how can I increase my chances when I’m under-qualified for a job?

A reader writes:

I may — and may is the operative word — be about to hit a lucky break in my job search. I have a strong contact with a longtime associate of a hiring manager in a small office, which recently posted a position with requirements I technically meet. I’ve applied to the position and gotten the promise that my contact will recommend me personally in glowing, specific terms. It’s possible that they have someone else in mind already and won’t interview me … but if not, it’s a promising coincidence.

The problem is that I’m well aware the position is well out of the realm of my previous experience. I have education in the field and some transferrable skills from a previous position, but this posting is not entry-level and I’ve never done the specific tasks named in the job description. I believe I can stretch myself into the role, but how do I come across as someone who has that capacity in the interview stage? I am more questioning the emotional side of this than the skills side. When you see a junior candidate and say “this person would take a lot of managing, but it’d be a worthwhile pleasure to bring them up to speed,” what are you looking at?

Well … to be totally blunt, it’s not something experienced managers say a lot of. I did sometimes think that kind of thing when I was a newer manager, but then you learn pretty quickly that “this person would take a lot of managing” means “this person would take a lot of time that I won’t be able to spend on other important things.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t real pleasure in coaching a junior employee and helping them grow. There is! It can be incredibly satisfying, particularly when the person is eager to learn and genuinely interested in the work, takes feedback well, and appreciates the investment you’re making in them. But when other candidates are better matched with the role, “it will be fulfilling to watch this junior candidate grow” doesn’t usually justify the significant additional time it would take to manage them.

That said … it’s more of an option with some types of positions. If the role is relatively junior and doesn’t require specific hard skills, it can sometimes make sense to hire for potential. That’s especially true in fields where soft skills really matter, and where training will be more a matter of weeks than months. And it’s even more true when the other qualified candidates are just okay, rather than excellent. There are a lot of junior-ish roles where hiring a smart, driven, enthusiastic person without a ton of relevant experience but who can learn quickly is better than hiring someone with relevant experience but less of the other stuff. (But there are also a lot roles where you really need both.)

If it’s the kind of role where that’s in play, the types of things that could tilt it toward a less experienced candidate are: smarts, humility (so you know you have a lot to learn and want to do it), an ability to learn from feedback (and a strong interest in getting it), work ethic and drive, natural interest in the work, personal warmth (this doesn’t mean being bubbly; it just means forming warm connections with people), courtesy and consideration for others (this matters more than you’d think in this context, particularly at junior levels), and a track record of getting things done (even in totally different contexts like extracurriculars or another field). Depending on the position, specific talents can really matter too, like writing or relationship-building.

Also! The fact that you’ve never done the specific tasks listed in the job description isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re wildly under-qualified. I’d pay more attention to the qualifications they’re looking for — if they’re not listing “experience doing X” there, they may not care as much about that as you think.

Good luck.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 98 comments… read them below }

  1. OP*

    Thanks for the advice. Not what I hoped to hear, obviously! But if I do get a courtesy interview I at least know that I should focus on and explain my transferrable skills from another industry, which seems like a better tack to take than looking coachable.

      1. OP*

        Thank you for that encouragement, too! I think you are probably right on the money there. Since I originally wrote in, I’ve reached out to someone in the field I’m hoping to move to about how to make my experience seem more transferrable, and they were surprised at the level of responsibility and trust I described when we had a real chat about my current position. Apparently, I sound like a manager-in-training in a conversation, but it doesn’t come through on my resume at all. Something to work on…

        1. Jesca*

          If it raises your confidence at all, every single job change I have made since I was in my early 20’s seemed like pretty big leaps to me through their ad. But once I was face to face and had some frank conversations about my skills, what they needed, why the need it, and what the overall expectations were, we were both able to find that I was the best candidate. A lot of those times, I was even offered the job on the spot.

          I think Alison is right on the money about going in with the idea of humility. I find myself during interviews continuously reviewing my strong skill sets while calmly in a neutral voice outline where my weaknesses are so we both have a solid understanding of where I stand compared to their needs – I guess that would be being confident yet humble.

          I would recommend, as it has been hugely successful for me, to go in with solid examples of when you were able to pick something up, learn it quickly, and run with it. This and what I had stated above actually landed me my current role which was a change in industry. Actually, our conversation through the course of the interview actually caused them to change course on what skills they actually needed. They didn’t need someone with industry specific experience, but rather someone who had a ton of experience developing new processes and analytics. So my point is, you never know until you go! Not only did I get this job, but I also scored myself a pay upgrade of 30%, and all on what I initially had thought was a long shot!

            1. Jesca*

              Thanks! I really think you will do fine!

              I think snark’s response below to you is really cool! I am glad he could give you that perspective as it shows that what they have stated as “required” isn’t always what is the most important. And again, I highly highly recommend going into the interview with really solid examples of how you tackled problems and I highly suggest you use snark’s examples in his more industry specific post to highlight them! It sounds like it will get you really far.

