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5 Ways to Get Past ‘You’re Overqualified’

by “The Savvy Networker“, Liz Ryan

When you write career-advice columns as I do, it’s easy to get the idea that you’ve heard everything. Of course, as soon as I think that, along comes an email message from a reader to bust that notion apart. Here’s an email message I recently received:

Dear Liz,

A person at the Workforce Development Center told me to take my BA degree off my resume so as not to intimidate employers who don’t require a college degree. What do you think?

Thanks, Eliza

This is a new low–advising job-seekers to deny their hard-earned bachelor’s degrees! That advice, of course, is ridiculous. We don’t have to pretend to be less-well-educated versions of ourselves in order to get hired. We do need to spend a little time figuring out what the employer is looking for–what business problem lurks behind the job ad. Here are five ways to stay in the pipeline when you’re applying for jobs you could do in your sleep:

Address the need, not the requirements.
If a job ad asks for candidates with three years of experience, the last thing you want to do is to write, “I have 18 years of experience!” in your application or cover letter. Employers get skittish about highly qualified candidates because they fear these folks will bolt for a better opportunity at the first chance.

Improve your odds of getting an interview by addressing the business pain, instead of the listed requirements. In your cover letter, you can say, “I can only imagine that looking after dozens of suppliers and keeping on-time deliveries and supplier quality at a high level are constant priorities.” Let the manager know that you’ve slain his particular dragon before. That will help neutralize the fear that you’re too experienced to do well in the job.

Say why you’re interested.
If you’re actually looking to downshift in your career, for instance, or would trade a loftier title for a shorter commute, say so in your cover letter! “I’m especially interested in the job at Acme Explosives because I prefer startup energy to the huge corporations I’ve worked in for the past decade.” Be specific. If an employer sees a logical reason for you to prefer her job even though you’ve held bigger positions, that will help you get over the hump.

In the interview, talk about them.
Nothing is more appealing to an employer than to have a job-seeker talk about the company, rather than blather on about himself. “I’ve done blah-dee-blah-blah-blah” is hard to listen to for long, but “I’d love to know more about your purchasing process–how does it work?” is not. If you keep the focus on the job and use your brilliant questions to show your understanding of, and curiosity about, the organization, you’ll help allay fears that you’re just looking for a safe harbor until the dang recession blows over.

Probe for the pain.
Think about the most common obstacles you’ve run into when you’ve performed similar work, and ask your hiring manager about them. “A lot of companies run into supplier-quality issues–but maybe that’s not a problem for you?” is a great interview question. Most likely, the purchasing manager will say something like “No, we’ve got our share of that”–and then you can say, “I’d love to hear about it!” The more you learn about the pain, the more aptly you’ll be able to tailor your stories to let the manager know you’ve slain his most annoying dragons already.

Don’t make it about salary.
If you apply for jobs you could have done (or did do) 15 years ago, you’re not going to be able to hold out for a massive salary. One of an employer’s most understandable fears about hiring overqualified people is that they’ll walk in the door and ask for a salary bump a month later. Let the employer know that you’re game to grow with the company, if you are, and that there are things (flextime perhaps, or the ability to work from home sometimes) that trump dollars and cents. Keep the conversational flexible and problem-solve-y, and keep the focus on solving whatever problem the employer is facing.

If you’re asked, “Will you make a two-year commitment?” answer, “I will if you can do the same thing.” That is supremely reasonable. Employers need help, and you’ve got lots to offer. Don’t deny your education and your work history–change the conversation instead!