How jobseekers can overcome being ‘overqualified’

It’s ironic isn’t it? You work hard your whole life, climbing the corporate ladder. You gather valuable skills and knowledge along the way. You become a better you every single day you step out of that office. Then when you unexpectedly find yourself looking for work, the “overqualified” hammer falls on you.

Perhaps you’re moving to a new city or country or are the victim of company downsizing. The higher positions that you once had are harder to come by.

Perhaps you lack local experience. Or your previous job titles don’t align with the local market. Maybe you’re changing careers. Or perhaps a gap in your resumé just cannot be overlooked by executive recruiters.

So you tell yourself you’re willing to take a step down to get back on your feet, but once again, you’re met with another obstacle — “You’re Overqualified.”

You feel helpless. You can’t turn back the clock and undo past experience. You can’t lie on your resumé.

Then you start to look for something to blame, something that is beyond your control. It’s your age. It’s your advanced education. It’s your past job title.

Stop victimizing yourself! It won’t get you a job.

There are strategies you can implement both in your resumé and your job search strategy, without resorting to dishonesty.

Let’s start with perspective.

Why are you overqualified?

It’s not your age. It’s not your education. It’s not your job title.

Think about it. What kind of dimwitted hiring manager would say they want somebody “less skilled” or “less experienced” on their team?

If you’re shopping for a Kia, wouldn’t you take a Mercedes for the same price? “Same price” is the key words there, and we are going to be covering several of those in this post.

A fair bit of warning — you may need to take a large dose of humility to follow the advice here. This isn’t for the one-track-minded, ego-chasers. Finding jobs at the price and hierarchical level you were expecting hasn’t worked out for you. You have the courage and humility to take a step back to see the bigger picture in your new career.

What does “overqualified” really mean?

OK, so if hiring managers want the best, why do they label you as overqualified?

Here is what they are really saying:

  • “You’ll get bored and quit. And I don’t want to go through this painful hiring process again.”
  • “You’ll want to advance as soon as you get this job. And I don’t want to go through this painful hiring process again.”
  • “You’ll be too expensive. I can’t afford you. (Unless you’re able to convince me you’re worth it)”.
  • “You’re desperate. You’ll take any job you can get and then leave.”
  • “You’re old. You’re set in your ways. You’ll be too hard to train.”
  • “You’re old. You won’t get along with the team.”
  • “You’re old. You won’t get along with me, a younger hiring manager.”

Some hard-hitting truths up there, but that’s the reality. The keywords:

1. Bored
2. Expensive
3. Too old

The good news?

All of the above is perception. And perceptions are always in your control, as long as you acknowledge they exist and meet them head-on.

This doesn’t mean you bitterly fight perceptions in your job search strategy. Job search perceptions are like quick-sand. The more you fight it, the more you will sink into unemployment.

So let’s figure out how you can work these perceptions every step of the way iIn your cover letter, in your resumé and, finally, in your job interview.

Adapting your cover letter if you’re overqualified

This is where the advantages of having a cover letter shine the most.

The cover letter gives you the opportunity to address your specific circumstances, like for example, being overqualified.

Here are some general cover letter tips, but if you know you’re suffering from the overqualified label, nip it in the bud.

If you don’t, perceptions will creep into the recruiter’s mind and they will formulate their own opinions of why you should not be shortlisted.

On bored

State why you want to work in this specific company and in this specific position.

Research the company in the news and what is it that excites you about this position (even though junior) and will keep you motivated.

On expensive

You will mention that you are flexible in terms of salary, and are aware of the industry average for this specific position.

On too old

The recruiter may turn to your resumé, and discover your vast experience — “Age Alert!”

One of the many biases related to age discrimination is that you aren’t up to date with the latest trends and are unwilling to learn.

Another bias assumption is that you will believe you are superior to your younger management and won’t work well with the younger team.

Does the term “set in your ways” rings a bell?

You can address this negative perception with a reference to any new learning that you’ve undergone or seminars/conferences that you’ve attended, together with a positive shout out to the team.

The goal of your cover letter, if you’re certain you will face an overqualified persona, is to address the elephant in the room. Yes, it’s stressful to make yourself so vulnerable. But this is the part where you muster the courage and humility to break the barriers that are holding you back.

Keeping your resumé relevant

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen jobseekers make on their resumés is to pour out every responsibility they’ve ever had into it. They miss out on the most important factor that creates an effective resumé.