              And remember, and maybe this is because I too weathered anymore haha, but interviewers are people too. You don’t want to waste their time and you certainly do not want your time wasted. Take pride in your strengths and be frank and humble in what cannot at this time bring to the table.

  2. Teapot Librarian*

    I actually did get a position despite being in your exact shoes. So it isn’t impossible! Good luck; I hope it works out for you.

  3. Anon to me*

    I just hired someone who was underqualified over people who were more qualified on paper. Why? Because I felt that the person who was underqualified had more long-term potential, a better attitude, and had solid transferable skills. However, I made that choice because it was a weak pool of applicants. You can only hire from your pool of applicants. If you get a strong set of applicants with excellent soft skills your odds are low that you will have a good chance at the job. However, if it’s a weaker set of applicants with mediorce soft skills then I think your odds are reasonable. I think it’s really dependent on the competition.

    1. OP*

      This is absolutely what I’m hoping will happen to me, haha. I don’t quite want to say I’m knocking on wood for a weak pool of applicants, but job searching does depend on a healthy amount of luck, after all!

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Sometimes it doesn’t have to be a weak pool of applicants, thought. I saw this scenario play out when we had several candidates for a 6 month temporary career counselor position. We interviewed four people, including two very experienced candidates (each with over a decade in the field). We hired the person who was a year out of graduate school because she was enthusiastic, motivated, eager to learn and really sold why she wanted the position. (We didn’t pay her any less than we would have paid anyone else, so there weren’t any financial considerations.)

        Frankly, we were all a little surprised because this person was the last interview, and we were leaning toward one of the other candidates, but it was clear that she fit the campus/office culture better and would be up to speed very shortly. And I think we were right to do so–she got additional experience in permanent positions afterwards, and then three years later, she returned to our office.

    2. Snark*

      In my line of work, regardless of one’s expertise, one can be called on to support any number of programs – I’m an ecologist and have authored solid waste plans and consulted with Native American tribes, just by way of example. Nobody’s qualified for that kind of spread, so we do end up hiring for a can-do attitude, soft skills, transferability, and adaptability more often than particular hard skills. But the catch is, you don’t get that combination of attitude, soft skills, transferability, and adaptability without being pretty experienced at SOMEthing. I’m not sure I’d hire someone just because I thought they had growth potential and moxie.

      1. OP*

        Snark, if you wouldn’t mind, I’m super interested in your thoughts here – the field I’m hoping to move into is science-based and actually quite analogous to what you’re doing in terms of the spread of work involved. I’m not really entry level as a professional, but like I mentioned to Alison above, I’ve struggled with trying to show that when my work in that field specifically /is/. What does “pretty experienced at SOMEthing” look like to you?

        1. Snark*


          *gesticulates expressively*

          I suppose that what it really boils down to is I look for some evidence that, whatever the person has done in the past, they’ve had to make it up on the fly and got it done in fine fashion anyway. A McGuyver, basically. If a candidate can demonstrate they’re confident enough that they’re not going to fall to pieces not knowing what the hell they’re doing when they’re handed an unfamiliar task and a deadline, and adaptable and resourceful enough to systematically work through the challenge and guide their own way through it without needing a ton of hand-holding, and detail oriented enough that the results are going to be delivery-quality and at least a good stab at what the client needed, that matters more than specific expertise.

          1. OP*

            Sorry, I know that was an incredibly broad question! The fact that you came up with a very actionable answer anyway is actually kind of proof of concept here…

            I definitely do a ton of what you’re saying in my current position, so I need to focus on bringing that out in my application materials (and hopefully, interviews). Thanks for the input!

          2. Mouse*

            Snark, if you’re up for it, I’d love to hear more about your work in the next open thread! It sounds like exactly what my FH is interested in doing in the future, and he’s having some trouble figuring out how to position himself well for it.

            1. Snark*

              Would you mind making a post asking me about it? Just make sure you mention “Snark” so I see it if I page-search my SN. If your FH has any questions or particulars, include those too.

        2. Ramona Flowers*

          I’m not Snark and I’m not a scientist. But my own take on this is: can you complete things and do a good job? Can you learn stuff? Can you juggle priorities and meet deadlines and get on with people? That kind of thing.

          1. Snark*

            To add to that, I’m also looking for expertise even if it’s not precisely expertise in every area my group might cover. Do you have experience, say, thinking about a big-picture problem, analyzing relationships between interlinked processes, focusing down on individual parts without losing a sense of where they sit in the whole picture? Then whether you’re a wildlife biologist or a forester or an ecologist, your mind works the way I need it to. And you’ve got enough knowledge that you know how to learn and can realistically assess what you need to learn still.

            1. OP*

              You continue to be a font of wisdom, Snark! Can you think of a candidate who’s pulled out a specific example that’s demonstrated big-picture analysis for you? I’m trying to get a sense of how to represent what you’re saying with an anecdote.

