Tips for job hunters: how to address overqualification.
“How can I avoid rejection based on overqualification?”
I have heard this question so many times.
I decided I will look into this matter once, and hopefully, there won’t be a need to revisit this (at least for some time).
Let’s start by stating that Overqualification is an employment barrier.
Now as a barrier, Overqualification has two elements to it, or should we call them its possible origins — one origin is objective and another one is subjective.
The Objective Origin of Overqualification implies that the candidate has objectively accumulated skills and experiences that are way above the requirements that the position entails.
The Subjective Origin of Overqualificaiton is the subjective perception of the candidate by the hiring party, namely their concerns about the fitness of the candidate for the role. This aspect is harder to control since it originates in the mind of the hiring manager.
To be effective in overcoming the overqualification obstacle you must address both of these origins.
Here are some practical steps that you can take to minimize the possibility of rejection.
Understand your motivation
The crucial part of job hunting is understanding yourself and being honest with yourself. Meditate on the following question:
Why are you applying for this position?
What exactly attracts you in the position you apply for? There are different answers to this question:
- Easier work. You are applying because you are not into working hard at this point in your life.
- Less stress.
- More control. You are willing to sacrifice working at a higher position to gain autonomy in your work life.
- This job is a temporary solution. You are applying to secure income and continue your job hunting activities for a better place.
- Promotion. You see securing this role as a stepping stone in a strategy of getting promoted fast.
Whatever your motivation is, the first step is always to understand it, as it will define your overall strategy to the job search. Whatever it might be, understand your Why.
Downgrade your resume.
Don’t try to oversell yourself. Examine the job requirements thoroughly and do your best to discern what exactly the employer is looking for in a perfect candidate. Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager. Ask yourself:
What kind of problems must a perfect candidate be able to solve?
Continuously iterate on your resume. Seek feedback.
Explore the availability of free employment services in your area. If those services are available to you, capitalize on the expertise of employment counselors. (e.g. JVS Toronto in Toronto).
Change the way you think about rejection.
Rejection is never personal. A hiring decision is made on the basis of qualifications and value that a candidate can deliver.
There is no reason to indulge in self-castigation. Nothing good ever comes from it. Instead, detach your ego from the process and meditate on what can be improved.
Understand that in many cases, employers reject the application not because you are not the right person for the job. The rejection decision results from the analysis of the information that you present to the employer.
If they don’t find the answers to the questions they have, or at least something that spikes their interest to pick up the phone and call you, they will discard your resume.
Job hunting is a type of sales.
You are “selling” your candidature for the role. You are offering your skills and knowledge in return to the resources that the company can give (money, benefits, environment, an opportunity to learn and grow professionally, a chance to be a part of a mission that is bigger than yourself.)
A resume is your marketing document.
Its purpose is to create a narrative in the mind if a hiring manager. “Narrative” is a great word because your resume is indeed a story of you and your previous life experiences.
If your resume fails to create a narrative that comes in alignment with the narrative of how the hiring manager sees the perfect candidate, your application will be rejected.
Hence the conclusion.
Rejection is often a result of the misrepresentation.
I had a client who was chosen after re-submission of a re-worked resume.
Clearly, there was nothing wrong with the candidate. The barrier to hiring was the wrong narrative that his initial resume had created. It is your job to make sure that your resume does not misrepresent you.
If your resume is a polished document, how can you further the positive narrative in the mind of an employer? Consider the following.
Explain yourself in a cover letter.
Regardless of what people say, employers do read cover letters.
Even for those that don’t, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If a hiring manager spends 30–40 seconds on a single resume, you can imagine that the time spent on your cover letter is also somewhere along these lines.
Be short. Be direct. And be done.
1 page. 400 words.
Write more and you will bore the reader.
Structure your cover letter. Huge blocks of text kill the interest. Use short and punchy paragraphs.
Think like a copywriter. Every paragraph must have a purpose.
Your cover letter must include 4 paragraphs:
- What you are professionally and how does it pertain to the position.
- A highlight of skills and achievements that prove that you are capable of performing the role.
- Why do you want to work for this company in particular? (This is the part where you address the employer’s concerns about overqualification.)
- Professional “thank you” and “I am attaching my resume for your consideration.”
