Marcelle Yeager, president of Career Valet LLC, a career-consulting service based in the Washington, DC, area. She is a certified professional résumé writer. CareerValet.com.
Bottom Line: Here are steps you can take to win over employers who are wary of overqualified candidates
Are you looking for a job that offers better work/life balance than your current position? Do you miss the days when you managed projects, not people? Are you trying to return to the workforce after years away? In situations such as these, it might make sense to apply for jobs that represent a step backward on the career ladder.
The challenge: Many employers are hesitant to hire overqualified applicants. They assume that these applicants won’t accept the salary being offered…won’t be happy in the role…are taking the position only as a stopgap until something better comes along…and/or that they didn’t read the job description closely and are misunderstanding the opening.
Here’s how to maximize your odds of landing a job for which you are overqualified…
Align the “executive summary” at the top of your résumé with the “required qualifications” that are listed in the job posting. (The first few qualifications listed in the posting usually are the ones the employer considers most important.) This may require some modifications.
Example: You’re applying to be a salesperson, a role that you held for years before becoming a vice president of sales a decade earlier. If the first requirement listed in the job posting is “five-plus years of sales experience,” the first line of your executive summary should stress your extensive sales experience—without mentioning that this experience occurred some time ago. Remove references to your executive role from the executive summary unless the job posting requests leadership experience.
Add a sentence to your executive summary that explains why you want this job. Examples: “Seeking to return to handling clients rather than leading teams.” Or alternatively, “Seeking a role that will allow me to contribute to the local community,” if applicable.
Even if it’s true, do not write that your goal is to improve your work/life balance. Instead, come up with another plausible explanation why you would want the position. Mentioning work/life balance can scare employers into thinking that you don’t intend to put your full effort into the job.
Lower in your résumé, when you list and describe past positions held, stress the aspect of each job most relevant to the position you are applying for—perhaps you continued to handle a few of the company’s key clients directly even after you were promoted to the executive team, for example. Downplay the aspects of the position that make you seem overqualified as much as you can without lying about your role or title. One way to do this is to remove the specifics.
Example: Rather than write that you managed a division with 20 employees, write that you “led a team.”
Your cover letter is the ideal opportunity to address the overqualification issue head on. You must make a compelling case that you are drawn to this job, not simply settling for it. Research the company, its direction, its sector and its corporate culture—what makes you want to work for this employer? In this role? If the job represents a career or sector change for you, what about this new path appeals to you?
This can be tricky if the truth is that you’re applying for the position only because you need a job and this is all that’s available, but it’s crucial you come up with something convincing. If you don’t, your odds of even getting an interview are low.
Warning: If your goal is to use this job to get your foot in the door with a desirable employer and then quickly earn a promotion to a better position there, do not mention this in your cover letter. The company is trying to fill a particular role and almost certainly wants to hire someone who will be content in that role, at least for a while.
Be ready for questions related to your overqualification during the interview, such as…
Will you be happy being part of a team when you used to manage one? Respond that you’ve learned that your passion is doing the work, not managing people. Add an anecdote from your career that shows how effective you were being a team member.
We can’t match what you’re currently making—why would you take so much less? Respond that you understand this and that maximizing your salary is not your top career priority.
Will it bother you to work for someone younger than you? If possible, respond that you’ve worked for younger bosses before and that it has never been a problem. If you have never worked for a younger boss, say that you’ve worked on teams led by younger colleagues…worked for younger clients…or, if none of that applies, that you’ve worked closely with younger colleagues. Add some details or an anecdote that shows how much you respect this younger boss, client or colleague and how well you worked together.
Why are you applying for this job when you’re clearly overqualified? Some interviewers come right out and ask the overqualification question directly. Respond by stressing the positive aspects of the position that you mentioned in your cover letter, as described above.
Answering questions well is not the only goal during an interview. Also try to turn the interview into a two-way conversation by asking questions about the position and the employer. Including specific details in your questions makes you sound truly interested in the position, helping to overcome the interviewer’s fears that you are just searching for a stopgap job until something better comes along or that you will be frustrated at a lower level.
Examples: Ask what your day-to-day work would be like…about the people you would be working with…and about the corporate culture. Ask the interviewer how long he/she has been with the company and what he thinks about some specific aspect of it. (This personal question can help build a personal connection with the interviewer.)
Listen closely to the interviewer’s answers to your questions, and respond to these answers with comments that reinforce that you will fit in and are appropriate for the job despite overqualification. Example: When the interviewer describes the day-to-day work that the position entails, select some aspect of this work and stress that that is precisely what you’ve been searching for.