              1. Snark*

                I’m a font of something, at least. Hopefully not comic sans.

                In my field, the go-to is talking about your research and/or field experience. The last person I hired got totally worked up describing this crazy field experiment she’d run, lugging a giant Craigslist snowblower into the woods over the winter to make sure some study plots never got snow accumulation and the effects on soil carbon cycling and mycorrhizal biomass and so on, making big spiraling gestures with her hands and geeking out super hard, and I was like….you. I like you.

                So I guess…talk about stuff you’ve done, how you teased a big picture into its parts and figured out how the whole system was interrelated.

                1. OP*

                  Oh, got it. Talk about the fun stuff. Surprisingly simple. (Your hire sounds like someone who I’d love to talk to.)

                  I think I can come up with a few examples like that! Thanks again.

          2. Kira*

            I’d add on one detail that would read “specialist in something” to me – in addition to learning the work, were you able to improve how your employer functioned?

            In my own mind, a lot of the value I’ve brought is that things were done better after I touched them. Gosh, that looks proud written out. But what I mean is that I became responsible for X, I learned how to do X, and then after grasping the basics I improved how we did X overall. Better documented, more consistent, better aligned with industry standards, took less time (or more time on key areas), etc.

            In other words: what did I achieve, not what was in my job description.

    3. PlainJane*

      I’ve also seen somewhat less-qualified applicants hired b/c they were recommended by someone whose opinion counted. Personal experience with a candidate can count for a lot – so depending on the status and reputation of the person recommending OP, that recommendation could carry a lot of weight.

      1. LilFidget*

        Also, candidly, I’ve made this call in situations where I can’t afford the kind of candidate I really need. Then I know I’m going to have to MAKE the candidate by hiring someone with less experience (EG, someone cheap) and building them up. It does happen, OP! But you might not get the salary you deserve.

  4. AndersonDarling*

    At my company, our philosophy is to hire good people and train them for their job. I would rather train someone on a task over training them on communication skills. As Alison said, I’d be prepared to answer questions about teamwork and work ethic.

    1. Just Another Techie*

      Same. Especially in junior or even early mid-career roles, especially because 1) no one comes out of college with the exact skills we need and 2) the only way to learn those skills is to work for either us or one of our competitors. So much better to pick someone teachable — although our managers don’t typically do the day to day coaching and training. Typically someone with ~5 years experience or so gets tagged to coach new hires, and that’s accounted for in our goals and expectations for the quarter. And then junior hires stay for at least a couple years, if not longer, and often manage to stay long enough to get promoted into more senior roles.

    2. Phoenix Programmer*

      Communication skills is totally coachable though! I use to be pretty abrasive in communication style due to my upbringing. I am incredibly intelligent and driven though and have saved companies 724,282,459 in seven years. Yes nearly a million a year!

      I finally got a manager who was willing to coach me bluntly on communication though. Now I am polished saver of millions. With your blanket approach you are likely passing over plenty of Star candidates who could eventually be polished too.

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        Ugh an edit button. Not great at my new phone yet. tbf median is closer to 1MM per year but average is 100MM per year due to one huge year with 680MM in savings and recovery through process gap analysis and reconciliation. ^^,

        1. Snark*

          That is a startlingly specific number. Do you keep it tallied in a little Excel doc you can refer to or something?

          1. Phoenix Programmer*

            I keep it updated in a summary on my resume. Each year during performance reviews I calculate a total for the year and I have made it a habit to update my resume during this time as well.

      2. Redux*

        The precision with which you quote that number delights me and simultaneously magnifies my surprise at how much the math simply does not work. 724,282,459 (dollars I suppose?) in seven years is two orders of magnitude away from your result of nearly a million a year, the correct number would be more favorable to you, and the number being divided by 7 already starts with 7, making the choice of a qualifier “nearly” a million a year just… confusing.

        1. Phoenix Programmer*

          Yes I managed to delete “hundred” in my comment. I am not great at typing on the phone yet.

    3. Mabel*

      I agree. I’m currently looking for a new job, and I am not worrying about the specifics of the software that is mentioned. You can teach me the software, but it’s not so easy to teach someone how to teach.

    4. OP*

      I guess my question for you would be, what levels of candidates do you hire for? The job I mentioned in my letter to Alison isn’t entry level, but I have found that a lot of “entry level” job postings in this field also ask for experience completing tasks that are hard to replicate outside of it — think reviewing specific kinds of contracts.

      1. Snark*

        That’s just the usual “we want to pay someone $35k, but we want midlevel experience and stellar references” BS a lot of employers started indulging themselves in during the recession. Employers haven’t all gotten the memo that unemployment is low and desperate mid-career layoffs aren’t so desperate as to apply for jobs that pay a step north of internships anymore.

