Agile development say “I don’t know what that is” and when my colleague explained that it’s an iterative development process she explained “oh yeah I’ve done that I just didn’t know what it was called!”

    You can’t know everything in tech. You just can’t. Don’t let it sink your battleship in the interview. Showcase similar technology, talk about your crazy work-arounds, show strong troubleshooting, problem solving and creativity because you’re probably awesome and your big harebrained ideas is probably what led you to tech.

    1. CrazyCatLady

      I’ve experienced what you describe. I’ve worked for small companies where I DO a lot of what bigger companies have terms or lingo for … but when they ask about it, I only know what they mean if they explain what they’re talking about.

      1. LadyMountaineer

        Yeah! I climb 13ers and 14ers in Colorado.I’m currently sidelined with a stress fracture. :)

        1. CrazyCatLady

          I’m in Colorado, too! Just did my first 14er this past summer and can’t wait to do more. Which ones have you done??

    2. Alex_H

      This is such a great piece of advice! I bombed an interview once, and I think part of the reason was because I didn’t bother to ask clarification questions. The interviewer asked me if I had used a type of statistical modeling technique before. She used an acronym typically used to refer to that modeling technique. During the interview, I was a bit confused and thought she was talking about something else, so I started describing another technique that had a very similar acronym. But had I asked a clarification question, I totally would’ve done a better job because I did have experience using the technique that the interviewer asked me about. Ugh!

  12. LBK

    On the flipside, though, I think some companies aggressively over-screen for proficienicy with systems that can more or less be learned on the job. I think that’s what some people respond to when they overstate their qualifications – they assume there will be a chance to familiarize themselves with the system once they start working but they know saying they don’t know it yet will be a disqualifier, so they say they know how and just hope it will work out if they get hired. I don’t think that’s a great plan, but I think it’s understable (and probably works out in the end more often than you’d think).

    That being said, there are clearly jobs where you have to know the basics, especially for systems that anyone could train on at any time like Excel. It’s one thing if it’s a proprietary and/or expensive software that you’d probably never use unless it was at a job. It’s another if it’s something that’s installed on every PC in the country with limitless training resources available.

    1. Not Here or There

      It really bugs me when a company rules someone out because they don’t have experience with X obscure/proprietary software or with X specific software, where X is one of a slew of very similar programs (and aside from slightly different interfaces, the basic usage is essentially the same).

      1. Joey

        What about that bugged you? Did you feel you knew their needs related to that software better than they did?

        1. Mander

          I’ve applied for jobs before where they wanted experience with very specific software that nonetheless does something fairly generic (in this case, data entry). So no, I’d never used their bespoke software. But I can use all these other similar programs to do the same basic tasks, so I’m pretty sure that I could have learned it without too much trouble.

    2. Steve G

      I agree about the pre-screening. I commented about this above, but I’m seeing a lot of jobs asking for SQL. I’ve never worked somewhere that used it. The 2 companies I worked at that had databases used SAP and they had their own proprietary codes you’d enter in the extract data.

      I have a book on SQL and the 1st 1/2 anyways looks common sense – I mean, the basic functions are Select, From, Where. It irks me that I’m not able to apply or aren’t getting calls back b/c I don’t have experience using a program that pulls data that looks so simple!

      1. Not Here or There

        I worked for a company that made a big fuss about its admin staff needing to be proficient in SAP… in reality the SAP work they needed admins to do was really super basic. The kind of stuff where, if you have someone walk you through it once, and know someone to call with any questions, that was all you needed, and yet they were grilling people on how well they knew SAP.

          1. Not Here or There

            No, trust me, the occasional need to call someone with a question was not an issue at all. It was really rare that you ever had to call someone and that was only if you ran into something really unusual, and it was typically the sort of thing that had more to do with the way the company had things set up in SAP. I only used SAP about once every other month, and that was more than the typical admin had to use it so at most you would have an admin calling with a question a couple times a year.

        1. Steve G

          At your job too? Three jobs ago they asked about my SAP skills in the interview. I was confused because I thought it was a simple program. When I started, and they showed me how to find what I needed, I realized it was even simpler and/or proprietary than I expected. It was like, if you wanted to look up contract # 3121, you went to “contracts” then entered #3121, and if you wanted to download #3121’s pricing list, you clicked “export.”