Sign off. Name. Contact info.
Everyone claims to have “excellent written communication skills”. A beautifully written cover letter is evidence of those skills in itself.
Be professional in your writing but don’t be dry. Don’t be afraid to show your personality. Touch the mind of the reader, but try to touch the heart too if you can.
This is Copywriting 101.
A great copy evokes the desire to purchase not because the copy taps into the rational side of our mind and explains the great features of a product or service.
We are sold when we see the benefit. The decision to purchase originates in the emotion, it stems from how the copy makes us feel. The same principle works in cover letters and resumes.
Sell the benefits, not the features.
Now let’s focus a bit on paragraph 3 of your cover letter. To address the employer’s concerns we must first understand them. Hence, the next aspect of addressing overqualification is understanding the employer’s concerns.
Below are some of the reasons why an employer might think that a candidate is overqualified.
#1. They think that you will be bored and soon start to look for a transition to another company.
We feel at our best when the level of challenge at work is adequate to the level of our competence.
- If the level of challenge is much higher than our capacity we feel distressed
- If the level of challenge is much lower than the work we can perform we feel bored.
And that is the employer’s biggest concern.
Employers are worried that the level of the job that an employee must perform falls short of his level of competence. The result is boredom and all consequent problems (slacking off, poor quality of the work performed, looking for a transition to another company).
Hiring is a hard game. All employers want the same thing — they want to minimize risks associated with the onboarding of new employees.
Think like an employer. Nobody wants to spend time and resources to train a candidate just for the new hire to leave after 2 months.
What can you do to persuade the employer that the role is right for you and you are the right person for the role?
- Well again, we are going back to the starting point. Make sure that indeed, the job will not make you miserable after 2 weeks. Identify your targets, know where you stand, and what place does this role hold in your career strategy.
- If you decided to take the job, the best way to persuade the employer is to address the elephant in the room — your overqualification. Have an honest conversation about what can be perceived by the employer as a “mismatch” between the duties and tasks and your skills and qualifications. Learn how to persuade without being needy or pushy.
- Be creative and negotiate. You might be able to find some other tasks that you may assume in the process or post-probation period. Use your ability to perform those tasks as leverage.
- Be immensely likable. If you are already “in the room” and going through the interview. Ask yourself: “If they are looking for loyalty, how do I communicate loyalty? What words and what behavior should I display to instill their confidence in my retention and positive ROI ?”
- Be direct. “I understand your concerns and I am open to answer all your questions to address them.”
- Be honest. “I am a seasoned professional and I am not looking for a transition. All I need is a sense of stability drawn from work in a company with good people and a great mission.”
- Relate: “I know the pains of hiring first-hand. Retention is always a problem while hiring talent. It is hard to find loyal people who have integrity and work ethic. I can assure you that you don’t have to worry about me making a move, all these are my personal values I am living by.”
- Rationalize: “Your objective is to protect your investment. My objective is to work in a company where I would be able to produce a positive return on investment.”
#2. They think you are too expensive.
Accumulation of work experience, as well as previous career success, usually come with higher salary expectations.
How you can demolish this concern?
No one likes to overpay. But everyone is ready to pay fair money when they are able to clearly see what’s “the bang for their buck”.
Think about the following questions:
- What is your unique value proposition?
- What is the fair compensation for what you bring to the table?
- What are the industry standards?
- How much do people in this or similar roles earn in that company?
Express the interest in the company itself. Elaborate why this company, or this executive team, in particular, matches your interests and why hiring you will result in maximum return on investment for them.
#3. They think you are too old.
Now this one tricky, and the course of action to dismantle this concern will vary in any given situation.
In some cases, there will be an interview and you will feel that the interviewer is open-minded and flexible.
If that is the case, have an honest conversation. Think aloud and rationalize why hiring you is a more intelligent hiring decision. Work experience and skills are a deadly combination when it is mixed with the right attitude.
In other cases, you will feel that you failed the interview the moment you entered the room.
The truth is some companies will not hire you no matter how hard you try.
No one wants to talk about ageism but the reality is that we have to deal with it and other types of discrimination on a daily basis.
I know it from my experience in the industry.
