Here’s a question we frequently hear from job seekers: “I’m a mid-to-senior level candidate with a graduate level education, and more than once I’ve been turned away on the grounds that I’m ‘overqualified’. Can you explain what employers mean when they say this? I’m not applying beneath my level, and in some cases I’ve even been invited to apply and then rejected.”
We’ll break our response down into two parts. First, employers cite overqualification as an elimination criteria for specific reasons, and you should know what these reasons are. Second, you may need to change your approach in order to get around this common obstacle. We’ll show you how.
What Does “Overqualified” Mean?
Employers don’t make hiring decisions based on a simple linear spectrum that runs from “incompetent” to “brilliant.” There are many other complex personal, political, and financial factors that influence a hiring choice, most of which we’ll never be told, especially since employers are reluctant to explain their decisions and expose themselves to legal backlash. Calling you overqualified may just be a diplomatic way of saying you aren’t a match for the culture. Or maybe there’s a bitter football rivalry between the hiring manager’s alma mater and yours. Fair? Maybe not, but at least these decisions don’t result from anything you’re doing wrong.
If you truly are perceived as overqualified, recognize that employers hesitate to accept candidates who might leave as soon as a more appropriate opportunity comes along. Hiring and training are expensive, and a low risk candidate is one who’s willing to stay for a long time. Salary may also a key determinant. Most managers don’t even want to begin salary negotiations with a candidate they’re pretty sure they can’t afford. Why start a conversation with you about what you’ll accept when the next candidate in line is sure to be cheaper and less likely to haggle?
Overqualified: What Can You Do About it?
First, make sure you’re applying for the right jobs. If you’re aiming too low, you’re more likely to be dismissed as restless or expensive. Second, make sure you’re reaching the right people. Some of the gatekeepers you encounter, especially those who are just one rung above you, may find you threatening. Try to make an end run around these people and reach the ear of those at least two steps above your level.
Third, control the conversation. Let hiring mangers know why you’re looking for a job at this level even if they don’t ask. Have faith in your reasons. They’re good reasons, or you wouldn’t have them. Don’t apologize or dumb down your qualifications (never do this), but make sure you anticipate any potential confusion and explain it away before the door closes in your face.
Finally, if you’ve been rejected on these grounds more than once, maybe it’s time for a little soul searching. Consider aiming higher than you currently are, maybe even quite a bit higher. Experiment by sending out a few applications for positions that feel far beyond your reach. What’s the worst that could happen?