  5. insert pun here*

    It also matters what the specific skills/tasks are. If they are something with more specificity to the company (maybe involving a proprietary system) then they are probably looking for someone who can learn it, not someone who knows it. If it’s more of a general skill, then maybe not. For example, I don’t expect the people I hire to know how to use our main database (I do expect them to understand, like, what a database is.) I do expect them to be able to write business correspondence — because that’s a general skill — even if they need some help on the specifics of our business, what terms to use, etc etc.

    1. OP*

      I would say that my skills in general professionalism, business communication, and understanding how my work could contribute to the larger system of an organization are topnotch, even if they’re geared for another field. So if they’ve been burned in the past by candidates with more experience reviewing specific kinds of permits who don’t know what to do with that knowledge, perhaps I’ll have a better hsot.

        1. Phoenix Programmer*

          Yes I just did that above. It’s so easy on the phone too. PC emails are way less full of typos for me.

      1. Jesca*

        Actually, this reminds me of my mom’s friend. She is president of this very prestigious consulting firm. The work the consultants to requires some level of chemistry understanding. They used to hire people with advanced degrees in these fields. They ended up finding that many of these employees, while understanding the science, were pretty terrible with every other aspect (customer interface, document submittals to the Feds, etc.). They changed gears realizing chem wasn’t as important as many other facets of the job. They restructured and redeveloped the roles.

        Now they company may not go as far as that, but I would definitely ask them what issues they have run into in the past with previous employees and then fit in your current skills in a way that would fill that gap!

        1. Kira*

          In our latest hiring round, we also re-evaluated the role and decided that communication skills (phone, warm personality, good listener, getting to the root of the question, ability to connect the dots and puzzle solve, clear writing) was more important than specific hard skills (years of industry experience, SQL, specific database experience, etc.) because we teach all staff the *necessary* hard skills within a few months anyway.

          We don’t really need someone who’s been using SQL every day for 10 years – we needed someone to be more of a coach/consultant/task master to keep clients on track.

  6. Justin*

    My best friend is going through this but without the humility. I want to force him to listen to Kendrick Lamar on loop.

    Because I think he could do fine, but the man has been unemployed for a long time, and even when he gets an interview, I suspect he is coming off prideful rather than the type of confident you want.

    He is not my child, so I can’t, like, fix this. But OP, good on you for seeking out said advice, and I wish you the best of luck. If you end up updating us I will send it to my friend and maybe his head won’t stay so hard.

    1. OP*

      I’ll certainly update you guys, though it’s just as likely that it will come in the form of an automated rejection letter. Good luck job searching to your friend!

  7. Anonymous Educator*

    Every time I’ve gotten a position I was underqualified for (on paper, at least), it was because of two things:

    1. A hiring manager was willing to take a chance on me.

    2. There was a relatively weak candidate pool.

    Every hiring manager wants to hire the best candidate. If you could get a candidate who has X, Y, and Z qualifications and experience, why wouldn’t you? But sometimes you don’t. Or sometimes you don’t have the budget to pay that person what she’s worth. There could be other factors that make the position undesirable to qualified applicants.

    Best of luck, OP!

    1. Diane Nguyen*

      I’ve landed several “reach” jobs because of weak hiring pools, which is mostly awesome BUT can backfire if the organization isn’t prepared to train you and help you grow into the role. If I could do it over, I probably wouldn’t take some of the stretch roles at companies that didn’t already have someone in a similar role. More than once I’ve shown up to do something I’ve never done before, and there’s nobody in the building who’s got any expertise on it either. They also didn’t/wouldn’t send me to seminars, conferences, etc. that might have helped me get up to speed. That’s not a recipe for success, in my experience.

      1. Koko*

        Yes, and you have to be careful how you leverage these jobs. In essence, at small cash-strapped companies you can get a title that’s beyond your experience for pay that is not. You should use your time in that role to absorb as many skills as you can and get as much experience as you can, but more likely than not you’re going to need to move on in a couple of years.

        If you stay too long, that low starting salary may have an outsized effect on your lifetime earning potential. While salary history is increasingly less determinative of future salary, there are still employers who base offers on your current salary, so an early low salary can have a ripple effect through successive job offers until you find an employer who doesn’t low-ball you that way. (And also consider things like the value of an extra 10 years worth of earnings on a 401k if you make enough to start saving for retirement in your 20s vs if you don’t and your small employer doesn’t even offer one.)

        The small shop that takes a chance on you gets your best work for a few years, but you can’t afford to give them your loyalty and sacrifice a lifetime of higher earnings.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          This is a great way to think about your career. I’ve alternated between more established companies that would give me the salary and smaller companies that would give me “reach” titles / experience, and it’s worked out pretty well for me so far. Some day I hope to end up at an established company with a great title, but that’s a long term plan.

  8. Murphy*

    I wasn’t involved in the hiring process, but a unit related to mine was having a hard time filling a role with people who had as much as experience as they would like (the area is fairly niche). So they reframed what they were looking for to find someone less experienced (though presumably with some needed qualifications) in order to mold them into what they needed. I don’t know what the two people hired in this way did in order to make themselves stand out, as it was the director of that unit who decided to change what they were looking for based on the applicant pool, but it is possible to be hired for looking manageable, even if you don’t have all the experience.

