Tips for Applying for a Job When You're Overqualified

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Is there anything that feels more unfair than being overqualified for a job? Why should you be penalized for being too good? What should you do if you really want a job but are concerned the employer will think you’d be a better fit for a higher-level position? If you think about it from an employer's perspective, it makes sense. An overqualified candidate may not want to linger long at a position, and employers need to avoid turnover.

Employers look for candidates who are a good match for the job, and if your credentials show you're overqualified, you may not be considered for the role.

In the writing below, learn why employers avoid hiring overqualified candidates, how to adjust your resume to demonstrate you're interested in the position over the long haul, how to tailor your cover letter, and tips for responding to interview questions.

Why Being Overqualified is a Problem

Here are some reasons why employers shy away from hiring candidates who appear overqualified:

  • They're worried you'll be bored: Companies want to hire people who will stick around and who generally enjoy their day-to-day work. If you're overqualified, hiring managers may be concerned that you'll get bored and leave for an opportunity that uses your full talents. They may also be concerned that you won't be interested in doing the level of work the position entails.
  • They're concerned it will be only temporary: If you've been unemployed for long enough, employers may think you just want to get a job—any job—on your resume, and that the position is intended to parlay you into another job that you're better suited for. As with the concern about boredom, here employers' main worry is that you only want the job as a stepping-stone to something better. 
  • They're unsure you'll be able to take direction: Another reason employers may avoid hiring your for being overqualified for positions that don't match your experience level is that you may struggle to take direction from people who are less qualified on paper.
  • They're nervous the pay won't match your needs: Part of an employer's concern may be that you will want a salary which matches your experience level—and is well above the range in place for the job.

Tips for Your Resume

Your resume tells the story of your career. While you should never lie on your resume, it's permissible to leave off jobs and generally paint yourself as a candidate who is right for the job. Here are some suggestions for resume strategies that will make you look appropriately qualified for a position.

Make it tailored: As with any job application, if you're overqualified, you should make sure your resume focuses on how your experience matches the job you want. Don't delve into experience and qualifications that go beyond the company's needs for the position. Include qualifications that are the strongest match to the job, and consider what you might leave off your resume in order for it to be a better match.

Leave off advanced degrees: You don't need to list every degree you hold. Leave off the post-college degrees if you think they're unnecessary to get the position you want. You don't need to advertise the fact that you have more credentials than the employer is looking for. You also don’t want the employer to expect that you’ll require a higher salary because of your degree.

Leave dates off your education: There's no need to include graduation dates for when you attended university on your resume. Dates advertise how old you are, and your age can indicate that you're overqualified for an entry-level position.

Remove some jobs: You're not required to list every position you've held. You can remove jobs from your resume that make you look overqualified; just be aware that doing so may make companies wonder what you did during those blocks of time. Be prepared to explain during a job interview.

Go functional: Resumes can be formatted in all sorts of ways, from functional (which is an achievement and skill-based format) to chronological (which lists jobs by when they were held). A functional resume can help reduce the impact of your most recently held title and responsibilities. Assemble a functional or combination resume around the position you desire. 

Put the summary or objective sections to use: This is the best spot—aside from the cover letter—to tell your story. Here are tips for taking advantage of this section when you're overqualified:

  • Put the title of the position you want in your objective section.
  • Explain in the summary that you're looking to transition to a new career. This can show why you'd take a position below your experience level.
  • Avoid lofty language and skip details about how long you've worked and your strong expertise.
  • Explain your career arc in a way that makes it clear why you'd take a lower-level position; perhaps you're in a field where promotions have led you to management-level positions and away from doing the work you actually enjoy.

Deemphasize titles: Typically, job descriptions on a resume put the title in a place of prominence, but that doesn't have to be the case. You could put the company name on the top line and list titles below.

Use simple language: In general, the advice is to punch up language and use powerful words to convey how much responsibility and leadership experience you have. If you're concerned about looking overqualified, dial down your language and keep it simple.

Instead of, "Spearheaded a transition to a new accounting system" you can say you, "Helped manage a transition to a new accounting system." 

Use Your Cover Letter to Explain

Your resume is just one part of your application package. Use your cover letter to show why the job is right for you, even if you could be doing something at a higher level. There are many reasons why you could be looking for a career shift at this time. Perhaps you're retired but want to maintain a connection to the industry. Maybe you have a personal passion for the position or company or you want to return to more hands-on work in the field and leave management behind.

Use your cover letter to give details on your motivations and show how you'd be a good candidate. 

Discuss Being Overqualified During an Interview

During interviews, if the topic of being overqualified comes up, ask for specifics about why the interviewer has that concern; this will allow you to give the best possible response. After all, your interviewer may think you're overqualified because you have a graduate-level degree, not realizing it's in an unrelated field. Take some time to prepare your response to questions about being overqualified, so you’re ready to answer.

Above all, don’t get discouraged if you keep getting turned down for jobs because of being overqualified. With changes to your resume, cover letter, and interview responses you can get past this obstacle.