What to Do if You’re “Overqualified” for a Job

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There are few things more frustrating than being turned down for a position you want because you’re overqualified. Not only did your perfect resume not land you the job—it may have been your undoing!

The sting of rejection is never fun. But being told you’re “overqualified” can still offer a better understanding of how hiring managers see your application, as well as guide your priorities for future applications.

The designation of “overqualified” isn’t always so cut-and-dry, though. We’ve broken down a few common scenarios to help you better understand what hiring managers really mean when they use the term—and what (if anything) you can do to convince them you’re still a good fit for the role.

1. What they really mean: “We worry that you may get bored.”

If a job description states that a position is entry-level, then someone with a master’s degree and five years of experience will almost certainly be labeled as overqualified. If you notice the hiring manager bringing up this kind of mismatch in the interview, they may worry that you won’t find the work very interesting or challenging.

What you can do: In this case, you should probably take the employer at their word. While it may be tempting to apply for an entry-level position to get your foot in the door at a respected organization, you’ll likely be wasting your time. Hiring managers are trying to find someone who will want to grow in a position, and stick around long enough to make all the onboarding and training worth it for the team. So unless you’re making a major career shift that requires a completely different skill set (e.g. changing from a communications job to a statistical analysis role), you should stick to applying for positions that align with your experience level.

2. What they really mean: “You’re too expensive for us.”

Discussing salary can be particularly tricky in the social-impact field, where tight budgets are often further restricted by grant stipulations or spending limits. The organization you’ve applied to might not have much flexibility for salary negotiations, even if you’re a perfect fit. If you’re switching from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, a history of high salaries may serve to intimidate hiring managers.

What you can do: We’d never recommend that you sell yourself short when it comes to salary negotiations. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you should be compensated accordingly! But when applying to a new position, it’s always advisable do your research on salary survey sites to make sure you know what to expect.

If getting your dream job requires you to take a pay cut, first consider whether it’s worth it—and then adjust your salary requirements accordingly. Especially if the organization offers good benefits (like subsidies for education, extra vacation time, or a good retirement plan), you may be able to negotiate on more than just take-home pay. 

When you talk with a recruiter, make it clear that you have some room to negotiate. If they ask you about your salary requirements, you can say:

“I expect to earn between [$XX,XXX] and [$XX,XXX], but I’ve heard that you offer a great benefits package—I’d like to talk about salary in more detail once I have a clearer understanding of the benefits you offer.”

3. What they really mean: “We don’t think you’ll like being managed.”

Perhaps you’re trying to make a move from managing a division at a small organization to a non-management position at a much larger one. If a potential employer sees “manager” in your title when you’re applying for an associate position, they may fear that you won’t take well to sitting lower on the proverbial organizational ladder.

What you can do: You know you’re not making a vertical move in terms of job title, so make that clear in your cover letter. You may write:

“I’m excited by the versatility that working with a larger team at [ORGANIZATION] would provide.”

If you move on to the interview stage, ask questions about the division structure. Be sure to emphasize that you’re looking forward to working within a team—not at the top of it.

***

Have you ever been told you’re “overqualified” for a position? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below.  

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Comments

    • T.R. Clark
    • May 24, 2019
    Reply

    I take them at their word. Realistically speaking, all of the above may, in fact, be true. I move on. I have proactively, remaining enthusiastic, tried a couple of your talking points in the past – didn’t change their viewpoints.

      • Elyse Franko
      • May 30, 2019
      Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. You make a great point: there are some situations in which a hiring manager’s mind just won’t be changed. These tips are intended to help job seekers (and especially sector switchers) preempt the “overqualification” discussion by showing some flexibility from the beginning — but you should always be prepared for the possibility that you’ll have to move on and find a better fit.

    • Tim
    • June 1, 2019
    Reply

    “You’re over qualified” is the most patronizing bunch of B.S. Anything that it translates to is my decision not theirs. But they take my decision away assuming that they’ll know what I would decide. It’s really insulting.

    Here’s what I’ve done:
    1. Try to smoke it out. At the end of every interview, the last question I ask is, “What hesitation do you still have about my candidacy?”
    2. If they say, “I think you may be overqualified.” I ask, “And how does that translate into job performance for you? What does that mean in action?”
    3. I’ve gotten two good answers – 1. I think you won’t accept the pay. And to that, I asked what the pay was; and, 2) I think the job will bore you, it’s beneath you. And when we talked that out, I agreed.

    But again, that judgment call is mine. A lot of companies take it away.

    • Theresa Danna
    • June 1, 2019
    Reply

    They never use the word “overqualified” because that would be illegal; it implies age discrimination. What they say is, “We found someone who is a better fit.” When pressed for specific reasons, they ignore you. The only strategies I’ve found to help are (1) dumbing down your resume (I removed my master’s degree and eliminated all but the last 10 years of job history) and (2) go through a temp agency (because as a contract worker, you assume all the risk). This gig economy situation is great for employers and awful for workers, but it is sometimes the only way experienced people can get their foot in the door.

    • Kelli
    • June 3, 2019
    Reply

    If I’m applying for a job I’m worried about for that reason, I’ll just leave a few big things off my resume and not let them know until after I get the job. I can always say “oh, I thought my graduate degree wasn’t relevant to this position.”

      • Elyse Franko
      • June 5, 2019
      Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Kelli! Do you find that the job is still a good fit for you even though you have a higher experience level?

    • HereInNJ
    • June 3, 2019
    Reply

    Fascinating. After months of resumes going in to black holes and HR people (who I’ve talked to or even been interviewed by) not having the courtesy to respond to an email, I’ve cut my resume and am ‘dumbing down’ my cover letters. Curious to see if it’s beneficial after spending time and energy crafting letters that clearly state how my previous experience fits with the job they’ve posted.

      • Elyse Franko
      • June 5, 2019
      Reply

      Sorry to hear that you’re feeling the need to “dumb down” your applications these days — the online application process can be very discouraging due to that “black hole” factor. Feel free to check back in here and let us know how your new approach works out for you!

  1. Reply

    3 years ago i finished my PhD and started applying for jobs in government. I would conservatively estimate i received at least 20 “you’re over-qualified” rejection type notices, even though i had no full-time non-academic job experience or high salaries from past employers to stand in my way.

    In my experience, the rejection had more to do with the “risk” associated with hiring someone far from the traditional candidate – easier in-house hires guarantee… lower assimilation times, reduced risk of conflict as they understand the work environment, acceptance of existing hierarchical structures, organizational pace, etc.

    Just know you are “worth the risk,” and those willing to take a chance will be handsomely rewarded.

      • Elyse Franko
      • June 5, 2019
      Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Mark. Would you say that this lack of “risk-taking” is more common in the government jobs you applied to than in other organizations in the social-impact field?

    • Annie
    • June 13, 2019
    Reply

    I was recently terminated from a job, after I asked for a raise. I realize now that accepting and valuing my worth is essential to listen to before diving into a job. After a month on the job, they realized I was overqualified and could not meet my pay requests. Therefore, they decided it was best to not continue, and I agreed. Moving forward, I’m not going to settle for less because I know the value of the work I can contribute and that needs to be compensated.

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