    1. Hellanon*

      I’m dealing with that now. Our research assistant just left, and I asked her & her director to work up a job description that captures what she does so we can use it as a base for hiring her replacement. The two of them filled it with all these obscure requirements, so much so that I figured it would actually serve to screen *out* any number of good candidates. There are a couple of bottom-line skills that we can’t (won’t) teach, like facility with MS Office and extreme attention to detail, but the specifics of what we do can be taught. Transferable skills, some experience transferring them, & mindset will get you far in life…

  9. Science!*

    Although in a different context, my husband went through this situation. It was in a serving industry, he applied to work as a server at a bar after the economic downturn. He’d never worked as a server ever, and was upfront about having no skills in that area (this was going to be a slightly high end place so they were looking for experienced people), but he went in to the interview with a really good attitude. Of the two people at the interview, one person loved him because he was willing to admit when he didn’t know things; the other person hated him because of the no experience. But he got hired and immediately went out to learn all he could about the industry. The person who liked him was excited to train someone from the bottom up instead of having someone experienced come in with bad habits that had to be trained out of.

    Three months later they promoted him to closing manager over the other more experienced bar tenders and 3 months after that he was made assistant manager of the bar. Even after he left (toxic owner though the rest of the employees were cool) his replacements were frequently told “Science! Husband did it this way, not that way.” (Not a good thing to do obviously, like I said, toxic owner)

    1. K.*

      My friend’s husband went through something similar. He’s a native Italian speaker who was laid off during the downturn, and while he’d never worked as a server before, he played up his “firsthand knowledge of the cuisine” and landed a serving job at a pretty high-end Italian restaurant. He busted his butt to learn and was able to learn the skills needed to succeed as a server in THAT restaurant. He was there six months before he left for a job in his field (totally unrelated to the service industry), and did very well.

  10. Diane Nguyen*

    I didn’t write this letter, but I absolutely could have. I’ve been salivating over a role that I know I could be really good at — but only with some coaching and instruction. I totally get the part about humility and realizing that there’s much to learn (which is good! I want to learn!), but as a woman I’ve also been trying to be more confident and not obscure my talents with modesty. Is there a good way to balance these two things? How do I say “I sure as heck don’t know everything, but I’m really smart”?

    1. PlainJane*

      I sometimes struggle with this too, but I generally handle it by sticking to the facts (no puffery!) and thoughtful extrapolation. So I’ll state what I’ve actually done and, if it isn’t obvious, what skills and abilities that demonstrates. So if I managed a small project in a somewhat related area, I’ll say that, then I’ll indicate what it took to do that successfully–communicating with people across functional areas, organizing tasks and people, etc. (that’s a superficial example, but hopefully you get the idea). Being matter-of-fact about what you’ve accomplished and what those accomplishments demonstrate isn’t bragging; it’s honesty.

    2. FD*

      I find that the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) approach helps! Instead of talking about your attributes in general, you can talk about a time you succeeded in doing a thing.

      So for example, “I’ve had a lot of experience in being asked to figure out complex problems without much guidance. For example, at Stark Enterprises, there were a lot of tenants in the building, and no one really knew when leases were up, or needed increases. I was given a big filing cabinet of documents and told to figure it out. I sorted them all out by tenant and read through each one to understand its terms, and then made a master Excel sheet to keep track of it. As a result, we were able to notify tenants whose leases needed to be renegotiated, anticipate upcoming move-outs, and start filling vacant spaces.”

      If you use a story like this, you’re not just saying “Oh, I’m great at problem solving.” You’re saying “I’ve done a lot of problems solving, and I am giving you proof that I’m good at it through the results I got.”

      1. ms-dos efx*

        Yes! A friend told me years ago about the STAR approach and it was hands down the best and most useful piece of interviewing advice I’ve ever received. Now that I’ve been in the hiring manager’s shoes a couple times, I realize how uncommon it is for people to be as focused, specific, and relevant in their responses as someone using the STAR approach would be.

    3. LilFidget*

      I try to emphasize the parts I would be really great at, without obscuring the parts that I would need assistance with (I don’t actually want to oversell myself as an expert in something and then disappoint them!). But with a “fair and balanced” perspective, and an example of a time I learned on-the-job quickly, I can usually sell people. (“she’s not the most X, but I really liked her approach to Y”). Remember that the hiring person likely doesn’t have the time to teach you, and that’s what’s turning them off, whereas OP’s perspective that they want to spend that time was a little off to me. They may be willing to take a chance on you gaining those skills they need IF it’s not going to require THEM to spend hours and hours training you up.

