What Employers Really Mean When They Say You’re Overqualified (And What You Can Do About It)

Of all the reasons to not get a job, one of the most frustrating is being told that you are “overqualified” for the position.

Indeed you’re constantly encouraged to learn new skills, get more education, and deepen your experience. But when you try to showcase these qualifications as part of a job search, they sometimes become an albatross around your neck.

Why on earth wouldn’t an employer want someone who meets and exceeds the requirements of the job? It doesn’t make any sense!

Here’s the truth: there’s really no such thing as being overqualified for a job. All things being equal most organizations would love to hire someone with stellar, more-than-they-ever-dreamed-of qualifications.

Being “overqualified” is almost never the real reason you didn’t get the job. Instead, the overqualified rationale usually is a proxy for some other concern the employer had about your candidacy.

What overqualified really means

Here’s what employers are thinking when they say you’re overqualified:

You don’t really want the job

The job at-hand is below your skill level and given your experience, you probably aren’t actually interested in the position. You’ve applied to get your foot in the door or because you’re desperate for any job. As soon as you find something more fitting to your experience level, you’ll leave.

You’d be unhappy in the position

Even if you think you want the job, you’d soon grow bored or dissatisfied with the day-to-day responsibilities. An unhappy, unmotivated employee isn’t good for anyone.

You’re too expensive

The market rate for someone with your skill set is outside the range the employer has budgeted for the position. Why bother interviewing you if they can’t afford to hire you.

You’d be difficult to manage

Good bosses hire people smarter than they are. But no one wants to deal with a know-it-all employee, who might show up their supervisor. Remember, bosses are people too, and prone to the same vanities, pride, and insecurity as everyone else.

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There’s little room for growth in the organization

In some cases, an employer might hire someone with stellar qualifications if there was a clear path to professional growth in the company. If it is a small organization with limited flexibility, however, they might be more reticent to hire someone with too many skills.

You’re too old

Yep… this is the ugly one.

Some employers maintain negative stereotypes about older candidates. The law prevents them from discriminating based on age, so “overqualified” is a useful proxy to avoid explicitly addressing the age issue in hiring.   

What to do if you’re overqualified

Has a prospective employer ever told you that you were overqualified for a job?

Congratulations! One one level you should feel honored that the employer acknowledged your exceptional skills and experiences.

At the same time, acknowledgment doesn’t pay the bills. You want and need a job!

Here’s what you need to do to avoid being rejected for being overqualified:

Explain your situation

Employers will label you as overqualified when there’s an unexplained disconnect between your professional past and the job at hand. If it looks like you’re taking a step backward in your career, the employer is bound to wonder why.

If you don’t explain this “why” the hiring manager will find an answer in their imagination. (And it probably won’t be a positive explanation that gives you the benefit of the doubt.)

That’s why it is important to explain the direction you’re seeking in your career. It is normal and acceptable to pivot in your professional life–even if that means taking a job that, on paper, looks like a downgrade. You just need to be clear that you are consciously choosing this path.

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In your cover letter, explicitly tell the hiring manager why you’re applying for the job, even if you might be overqualified. For example:

“After a stint as a high-level marketing strategist, I realized that I’m more interested in the tactical aspects of marketing, like writing copy and designing collateral.”

“When I ran my own firm, I was never fond of the business-aspects of the role: hiring, managing personnel, budgeting, etcetera. I’m looking for an opportunity where I can focus on what love most—fundraising—and leave the business operations to others.”

“For years, I managed large teams in the high-stress world of product development. At this point in my career, I’m looking to take a step back, play more of a support role, and hopefully make your job as a manager a bit less stressful.”

Show your enthusiasm for the job

Of course, it’s not enough to simply explain your own situation. You also have to be crystal clear why you’re excited about the specific job for which you are applying.

This is a must-do for all job seekers, but particularly for candidates who are applying for a job that might appear overqualified on paper.

You need to explain what excites you about the job and the organization to which you’re applying. There may be many different opportunities that fit your career goals, but what is it about this specific job that gets you energized?

If you can effectively articulate this passion, you need not worry about being overqualified.

Be clear (and reasonable) about your salary expectations

Let’s be clear… money is almost always a consideration in the hiring process. If the employer doesn’t think they can afford you, your application will never get fair consideration.

If you’re strategically downgrading your career, you need to reasonably expect that you’re also going to downgrade your salary. (For the most part, employers pay based on the skills you will actually use on the job, not on all the skills you could theoretically provide.)  Be clear about your expectations in your cover letter so the employer isn’t left guessing at what you’ll want.

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You don’t need to peg yourself to a specific salary number. Instead, consider language that makes it obvious that you understand that the salary is commensurate with the duties of the job.

Explain how your extra skills will help the employer

Now that you’ve addressed how the job fits into your career plans, interests, and salary expectations, you have a huge opportunity to make being overqualified work to your benefit.

Don’t be afraid to talk about all the skills you bring to the table. And don’t assume that the employer will immediately see the value of all your experience. Explicitly tell them how your diverse background can help the organization grow.  

The better you communicate the full spectrum of your value, the better you’ll look vis-a-vis less-qualified candidates.

Network, network, network

All of the previous tactics have addressed the business objections to overqualified candidates. But they don’t solve the personal concerns that a hiring manager may have about hiring someone who appears overqualified.

If a hiring manager harbors these bias-based fears, it will be very difficult to assuage them in a cover letter or resume.

That’s why it is so important to network within your field. Getting known as a person and professional is the best way to overcome nearly any objection an employer could have to your candidacy. Networking gives you that opportunity.

Having a connection with the hiring manager—even a second- or third- degree connection—provides social proof behind your candidacy. This is the best way for your application to be judged on its own merits, rather than what the manager guesses your over-qualifications might mean.