Overqualified, over-experienced or over-educated?

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At some point or the other most people encounter rejection labels in their search for jobs.  Commonly we expect “not enthusiastic enough”, “job-hopper”, “rookie”, and even “no experience” to be on the list, but should “over-experienced” count as a rejection label?  The answer is yes! It doesn’t matter what you and I think, employers will use one of the labels, overqualified, over-experienced or even over-educated, when they want to reject your candidacy, albeit they cannot fault your qualifications and experience. It may not pose too much of an issue if you encounter such rejections once or twice, however, if you are experiencing this at every single interview you go to, then there has to be a problem with your application, resume or interviewing style, which must be addressed immediately.

When is an employer most likely to use the “over-qualified” label?

There are two stages during your job search when you will most likely encounter this label; A) during the pre-interview screening, and B) during the post-interview screening.  At either stage of the screening process, the hiring manager forms the perception, from an evaluation of your resume or interview, that you may be egotistic, inflexible, expensive, desperate, or even that you are not being sincere with them, but looking for a position you can hang on to until something better comes along.

A) What do you do when a hiring manager determines that you are “over-qualified” during the pre-interview screening:

If you encounter this label during the hiring manager’s pre-interview screening, you will most likely not get called for an interview.  For this reason, if you believe that you are qualified for certain positions but are not getting the number of responses you expect from the organizations you applied to, something may be wrong with your resume.

  1. Have a neutral 3rd party review your resume.   There are lots of recruiters and career experts that will give you a free resume valuation; also if you are still in college, your career department can help you with this.
  2. Change your resume style. Consider changing the format of your resume from chronological to functional.  Whereas a chronological resume will emphasis titles, work experience and qualifications in a sequential order, a functional resume will emphasis your skills, abilities and experience. This will take the employers focus away from your achievements and titles and even your possible age, and redirect their attention to what you can do; which is really what matters.
  3. Match your experience to the job description.  Make sure that the presentation you make of your experience and qualifications on your resume is in alignment with the job description for the position you are applying for.  If you have had senior management positions and are looking for a staff-level position, replace your specific job titles with a general title where possible; otherwise you will have the hiring manager wondering what position you really are applying for. 
  4. Use a cover letter to explain a step-down.  If the position you are applying for could be perceived to be of lesser importance than your last position, make sure you accompany your resume with a cover letter that explains why you want to do this.  While most individuals may have sincere reasons for stepping down from a current position, a prospective employer may read this  to be indicative of your performance at your last job, or that you have been unable to secure a similar position elsewhere.  A well written cover letter should clean up any such perceptions.
  5. Put your references to work.  Back up your resume and cover letter with strong references.  Anytime you feel that there is a concern about your abilities, let your references speak-out for you.  While most prospective employers will not call your references unless they are sure that they want to hire you, good senior or peer-level references will always add value to your resume.
  6. Do not appear rusty.  Show that you are up-to-date with current trends and technologies that are relevant to the position you are applying for as well as to the organization’s culture.

B) What do you do when a hiring manager determines that you are “over-qualified” during the post-interview screening?

If you are getting rejections after you have interviewed with the hiring manager, then your interview presentation is most likely the problem.  Obviously, your resume was ok, or you would not have been invited to meet with the employer in the first place.  To overcome this, re-structure your interview approach.

  1. Your attitude matters. You must be enthusiastic about the position you are applying for.  The hiring manager will like to see this, so make sure your excitement shows!  If you went to the interview feeling, “I am too good for this position, but I will settle,” your attitude will show this.
  2. Save the ego. If you are being interviewed by someone you may be working with, the last thing you want them to perceive is arrogance.  Troublesome employees make it very difficult for some managers to do their work.  Arrogance is an indication that you will be difficult to deal with.
  3. Keep the focus of the interview on what you can do, and not what you have done. You want the employer to think of you as a hands on worker, someone who has the ability to take on tasks at the level that you are applying for.
  4. Show that you can be flexible. One thing that most employers do not want to deal with is someone who is unwilling to change their old ways and adopt new techniques or methodologies.  Very experienced individuals are perceived to view everything from their own perspective and typically do not want to listen to others, including new management.   Be careful with statements like, “I have been doing this for 20-years” during an interview.  Try to show that while you have the skills, you are willing to make necessary adaptations.  After all, every organization has its own way of doing things!
  5. Tell the employer why they should hire you. Remember that the reason why the employer is hiring is because they have a need to fill.  Show them that you can fill this need, and you will probably get the job. 
  6. Do not discuss your compensation. Unless the employer wants to talk about this, try to keep the salary discussion off the table.  When it comes to hiring, the word ‘experience’ is likened to ‘expensive’. Most new grads will take a position for significantly less than what an experienced candidate is willing to work for.  If you are willing to take a cut in your salary, you have to portray this convincingly.  Many individuals develop other sources to back up their primary income.  Such as a spouse going back to work, royalties from authorship, investment properties and so on.  The employer does not know this, and as such, may be suspicious of someone who is taking a cut in salary.  Focus on the opportunities and challenges presented by the position, and not on what the position is paying.  If you lay too much emphasis on the pay, the employer may feel that it is insufficient, and this will definitely get them searching for someone who will appreciate the compensation that has been budgeted for such a position.

Remember that in dealing with most employers, you do not get a second chance to fix errors that could have been avoided up-front.  Nobody wants to hire the wrong individual if they can avoid it. So come prepared, knowing what the employer is thinking, sell yourself convincingly and nail that job, irrespective of your qualifications, educations and experience!

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