When you're applying for jobs, being told that you're being dismissed because you're "overqualified" for a job you know you could do well is incredibly frustrating. After all, having higher qualifications than what a job requires should be a good thing, shouldn't it? To job seekers, being told they're overqualified can feel like being told by a date that they're too funny or good-looking – and leaves them wondering why it's a deal-breaker.
So why is being overqualified so often seen as a bad thing? It's understandable to be rejected if you're not qualified enough, but what's the concern about the overqualified?
When hiring managers label job candidates overqualified, here's what they are thinking.
1. We can't pay you enough. Employers will often assume that if you have more experience or education than the job requires, your salary expectations are probably higher than the role pays too.
2. You don't really understand what the job is. Hiring managers will worry that in your quest to get hired somewhere, you're being overly optimistic about what the work will be like – for instance, that you think you'll be doing high-level office administration when what they need is someone to run the front desk. Or that the ad might say data entry, but you assume that surely you'll be able to quickly prove yourself and take on more interesting work – when they really just need someone who will do data entry and be happy with it. Related to that…
3. If you take this job, you'll be bored. Hiring managers often think that someone who used to do higher-level or more interesting work can't possibly be happy with less challenging responsibilities, and they assume that you'll quickly get bored, then frustrated and then want to leave.
4. You won't be happy working for a manager with less experience than you. If you have significantly more experience than the hiring manager, she may worry that you won't be happy or comfortable taking direction from her, and that you'll think you know better. What's more, if the hiring manager isn't entirely secure in her skills, she might worry that you do know better and that you'll be judging her decisions – which can lead to her passing on your candidacy altogether.
5. You'll leave as soon as something better comes around. Because hiring managers often can't understand why someone would want a lower position than what his or her background might qualify him or her for, they often assume that you're only interested in the job because you're feeling desperate. They figure you'll take it for the paycheck, but that you'll leave as soon as something more suited to your background comes along.
So what do you do if you're hearing that you're overqualified for jobs you actually want? The best thing you can do is to understand the concerns above and address them head-on. You can do that by explaining why you're genuinely interested in the position. For instance, you might explain that while your kids are in school, you want a job with stable hours that doesn't require the level of responsibility you've had in the past – or whatever is really true for you. (And that's key – it needs to ring true for you; don't make something up.)
If you know hiring managers are likely to worry about your salary expectations, you can also say explicitly that you're clear about the lower pay that comes with the position, and that it's fine with you.
Ideally, you'd address this in the cover letter, to avoid having your application discarded before you've even had an interview. But once you get to the interview stage, be prepared to discuss it again, and probably in more detail.
Overall, the idea is to understand what worries managers about overqualified candidates and address their concerns head-on, proactively and genuinely.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.