As a workforce specialist (a.k.a. job developer) I would follow up after the interview to learn about the reason for rejection only to hear the excuse: “the candidate was not a culture fit.”
I know that in many cases is a fancy way of saying “the candidate is too old”.
The good news is you don’t want to be in the company that actively discriminates on the grounds of age in the first place. If discrimination happens at the interview stage, you can be well damn sure that nothing good awaits you down the road.
The fact that discrimination does take place brings us to the question:
“What can I do to minimize the probability of rejection on the grounds of age?”
And there is only one answer to that question.
Do your research.
Research thoroughly the culture of the company. There will be several things to focus on:
- What kind of mindset do they expect to see in a perfect candidate? In startups, for example everyone is wearing multiple hats. There will be no place for you there if you are carrying an outdated mindset that the scope of your responsibilities must be limited by what is outlined in the job description. You must be fast on your feet, flexible, and adaptable. That is the requirement of the new economy, not just an individually taken company.
- The moment you open your mouth — you expose to the potential employer what you will introduce to his company DNA should he decide to bring you on board. You have only one shot at a first impression. Make it count. You must prove that hiring you is a good investment.
- Dresscode. I am sure you understand how weird it is if you show up for the interview in a tuxedo and a bow tie in the company where everyone wears casual. Hence the same conclusion again — study the culture.
- Generation gap. Some millennial managers might feel uncomfortable managing baby-boomer employees. It can also be reciprocal— some people have trouble recognizing authority from someone who is one generation younger. It will all depend on how you will hold yourself on the interview, and how strong is the prejudice of the hiring manager in front of you.
What else should I do before the interview?
Understand the job.
A good question to think about:
Do they want someone to stay on the job and do the function, or they want someone who can assume greater responsibilities in less time?
Your actions must be adjusted accordingly.
Prepare for all kinds of why.
I can’t cover all the concerns that an employer might have because it will depend on the specificity of the company itself. This is something you must do.
Identify all possible concerns about your fitness and put your answers in writing.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Write them by hand several times if that’s what is needed to internalize them. The answers must flow from you naturally creating the impression that you speak casually without preparation.
Tap into your network.
If you were working in the country before don’t hesitate to leverage your network. It is always nice to have an advocate in the company you are applying for.
As a matter of fact, the higher is your ability to leverage your network, the less you need to rely on your resume and traditional application path.
If you are new to the country network like crazy and do the same. Build your personal brand, connect with people, reach out, and ask for help. Make people talk about you and the opportunities will start coming your way.
Optimize your LinkedIn profile.
Once I received a question from an elderly gentleman: “If I post a picture on LinkedIn — doesn’t it create grounds for discrimination? They will see that I am not a young man”.
Well, we are imperfect people in an imperfect world. As we have discussed, ageism has its precedents. But think about it. If you don’t upload a profile picture what is the downside of it?
- Profiles with no picture get less exposure on LinkedIn
- You raise questions about the authenticity of your profile hence decreased trust hence higher resistance while cold-connecting with people
- A professionally looking picture is a tool that can be used to your advantage
Now note, I said “professionally looking” not “professionally taken”. You don’t need to invest in a professional photographer or a studio to get a solid result.
Good lighting, proper clothing, a smartphone, and a photo-editing app — that is all you need nowadays. You can smoothen the skin, remove wrinkles and blemishes, lighten the dark circles, and whiten the teeth. (there are plenty of apps out there, I used Sweet Selfie).
It is not so important for an image to be accurate but obviously, do not overdo it. You don’t want to look like a freshly mummified individual. You should be recognizable, and the retouch of the picture must be close to unnoticeable.
Other content on LinkedIn tips here → #jobseekerslibrary on LinkedIn (how to write a headline, how to write an About section, how to create a LinkedIn banner.)
Let’s wrap it up.
- Age is just a number. Overcoming Overqualification is all about the narrative — the narrative you are able to create in the mind of the hiring manager.
- The foundation of your ability to create a narrative in someone’s mind lies in your own mental attitude.
- Identify your obstacles. Categorize them into objective and subjective.
- For subjective obstacles — see how you can reframe them. Polish your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile to make them ageism-resistant.
- For objective obstacles— do your research on the company and devise a strategy of how you can address those obstacles in the interview.
Thank you for reading this essay.
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