          Companies really need to screen for that kind of software use?!?!

          1. Not Here or There

            Yeah… I once worked with a colleague who got a word doc that was in justified alignment, and they couldn’t figure out why the words were spaced funny and had to ask me how to fix it. I had another who didn’t know how to use transitions in powerpoint.

    3. Stranger than fiction

      Yea so true! Even more annoying sometimes the interviewer has no clue about the program either because all the people under them do it for him or her!

  13. AndersonDarling

    When I read the OP’s story, all I could think is that this company is filled with exaggerators. I’d be a little worried about how honest my co-workers are. Just a little.

  14. Stephanie

    I did this semi-recently for an interview for contract work and it ended poorly. Had it perhaps been a W-2 job and training or a learning curve were expected, it may have been better. But as a 1099 contractor, it was a disaster as I realized I was in way over my head. We just ended up severing ties (and the owner got free, bad work).

    It’s tough balancing over- and underselling–I tend to be self-deprecating and will definitely minimize things I do. It’s a continual process to find the right balance.

    1. Joey

      On the other end its a huge let down when people do it. Id much rather be pleasantly surprised that you know more than you led on.

      And just because you may not know nearly as much that doesn’t mean you won’t get hired. I’ve hired a few people who were self deprecating about their skills, but hired them because of other important things like wit, attitude, work ethic, critical thinking skills, drive, etc.

      1. Stephanie

        Well, self-deprecation might be inaccurate. Minimizing is probably closer. I’ve had interviews where I’ll mention something offhand and that turns into “Wait! I want to hear more about that volunteer experience or class you took!”

      2. Alex_H

        I think one challenge I’ve faced in tailoring my resumes is I don’t know how to describe my proficiency levels for some of the technical skills I havw. I’ve had to teach myself a lot of technical skills due to my PhD research. For example, I am not a C programmer by any means, but I use it regularly for my research. I definitely do not want to oversell myself — the last thing I want to happen is getting asked to code on the spot!! On the other hand, I don’t want to totally undersell myself. Is it fair to list specific examples of what I was able to do in my resume (and, perhaps even include links to my code in my resume).

  15. VictoriaHR

    I’m a technical recruiter and someone in my field told me once that folks from other countries, primarily India, tend to overstate their abilities. As in, if they’ve ever worked with XYZ software, they say they have experience in it, even if it was just doing one thing one time. Whereas in America and the UK, folks tend to only put a software on their resume if they’ve had training and/or official experience in it. I don’t know if that’s 100% true but since we have a lot of folks working in tech in my area (Midwest) who are from India, it may have something to do with it. Personally, I find folks from India to be amazing workers, and extremely competent in technical skills.

    1. Joey

      My bs meter is going off about the Indian workers comments?

      Interesting. I didn’t know there was a big Indian polulation in the Midwest.

      1. Kelly L.

        I do think the population is growing, but I also feel like the comment about Indian workers overstating more is…eurgh.

        And I’ve certainly had a lot of pasty white folks* advise me, over the years, to pretend things like being a web designer when my HTML skills are pretty 1995.

        *Note: I am also a pasty white folk, FWIW

  16. I had to pick a username I guess?

    How do you recommend representing your tech skills when you have what would probably be considered the normal amount of tech knowledge for someone your age (a couple years out of undergrad)? I’ve always wondered because, like, I don’t specifically know how to code or know programming languages or specific packages (like I probably wouldn’t list adobe creative suite for myself; I’ve used it, but hardly at all). But I’m at that weird position of someone in their mid-2os where I feel like I know most pertinent stuff and, whatever I don’t know, I would know how to find/learn. I’ve never been sure how to list my technological skills in a way that doesn’t cut me out of the running for anything, but that also doesn’t misrepresent myself or oversell my knowledge. I once described my skills in an interview as “Better than my mother, who can’t work her iPhone; but worse than my brother, who is a computer engineer for Cisco”.

