What to Do When You Hear You're 'Overqualified'

Henry Chong, a recruiter with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, speaks with military job seekers about career opportunities with his department at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii.
Henry Chong, a recruiter with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, speaks with military job seekers about career opportunities with his department at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, Oct. 19, 2016. (Christine Cabalo/U.S. Army photo)

When a recruiter or hiring manager says you're "overqualified" for the job, it's usually an indication of something else. Your skills, background and work history could indicate you are capable of much more than the job offers, and for that reason and others, employers reject your application.

What You Are Thinking

When you hear you are overqualified, you might naturally think that is a good thing. Why wouldn't a company want to hire someone who is capable of more than just the tasks at hand? Or if you were overqualified, wouldn't that give the employer more value for the salary of the lower position they are hiring for? You might reason the employer should jump at the opportunity to get more than they are paying for.

What the Employer Is Thinking

The employer, who views your resume or even interviews you for an open position and perceives that you are capable of higher-level work, have done higher-level work or likely want to secure a higher-level position, will be concerned. They will likely reject a candidate they perceive as "overqualified" because they fear:

  • You will be bored, unchallenged and uninspired in the job.
  • You do not understand the job you applied for, because your skills, background and goals do not align with the work needed.
  • You did not make it clear that you want the job or are willing to step backward in your job to grow with the firm.
  • You're too expensive.
  • You will leave as soon you find a better job, one that is more closely aligned with your background and goals.
  • You have an attitude. Someone coming in with more skills and training than is needed could bring a chip on their shoulder that they are better than others on the team.
  • You will try to take over and work at the level you are capable of, not what the company is hiring for.

What You Did Wrong

Most likely, when preparing your resume, completing the online application or preparing for the interview, you enthusiastically highlighted all of your notable career experiences. Maybe you exaggerated your abilities and talents a bit? Perhaps you stretched your experience to sound more impressive? Or maybe you have been working at a senior management level and did not make it clear that you'd be interested in taking a lower-ranked position?

Did you submit a cover letter with your resume and application? In that letter, you had an opportunity to state your desire for the job, qualifications suitable to the position and your goal to grow with the company.

In the interview, did you oversell yourself? You should make it clear to the interviewer what skills and abilities you bring to the position, ways you can add exceptional value to the position and goals of the company, and examples of how you work well with others. But if you oversell your management and leadership experience, passion for growing your career quickly or a desire to be in a high-profile position, you might talk yourself out of the job.

Can You Fix It?

If you repeatedly hear feedback that you are "overqualified," you should do your best to understand what the employer might mean. The recruiter or hiring manager might use that word to describe something else, as outlined above. Asking for feedback from the respondent will help you understand what you are doing that is sending the wrong impression.

Then deploy these tactics to create a better perception of your career goals:

  • Use your network. Recommendations and endorsements online help to show that you are a team player. Let others speak to your desire to build a career with a company, starting wherever the best position happens to be.
  • Use your online profiles to show you as well-rounded. Instead of only listing a select number of impressive accomplishments online, highlight positions and opportunities where you reinvented your skills, mentored others or started over in a position to add more value to the team or organization.
  • Highlight volunteer work, which will show you are more than just a job. Volunteer work, particularly outside of your core expertise, demonstrates your passion for fulfilling the mission. An example of this might be if you are a chemical engineer and worked as a painter for a Habitat for Humanity project.
  • Emphasize that you are clear about the level of the position. The employer might be scared off by your military title. Instead, say that you're in the "career rebuilding" phase and will work at a lower-level position to earn the stripes to move ahead when appropriate.
  • Address the issue head-on in your cover letter. In the letter, explain your rationale for starting at a different level of job: How does your experience make you an ideal candidate for a job you might appear overqualified for? What value do you bring to the organization based on your experience that someone else might not have? Draw clear parallels between what you've done, how that adds value to the position and why you are passionate about the job.
  • Highlight your teamwork skills. If hired, you might be the most qualified person on the team, and this could be intimidating to the team manager and co-workers. Make it clear that you know how to leverage your experience and skills to help the organization grow and move forward, and will do so respectfully and appropriately. You did this in the military. The hiring manager needs to know you won't overpower or threaten your new manager.

When the employer responds that you are "overqualified" for a position, they are not being dismissive or disrespectful. It is possible you made it too difficult for them to understand how you'd fit into the company culture, or why you would be willing to do the work, when your resume indicates that you have worked at a higher level of responsibility.

If you tailor your message to the job and the employer, and genuinely express interest in making a career change that you clearly know is different from what could be expected, you will show the employer that you are interested in the position for the right reasons.

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