by Katharine Hansen Ph.D.
If you’re anything like me you’ve sometimes spotted an employment ad or job posting and said to yourself “I could do that job.” Yet the job is totally out of your field and you have no actual experience in that area. How do you portray yourself as qualified for a job for which you have no proven track record? The underqualified or just plain unqualified label most often plagues new graduates with limited experience as well as career-changers whose experience is outside the area they now wish to pursue. For both groups fighting the underqualified label is a tough proposition. Let’s face it — all other things being equal most employers would prefer to hire candidates with the right qualifications and experience in the field over candidates no matter how enthusiastic who lack qualifications. A difficult battle yes but it’s not impossible to beat the underqualified label.
This article proposes 10 strategies for helping job-seekers overcome a lack of qualifications.
1. Exploit your transferable skills.
You may not have all the qualifications required for a given job but chances are you possess a skillset that contains abilities needed for many jobs including the job you covet. Scrutinize ads and job postings for the kind of job you seek and identify skills you’ve demonstrated that are needed for these jobs. Typical universally sought skills include communication interpersonal teamwork and leadership skills. List your transferable and applicable skills prominently on your resume. In your cover letters take the next step by explaining how your skills apply to the job you’re pursuing. Read more about transferable skills.
2. Consider playing up school and other unpaid experience.
Perhaps you have no paid experience in the field you seek to enter but you do have some applicable education and/or unpaid experience (through internships or volunteer work). Don’t be afraid to list school and unpaid experience in the main experience section of your resume. Experience is experience; it rarely matters whether it’s paid or not. If unpaid experience helped you develop skills that are crucial to the type of job you seek it’s fair game for the experience section of your resume. I recently had a resume client who had a terrific background in restaurant management but was seeking to become a financial adviser. To further complicate matters his most recent experience was as a school administrator. He was however an MBA student with coursework and project experience in finance. I wanted the first item the employer saw in his experience section to be finance-related so I listed “MBA Student” first with bullet points about his finance-related activities. Another client had 30 years of experience in the IT field but really wanted to be a park ranger. His most recent paid experience was in IT but he had rich volunteer experience in the environmental nature and outdoors areas. So we listed his volunteer experience first on his resume. For a good tool to identify high points of your school and unpaid experience see the school and unpaid experience portion of our Accomplishments Worksheet.
3. Consider a chrono-functional resume.
If you seek a job for which you are questionably qualified your job history may be more of a liability than a selling point. Thus a resume format that de-emphasizes job history in favor of skills that are applicable to the desired job is worth consideration. The chrono-functional resume highlights outstanding skills and achievements that might otherwise be buried within the job-history section while simultaneously presenting yet de-emphasizing the chronology of jobs. The focus is on clusters of transferable skills and experiences that are most relevant to the position for which you are applying. Be aware however that some employers disdain functional formats of any kind finding them confusing or even annoying. Some employers like to know exactly what you did in each job. Recruiters/headhunters particularly reject functional formats so this approach should never be used if you are primarily targeting recruiters with your job search. Employers in conservative fields are not big fans of functional formats nor are international employers. Functional formats even chrono-functional also are not acceptable on many online job boards. Read more in our articles What Resume Format is Best for You? and Should You Consider a Functional Format for Your Resume?
4. Don’t apply for jobs for which you’re grossly underqualified but do remember that job postings and employment ads are often employer wish lists.
The fact that desperate job-seekers send resumes willy-nilly for jobs for which they are not remotely qualified is a major reason employers are so overwhelmed and unable to respond to job-seekers. The resumes of the unqualified clog the system. So don’t apply if you are completely unqualified but if you excel in some qualifications consider applying. Most employers do not expect the candidate they hire to have every qualification listed in the job posting. An ad or job posting represents the ideal candidate. If you can show you are extremely strong in some of the areas listed in the posting you may get called for an interview even if you lack other qualifications. Pay attention to the order in which qualifications are listed in the job posting as they are usually listed in order of importance. If you excel in the most important qualifications employers may be willing to overlook weaknesses in the less important areas.
5. Consider a two-column or “t-formation” cover letter.
A particularly effective way to sell the qualifications you do have while obscuring the ones you don’t is to use a two-column format in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s job posting and in the right-hand column your attributes that meet those qualifications. The format clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may overlook the areas in which you lack the exact qualifications. See a sample letter in a two-column format.
6. Indicate your flexibility and willingness to learn or gain additional training.
When separating resumes into piles one category employers sometimes use is “underqualified but trainable.” If you cannot convince an employer that you are qualified you may be able to make a case for being trainable. State in your resume and cover letter that you are an enthusiastic and quick learner who can rapidly get up to speed with job knowledge. If a job carries a specific educational training licensing or certification requirement state your willingness to pursue that requirement. Example: “I am completely committed to pursuing Series 7 and Series 63 licensure.” Tread very carefully however in the “willing to learn” realm. Employers don’t like to be reminded of the time and expense of training underqualified employees. Use solid examples to demonstrate your past ability to learn quickly as well as strong statements of future willingness to undergo training education certification or licensure. If you’ve already enrolled for the appropriate training your case will obviously be even stronger.