    1. Not Here or There

      My issue is that there are such huge variations on how an employer will rank skill level. I consider myself fairly advanced with most MS Office, with the exception of Excel (I can do basic spreadsheets, create graphs and make pivot tables). I interviewed with this company that kept emphasizing a need for advanced Office skills, and it turns out their definition for advanced was knowing how to take a graph from Excel and insert it into a PowerPoint. They weren’t even looking for someone who knew how to create graphs or PowerPoint decks, just someone who knew how to edit them.
      While I don’t know how to code, I do know enough about code in order to find errors in an html email creator’s code (like MailChimp) and play around with them until I fix them. How do I express that? Or, I don’t know a ton about SAP, but I have experience doing simple vendor set-ups and payments.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        This is so true where I work I’m an excel Pro but that’s in relation to everyone else technically I’m probably intermwdiate

  17. Treena Kravm

    I do believe it is a common thing to do in tech. My husband is currently helping to hire a fellow senior developer, and about half of their interviewees straight up lie on their resume. When asked, they give vague generalizations and it’s super easy to tell.

    He said the best candidate would say “I don’t know.” to a couple questions. Apparently, it’s a thing to be on a phone interview, and while they’re asking the question, you look up the answer. My husband said it was the “I don’t knows” that proved he wasn’t doing that. And that’s why he was a good candidate, and he gave decent answers to the tech questions. That’s just how it goes apparently.

    1. A Non

      It is super easy to figure out as long as you are a tech person with a similar skill set to the person you’re interviewing and know how to ask direct, picky questions. If you are not a tech person but are trying to hire one, you need a tech-savvy ally who can grill them for you. There are consultants who help with this kind of thing, go hire one. I promise it will be worth it.

      I recently got to interview my potential boss, and asked him what kind of a replacement cycle he preferred for desktops and server equipment. (I was fishing to see if he held the ex-boss’s “use it until it fails catastrophically” policy. I would quit before I worked under another boss with that attitude.) His response was that it depends on the environment and computing needs, that he’s seen situations where anything from a two to five year cycle makes sense and named some of the factors that go into that decision. He apologized for giving a vague answer, but I was quite pleased with it. I got a description of his approach to this kind of problem, how he thinks through it, and what his priorities are, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. We hired him and haven’t been disappointed.

  18. JM in England

    The OP’s story definitely strikes a chord with me. Like them, I am honest & straightforward when I answer interview question, with no exaggeration or fluff! This is partly because of who I am and partly due to advice I’ve read that says to only give the information requested by the interviewer; anything superfluous only irritates them. Also, I feel that by overselling yourself, you can very easily cross that extremely fine line that between confidence and arrogance.

    Once got feedback from an interview that said that I didn’t “big myself up” enough. My response to the recruiter was essentially what I’ve just said above.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      It’s hard not to overstate a wee bit when you know certain programs are highly customized at each company- oracle and salesforce come to mind- so if you know the basics surely you can pick up the rest once on the job

  19. AW

    A relative of mine worked briefly with a guy who made it a habit to put things on his resume after only spending a weekend reading on the topic (or sometimes before!). He worked with a head hunter and was always getting interviews with really great companies. But he was also always getting fired. My relative tried to tell him that he couldn’t put skills he didn’t actually have on his resume but his response was always, “Oh, it will be easy. I’ll just get a book on it.” He actually got fired on his first day of work at one job. To sort of quote my relative (this was years ago), “I would have been so embarrassed but he just shrugs it off. I don’t get it. He keeps getting fired but he doesn’t care.”

    And yes, these were tech jobs.

  20. LolaSix

    I´ve been at my job 6 months and I still can´t believe I have it, considering how outright honest I was. The job is a communications officer position that´s trying to re-brand itself in two languages. During the whole process I was extremely honest (¨I can do this very well, but It means a collective effort. achieve these widgets I would need x, y, z and it entails this much work from A, B,C departments, I also work best in the second language and not the first, I am developing my F skills but have been told I am good at my G,H,I skills, and sorry I just can´t respond to that)

    I never oversold. I think they may have found it refreshing. It really just depends on the culture you´re working in. I find it´s very American to oversell.

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