    4. Koko*

      I think the humility is about acknowledging that you don’t have specific knowledge or experience, whereas your confidence comes from skills that you *do* have, such as the ability to learn quickly. Saying, “This would be brand new to me, but I’ve typically been able to pick up new software quickly – we used a different one at each of my last three jobs, and in the last two places I became everyone’s go-to for help using the software. With a little bit of orientation I’m sure I’d be able to pick up yours,” is both humble about what you don’t know – their specific software – but confident about what you do possess – an innate facility with software.

  11. ms-dos efx*

    It may seem like common sense stuff, but what are some examples of ways a relatively junior person can demonstrate courtesy and consideration for others? I have a feeling I may sometimes be unintentionally lacking in this department.

    1. Fake old Converse shoes*

      Something like “unfortunately I don’t know as much of technology X as I wanted, but in [past job] we used Y and Z with case A and case B”?

    2. PlainJane*

      Asking for advice and respecting expertise, asking others how they would like to approach a problem or work together, asking why something is done a certain way–but making it clear that you’re asking to understand, not to challenge. That last one used to trip me up when I was a junior person. I’d ask why we did such-and-such, and senior people would interpret that as challenging them, when in reality I just wanted to understand. So I started saying things like, “Since I’m new here, could you share with me how this process was developed? I’d like to understand it better.” That defused lots of tension.

    3. FD*

      Lots of little things. A few examples:

      1. Make small talk but then make an effort to remember it later. For instance, if a coworker says they’re watching their kid’s soccer game this weekend, ask them how it went on Monday.

      2. Do small kindnesses. Give people their printing if you’re headed back that way. Be the one who reaches down to pick up keys/pens/whatever when people drop it. Hold the elevator.

      3. THANK PEOPLE WHO HELP YOU. It should be sincere, but not effusive. If someone takes time to show you something new, thank them. If your manager is a great boss, let them know that you appreciate working with them.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      So I think the first two answers above are more about demonstrating humility (which is important too!), but what I meant by courtesy and consideration for others is stuff like going out of your way to make it easy for people to get you stuff you need, thanking people, being thoughtful about how you might be impacting other people (so, for example, not making an unnecessarily loud phone call in an area where other people are working), paying attention in meetings even if it doesn’t directly concern you, generally looking for ways to make other people’s lives easier and more pleasant ….

      A lot of it is about basic good manners, just ramped up a notch (without crossing over into obsequiousness).

    5. Liane*

      A classic ( not just for junior levels) is Treat *Everyone* Courteously, because it is right. Also you don’t know who might be at the front desk, or answering the phone, or just walking by. You also don’t know if the hiring manager is one of those wise people who asks the receptionist and security guard about interviewees–and notes how you talked to the waiter/barista if it was over lunch or coffee.

    6. LilFidget*

      To me, it’s also about how they answer my questions. Are they thoughtful in their responses, of course, but also – do they watch for reactions from the room? Do they rephrase if they detect that someone might be confused? Do they check in with the questioner (“does that answer the question?” / “I want to make sure I’m not taking up too much time with this answer”) 0r are they blathering on and on without realizing they’re way off the mark / they’re wasting the interviewers time / the interviewer is bored? Sometimes because an interview is so short, it’s the smallest things.

    7. ms-dos efx*

      These are all fantastic suggestions, thank you! I’ve definitely picked up as many bad habits as good at my current job, it sounds like, so I’ve got some work to do.

    8. Koko*

      Being polite to admin staff and saying please and thank you to people at peer level.

      Giving people plenty of advance notice when you need something from them if at all possible, instead of expecting them to drop what they’re doing and turn something around for you as top priority. Plan ahead to be respectful of people’s time and workload.

      Sharing resources. If you need to monopolize the printer for 45 minutes for a 4,000-page document print job, give people a warning so they can print anything they might need to before you get started. Be collaborative rather than competitive. If you and a colleague both need to use a shared resources to meet your individual goals, approach the situation from the standpoint of genuinely wanting your coworker to succeed and seeking out a compromise on the use of shared resources that allows both of you to meet your goals, even if it’s not the most favorable option for you personally. Usually there’s a way for both people to get some form of what they want, and it will pay off in the long run when your colleague is willing to compromise for you, too.

      Acknowledge the work that others do. When someone does something that’s helpful for you, or makes a good point in a meeting, say so. Say, “Thanks to Wakeen’s help building out the prototype, I’ve collected over 2,000 pre-orders for our new model,” or, “Thanks for pointing that out, Sally, that’s really helpful for me to know.”

  12. KatieKate*

    For my first “real” job, I was totally a hire for potential. My manager late admitted to me that she was hesitant about the hire, but she was glad our boss chose me. Sometimes it happens! Best of luck P{!

  13. FD*

    OP, I’ve actually gotten a couple of roles that I had no experience doing, one internal and one external. Here are some key factors that helped me.

    1) I was able to show that I’m really good at teaching myself new skills. For example, in a previous role, I had mastered the POS system (which was notorious for being fussy and difficult to learn), and had become the onsite expert in it, which saved the company hundreds and possibly thousands by letting them avoid most support calls.

