The Overqualified Dilemma: How to Turn Your Overqualification into an Advantage:

How to Overcome the Overqualification Challenge

Being overqualified for a job can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have the skills and experience that make you a valuable asset for any employer. On the other hand, you may face challenges in finding a job that matches your qualifications, or in fitting in with a job that does not.

In this article, I will explore some of the issues and concerns that overqualified job seekers may encounter, and offer you with tips and strategies on how to overcome them.

Why Employers Reject Overqualified Candidates

One of the most common frustrations for overqualified job seekers is being rejected by employers who think they are too good for the job. Some of the reasons why employers may hesitate to hire overqualified candidates are:

  • They may assume that the candidate will not be satisfied with the role or the salary, and will leave as soon as they find a better opportunity .
  • They may worry that the candidate will be bored or frustrated with the job, and will not perform well or be engaged .
  • They may fear that the candidate will be a threat or a challenge to the existing hierarchy or culture, and will cause conflict or resentment among the co-workers or managers .

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.
  • 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.)

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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.

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.

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.

How to Deal with Rejection from Employers

Rejection is never easy, especially when you know you have the qualifications and the potential to do the job well. However, rejection is not the end of the road, and there are ways to cope with it and move forward. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with rejection from employers:

  • Don’t take it personally. Rejection is not a reflection of your worth or abilities, but rather a result of the employer’s preferences, biases, or constraints . Try to see rejection as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than as a failure or a setback.
  • Ask for feedback. If possible, try to get some feedback from the employer on why they rejected you, and what you can do better next time . Feedback can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your resume and cover letter accordingly.
  • Keep applying. Don’t let rejection discourage you from pursuing your career goals. Keep looking for jobs that match your qualifications and interests, and apply to as many as you can . The more applications you send, the higher your chances of getting an interview and an offer.

How to Downplay Your Skills and Experience

Sometimes, being overqualified can be a disadvantage, especially if the employer is looking for someone who can fit in with the existing team and culture. In such cases, you may need to downplay your skills and experience to avoid being seen as a threat or a flight risk by potential employers. Here are some tips on how to downplay your skills and experience:

  • Focus on the job requirements. Rather than highlighting your achievements and accomplishments, focus on how you can meet the specific needs and expectations of the job . Emphasize how your skills and experience are relevant and transferable to the role, and how you can add value to the organization.
  • Show enthusiasm and flexibility. One of the main concerns that employers have about overqualified candidates is that they will not be happy or motivated with the job . To counter this, show enthusiasm and interest in the job and the organization, and express your willingness to learn new skills and take on new challenges. Demonstrate that you are adaptable and open to feedback, and that you can work well with others.
  • Avoid mentioning your salary expectations. Another concern that employers have about overqualified candidates is that they will demand a higher salary than the budget allows . To avoid this, avoid mentioning your salary expectations or history, unless the employer asks you directly. If they do, be prepared to negotiate and compromise, and show that you are flexible and reasonable.

How to Advance Your Career or Switch to a Different Career Field

Being overqualified for a job can also limit your career advancement opportunities or options, as you may be perceived as overqualified or underqualified for other positions . However, this does not mean that you have to settle for a job that does not fulfill your potential or aspirations. Here are some ways to advance your career or switch to a different career field:

  • Seek mentorship and networking. One of the best ways to advance your career or explore new opportunities is to seek mentorship and networking from people who are in your desired field or position . Mentors and contacts can offer you guidance, advice, support, and referrals, and help you navigate the challenges and opportunities in your career path.
  • Pursue further education or training. Another way to advance your career or switch to a different career field is to pursue further education or training that can enhance your skills and qualifications . Education and training can help you update your knowledge and credentials, and make you more competitive and marketable in the job market.
  • Start your own business or freelance. If you are not satisfied with the available jobs or employers, you may consider starting your own business or freelance work that can utilize your skills and experience . Starting your own business or freelance work can give you more autonomy, flexibility, and creativity, and allow you to pursue your passion and vision.

How to Deal with Stigma or Resentment from Co-workers or Managers

Being overqualified for a job can also cause stigma or resentment from your co-workers or managers, who may question your motives or feel intimidated by your qualifications . This can affect your work environment and relationships, and hamper your performance and satisfaction. Here are some ways to deal with stigma or resentment from co-workers or managers:

  • Be humble and respectful. One of the most important things to do when you are overqualified for a job is to be humble and respectful of your co-workers and managers . Don’t act superior or arrogant, or flaunt your skills and experience. Instead, acknowledge and appreciate the contributions and expertise of others, and show that you are willing to learn from them and collaborate with them.
  • Be helpful and supportive. Another thing to do when you are overqualified for a job is to be helpful and supportive of your co-workers and managers . Don’t be afraid to offer your assistance or advice, but don’t impose it or criticize it. Instead, be constructive and positive, and show that you are a team player and a problem solver.
  • Be proactive and assertive. A final thing to do when you are overqualified for a job is to be proactive and assertive in your work . Don’t be passive or complacent, or wait for others to tell you what to do. Instead, take initiative and responsibility, and seek feedback and improvement. Show that you are confident and competent, and that you can handle challenges and opportunities.

I hope you found this article helpful and informative. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me on email Thank you for reading! 😊

I’m Daniel Mutuku, a Career Coach. I help professionals get jobs with the UN, NGOs and international organisations.

Discover and unlock your full career potential and achieve your top career goals. As your career coach, I will support you through the application process, all the way until you secure the job.

Professionals who want to get a job that pays them well for their skills, experience and who strongly want to be in charge of their professional life always have a COACH.

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”George Eliot

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