7. Try the “bait and switch.”
Bait and switch is a negative term in advertising but it can be used in a positive way in job-hunting. Let’s say there’s a fairly high-level job that you are marginally qualified for. Consider applying for that job while simultaneously indicating a willingness to be considered for a job that reports to the high-level position. I recently worked with a resume client who had excellent experiential qualifications for a job with a large well-known software firm — but the position required a PhD and my client possessed only an associate’s degree. To entice the employer to call him for an interview we made a great case for my client’s experiential background in his resume and cover letter. Knowing however that his lack of educational qualifications might be a deal-breaker we included a statement at the end of his cover letter that he would also like to be considered for a position as assistant to the person in the high-level position. This technique works best when a company is assembling a staff for a newly created department or unit. It also works with startup companies building a workforce.
8. Find out more about the employer’s needs.
Let’s say there’s a company or industry in which you’d love to work. Whether or not you’ve actually been rejected for lack of qualifications you know that on paper you are not quite the right fit in that company or industry. Try finding out more about the employer’s needs problems and challenges than what is readily apparent in want ads and job postings. The trick is to discover needs that you can fulfill paving the way to perhaps creating a position for yourself. How do you find out about these needs? Performing company research is a good start and you can find great tools in our Guide to Researching Companies Industries and Countries but the best approach is informational interviewing. See our Informational Interviewing Tutorial to learn how.
9. Consider a career portfolio with work samples.
Seeing is believing. If you interview with an employer who is not quite convinced of your qualifications you can bolster your case with a portfolio that shows your ability to do the job. Imagine how impressed the skeptical employer will be if you address underqualification concerns by showing living proof of your abilities. The portfolio can contain a sampling of your best work including reports papers studies brochures projects presentations CD-ROMs videos and other multimedia formats publications reports testimonials and letters of recommendations as well as awards and honors. But what if you don’t have samples related to the job you’re applying for because you don’t have work experience in that area? Create them. If you’re applying for a job in Web design because you have Web skills but no paid experience show Web sites that you designed for yourself and for friends. If you have computer-programming skills but lack paid experience in the field show programs that you’ve written on your own or for school projects. If you are inexperienced for the journalism or public-relations job you’re applying for there’s no reason you can’t submit sample news and feature stories or press releases you’ve written. The material doesn’t have to be published. A good way to introduce the portfolio is to ask “Do you know of any obstacles that would stand in the way of your hiring me?” If the interviewer says something like “I’m just not sure you have the experience to do the job” you can say “Let me show you some samples from my portfolio that demonstrate my ability to do this job.” And what if you can’t get an interview that would enable you to show your portfolio? Create a Web-based portfolio with links to samples of your work. Include the URL to your portfolio in your resume and cover letter and encourage employers to check it out. Read more about career portfolios in our articles Your Job Skills Portfolio: Giving You an Edge in the Marketplace and Expanding the Definition and Use of Career Portfolios.
10. Consider volunteering to work on a unpaid trial basis.
There may be no better way to demonstrate enthusiasm and commitment to a job for which you are marginally qualified than to offer to work for a short period on an unpaid trial basis. Strike a balance between how long you could afford to work without pay and a length of time that enables you to show you can do the job. Also be careful here not to come off sounding too desperate. An alternative to an unpaid trial is asking to demonstrate skills through a short-term project. Let’s say for example that a job’s requirements include the ability to prepare PowerPoint presentations for executives. Ask the interviewer for a specific assignment typical of what you would be asked to complete if you were hired. Then come back in the next day or so with a PowerPoint show that will knock your interviewer’s socks off. In his book College Grad Job Hunter Brian Krueger describes similar approaches The Sneak Preview Technique and The Proof Positive Technique.
Final Thoughts on Being Underqualified
While the strategies presented here can go a long way in warding off the underqualified label they are not foolproof. It’s sobering to realize that given a choice many employers prefer to hire the most qualified candidate. Yet considerable research shows that it’s not always the most qualified candidate who gets the job but the one with the best rapport with the interviewer or the most enthusiasm and confidence. So maintain a positive attitude and keep showing that you are enthusiastic and confident. While you are waiting to land a job for which you may seem underqualified consider pursuing training that will bolster your qualifications. Consider also doing an internship (you don’t have to be a college student) or volunteer work to build skills in your weaker areas. Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Katharine Hansen Ph.D. creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers is an educator author and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers edits QuintZine an electronic newsletter for jobseekers and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University Cincinnati OH is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press) as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen Ph.D. Dynamic Cover Letters Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed) and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. .
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