    2) I was able to show that even in entry-level jobs, I was a consistently high performer. This included things like having consistently high marks in a secret shopper program and having copies of guest comment cards praising me.

    3) I showed that I had some idea of how I would approach the role. For example, I did a 30-60-90 day plan to describe how I thought I’d approach the work, based on information they had shared.

    4) I was enthusiastic about the opportunity, and was able to talk about times in other roles when I’d taken on new projects and succeeded in them. (These were small scale projects, like re-designing a checklist for the hotel I worked at, but still showed that I could figure things out on my own without having my hand held.)

  14. LBK*

    For me it’s usually a balance – I don’t want someone who’s completely fresh no matter how great their attitude is because I need to have evidence that your brain works in the right way to do the kind of work my team does, which I think is just as much of an intangible/unteachable skill as “soft” skills (a term I hate since I think it devalues the importance of non-technical talents, but that’s another story). But I have absolutely recommended we hire people who seemed like they had the right mindset and thought process over people who had more hard experience but seemed like a nightmare to work with. If I can barely drag you through a half hour interview where all you have to talk about is yourself, I’m not champing at the bit to have to collaborate with you on much more complex and nuanced discussions.

    1. Diane Nguyen*

      This hits on something I’ve been thinking about a lot: How can I show that I have the right way of thinking for a role when I don’t have evidence that I’ve performed the tasks before? It sounds like you’re good at sussing that out. What do you look for in hires like this? Are there specific questions you like to ask?

      1. Daffodil*

        In the IT world you can sometimes get at this by trying to discuss concepts that are new to the interviewee. For example, if I ask an interview question about mesh networks, and it turns out the applicant has never heard of that before, I might explain that instead of a conventional network – where you have one ‘master’ piece of hardware that talks to a bunch of subordinate pieces – a mesh network has pieces that are all the same size and all talk to each other equally. Someone who thinks the right way for tech and has some general background knowledge will be able to grasp what that means and start imagining its implications and be able to ask good questions about the pros and cons of having a network that operates that way. Someone who gives me a blank stare, not so much.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          I like your approach, because it (doesn’t have to be mesh networking—it could be anything the candidate is currently unfamiliar with) really does show you how the candidate embraces change and can apply problem-solving skills to new situations. Tech is ever-changing, so knowledge can get you pretty far, but adaptability and the ability to learn and take advantage of new tools will get you even farther.

      2. LBK*

        I’m sure it varies depending on the role but I’m in business intelligence, so typically I have people talk about processes or systems they created/improved, since that shows someone who can build a mental database of information and see gaps between that information and the business needs. It also shows they can grasp the purpose of a task rather than just the steps, which is really important for handling ad hoc requests that won’t have a procedure available. Having people talk through problems they’ve solved also helps.

  15. MK*

    OP, I don’t really think you should be aiming at say “this person would take a lot of managing, but it’d be a worthwhile pleasure to bring them up to speed”. Responsible managers don’t hire with their own pleasure in mind; being a formative influence to a potentially great worker is a great thing when it happens to occur, but it’s not really a goal when hiring.

    Try for “this person would take a lot of managing, but they will bring X alternative benefit to the job/have Y spectacular quality”.

    1. OP*

      Good reframe – thanks! I’ll shift my thinking. That makes it much easier to see how a hiring manager would sort my candidacy into a list of pros and cons.

  16. alanna*

    This matters more in some fields than others, but one thing I look for when taking a chance on someone more junior is getting what we do (even if you haven’t done it). If you can say “I really love how Bob’s Teapots reinvented the pouring spout, and I’m a big believer in making teapots more steam-friendly, and here are some ways I think about these issues,” I might be more willing to hire you than someone who worked at Tim’s Teapots and knows all about teapot manufacturing, but cares less about the mission, vision, approach, etc., at my company.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        This can be great! Although do try to be careful – if you’re on the outside, it can be easy to make small slips on the lingo or the specifics that an insider would know immediately, and it really gives you away. I’ve seen it often in resumes I’m reviewing and it makes the candidate look extra naive (because they don’t know what you don’t know, but they’re trying to convince me they’re knowledgeable).

  17. Shauna*

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that some hiring managers can see connections that are not immediately obvious. I served on a hiring committee and the candidate seemed *completely* unqualified to me (she was very young, had a journalism background, and applying for a mid-level employer relations role, while other candidates had much more relevant direct experience). Someone else on the committee recognized that the determination journalists develop (following up with recalcitrant sources, etc) are totally relevant to employer relations, which requires tons of follow-up and relationship-building. Also the candidate had a gorgeous cover letter that made it clear she had put a lot of effort and thought into it. She got the offer, even though she really wasn’t the obvious choice. And she’s phenomenal – it was a great hire despite my major reservations.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      As an ex-journalist, this was something I played up when I moved fields – so much relationship building goes into cultivating sources and getting interviews.