If you’re applying for an entry-level role, the fact that you had 15 people reporting to you to delegate and lead may not be relevant.

You might be thinking, “If the hiring executive sees that I’m capable of doing so much, surely they will be happy to give me a job with lesser requirements.”

No, they won’t.

Because it’s not relevant to the job.

So, it’s time to customize the resumé by removing those high-level skills and responsibilities that you are proud of and limit it to what’s being asked for in the job description.

Does the word “Downplaying” come to mind?

Yes, in a way, I am asking you to downplay your resumé. And this is where that big dose of humility is needed to break the barrier.

I understand it’s hard, but if you’re being tormented with overqualification, isn’t getting that new job worth it?

Here are a couple of tweaks you can make to your resumé:

Remove or tone down the hard skills (certifications and technical abilities) that are not being asked for in the job description. If it’s not being asked for in the job you’re applying for, it needs to go. Else you run the risk of the hiring manager thinking “This person knows more than me. Threat!”

Remove the responsibilities that are not being asked for in the resumé. It’s commendable that you created the strategies for the marketing plans from the ground up as, say, a sales and marketing director, and delegated the document creation to your team. But, now, as a marketing co-ordinator, tweak that responsibility to tasks where you were more hands-on with the marketing team that you led. As a general rule, tasks and responsibilities where you were more hands-on, as opposed to strategic, may be more applicable for a junior role.

Finally, the big one — your job title. After all, when a sales and marketing director is applying for a marketing co-ordinator role, that screams “overqualified”.

As always, honesty above all.

You may be tempted to change your job title, but if your cover is blown, most likely through a reference call, you’ve lost all credibility to the hiring executives.

Instead, to continue with our example, you can change it to “sales and marketing department” or “sales and marketing team member.”

It’s not a lie.

And you will get the opportunity to provide clarity during the (phone) interview and then address your overqualification in person (coming up). At least you won’t be disregarded as overqualified at the resumé review stage and you moved one step closer in the hiring process.

One final point before we move on. Any updates to your resumé must mirror your LinkedIn profile. Data shows 87 per cent  of recruiters are now looking at your LinkedIn profile before hiring you. Any misalignment will result in a loss of integrity of your profile.

Dealing with the overqualification question at the interview

Congratulations. You’ve managed to dodge the bullet with your cover letter and resumé, but now comes the biggest challenge. Convincing the person with the authority to hire you, your future manager, that you will not get too bored, are not too expensive or not too old for this job.

As with every job interview, you have to get in there with the right mindset. And the right mindset starts with understanding your audience’s needs.

In this case, your audience is your hiring manager. A reminder of what your future hiring manager wants from you:

  • Can you solve the problem I have
  • Can I easily see the return on investment (ROI) from hiring you
  • Can you get along with me and my team
  • Are you going to stick around?

Read more on what your future hiring manager wants from you’re here.

Benefiting from your experience

“Overqualified means qualified with benefits.” Take this quote to heart, by Jacob Share of JobMob.

Your experience counts for a lot provided you sincerely believe that there is honour in every job you do.

If you’re a newcomer to a city or country, you may find yourself needing to take a step back to advance your career.

Or if you’re planning on changing careers, the same applies.

Think of it as part of the learning curve that needs to dip before it accelerates back to the top.

Even after successfully using the strategies above, you may still be faced with the hiring manager feeling insecure about hiring you and slapping you with the overqualified label.

You have to ask yourself if you really want to work for a boss as insecure as that.

Smart hiring managers, after all, hire people smarter than them.

Don’t take the rejection personally, because bitterness tends to linger on and will impact your future job interviews.

Be proud of your qualifications, and focus on the benefit it will bring to any organization at any position you take.

Michale Wekerle from Dragon’s Den once said “Do you know how you get 30 years of experience? 30 years!”

Overcome this barrier by using the smarts you gained through your years of experience by using the strategic approach above. You should know by now that the business world may seem rigid and fixed with their grading systems and salary structures.

But in reality, everything is flexible, provided the hiring managers see your worth and value. Nothing stops them from speaking to their boss’ boss to bend the rules to make you a fit for the role.

But don’t cross the line. When someone else says your overqualified, it’s flattering. When you say it, it’s arrogance.

Focus on the skills that are required for the job at hand, and strategically (and humbly) position your experience in a non-threatening, add-value manner.

The world needs to benefit from your experience.