  18. Daffodil*

    I was once asked to help interview a guy who was very underqualified for the job, but it was a favor to the CEO. He didn’t have the technical skills we needed, but it turned out the CEO knew what he was doing when he recommended him. We all walked out of the interview going “wow, we can’t use him in this job, but I’d really like to work with that guy.” A few months later we opened up a new position that didn’t require as many technical skills, and hired him immediately.

    Moral of the story, go to the interview, show what you can do, and even if you’re wildly underqualified for this job, it may put your resume on the top of the stack for other jobs there.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Oh, yes, that’s a good point. For my first real full-time job, I applied for an advertised reach (which required 3-5 years’ teaching experience I didn’t have at the time), and that same school ended up offering me a non-advertised position that cobbled together. So, yeah, just because you’re not “qualified” for the job you’re interviewing for doesn’t mean the interview (or application) couldn’t lead to something else.

    2. Mad Baggins*

      This is exactly what I’m experiencing. I’m trying to make the jump to Teapot Painter, but every time the interviewer asks, “Hey have you thought about Ceramic Consultant? Or Teapot Marketing? Or Brew Tester?” YES and I’m sick of it, that’s why I just want to sit and paint teapots all day!

      But really it’s an honor to have other doors opened for me, and gives me good feedback about how my personality is coming across in interviews! Like you said, it’s always worth a shot.

  19. NW Mossy*

    I’m actually in an inverted version of this scenario, where I manage an employee who was hired (not by me) on the basis of “OMG, you’ve done this exact niche thing before!!!” On paper, this was totally the right move, but in practice, it’s been a total mess. The best analogy I can come up with is if you hired someone for a French/English translation role on the basis of a great track record translating things, but ignored that your candidate doesn’t read/speak either language.

    My industry is one where effectively no one goes to college for it specifically and basically all learning is on-the-job. People who are curious, learn quickly, and have strong critical thinking/big picture visualization skills are highly prized, regardless of what past work experience they have that demonstrates that.

  20. Samata*

    OP, I was hired for a job outside of my field based on a referral. If I had applied they would have never called me in based on my resume. In fact, I later learned they only brought me in as a courtesy, never expecting me to get fast-tracked through my first interview and not get any further in the process.

    But our face-to-face meeting revealed I was using many of the same skills in my current field, just with a different type of product; instead of representing, hosting guests and conducting tours of Tiger Farms I was doing the same with Prairie Dog Farms. Because they thought of Prairie Dogs as a less difficult and unprofessional industry, they thought I would not be equipped for the job. It took a conversation to understand.

    Most recently, I changed to a completely unrelated field and was able to use the skills from the 2 previous jobs to get a nice bump in salary. The fields couldn’t be more different, but the basic skills necessary to be successful are the same – work well with a few team members while largely independent most of the year, be a true champion for the department, use credible scientific research as reference sources to create content and build programs from scratch, and understand the importance of confidentiality. And be nice to people, because you have to deliver bad news often.

    Good luck!

  21. Essie*

    Also keep in mind that there are some industries in which a new employee will always be starting (somewhat) from scratch. If the position will involve extensive development of intellectual property (product invention, coding, et cetera) then chances are that unless you already worked for a direct competitor who had shady reverse engineering practices, you’ll have to learn on the job. In those types of interviews, even an older/experienced worker can only demonstrate a pattern of ability to learn quickly through previous proprietary work.

  22. Stellaaaaa*

    I recently went through this – I had a strong referral for a job that was right up my alley but required a few specific things that I lacked experience in. It didn’t work out and in retrospect there were a lot of red flags with the CEO so it’s no great loss. If you want to be told that you’ll definitely get your dream job because a reference outweighs your proven capabilities, well I won’t say that. I will tell you that there’s no harm in interviewing and just seeing what happens. You didn’t even know this job existed a month (or whatever) ago. Your life won’t end if you don’t get hired.

    I was just hired at a national organization that has trouble keeping people long-term. It’s just the nature of the work. It doesn’t pay well but it looks awesome on your resume and they’ll always approve transfers or rehire good former employees. People with certifications and experience always leave when they get an offer for the job they actually went to school for. The org would rather hire staff with good people skills who can be trained up, in the hopes that they’ll last two years.

  23. lamuella*

    One thing to watch out for – and I’m going to try and stay as positive as possible here – is that the more people who are applying for a job, the harder hiring managers are going to be during their first round exclusion criteria.

    I hired for a professional position last year, one that had an essential qualification requirement, an essential experience requirement, and a desirable experience requirement. We were anticipating around 15 applications for the job and ended up getting closer to sixty. At that level, we had to be quite hard on applicants even to put together a long list. We ended up not only excluding those without the essential requirement but also not interviewing a number of people who technically met the requirements, because we had other applicants who met the desirable requirement better. You might find yourself removed from consideration before you have a chance to shine at interview.

    Hopefully not, and hopefully you get a chance to properly make your case.

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