How To Get A Job You Feel Unqualified For

Polish your resume, ace your interview, seal the deal.

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Making a leap in your career can be daunting, especially if you feel underqualified for the job. But with the right mindset and approach, you can make your application stand out, impress people in your interview, and land the job you’re dreaming of. So if you spot an open position and you’re telling yourself, “I am not qualified for this job,” hold on. We’ve got insider deets on how to ace the recruitment and hiring process.

Should you apply if you feel unqualified?

While it may not be fruitful to apply for the CEO position after your first year on the job, there is some wiggle room in terms of the years of experience and required skills mentioned in most job postings. Rebecca Ebner, a talent acquisition business partner and operations integration lead, and her team have discovered that “Women, in general, will only apply for a job if they meet 90 percent of the criteria—sometimes even 100 percent—whereas men will apply if they only meet about 75 percent of the job requirements.” That’s a huge difference, isn’t it? And if women continue to feel like they shouldn’t apply unless they meet every requirement, we’re at a serious disadvantage in the workplace. “Because women are more inclined to make sure they’re 100 percent qualified before applying, they are more apt to find themselves in a non-challenging position,” shares Ebner. It’s hard, then, to expect growth in a role like that. Oftentimes, though, women stay in a job because they look at the next level and feel like they don’t meet that next set of criteria. So, let’s break this harmful cycle!  

Catch Their Eye: Tips for When You’re Unqualified

Align your resume with the job qualifications.

The first thing Ebner suggests is pulling out your resume along with the job description for the new position. Compare the job posting qualifications, years of experience necessary, and required skills to what’s on your resume. Where are the gaps? And what are the aspects you need to clarify on your resume? “If possible, sit down with a trusted friend, a previous manager, or a mentor,” suggests Ebner. You’ll gain an outside perspective and receive guidance on how to modify your resume.

If women continue to feel like they shouldn’t apply unless they meet every requirement, we’re at a serious disadvantage in the workplace.

Don’t forget to adjust your older work history, either, even if the job was several years ago. “A lot of people don’t go back and update all of their experience,” says Ebner. For example, if you were a cashier at McDonald’s, you might list tasks such as “dealt with customers” or “exchanged money.” Ebner recommends editing the tone of these descriptions to include things like, “provided high level of customer service” or “processed orders and managed cash register during high volume.” By making small modifications that align your past experiences with the new job, you’re showing that your background does indeed match with what your prospective employer is looking for.

Talk about all of your years of experience.

“Perhaps you haven’t done the specific tasks listed on the job description, but chances are you have experience related to some of the skills they’ve included: leadership, critical thinking, project management,” says Faith Shovein, talent acquisition manager at Domino’s Pizza Headquarters. “If you’re able to reference examples of these qualities in your work and confidently communicate their relevance, chances are the employer will make the connection.” And sometimes it’s not just your previous jobs that relate to a position but your extracurriculars too. Whether you led a project as a volunteer or guest lectured at a university, add all of your related experience and skills to your resume. Consider highlighting activities such as volunteering for charity, taking training courses, being a member of an organization, or participating as an elected individual on a local council or parent–teacher association, for example. By highlighting your related experiences, both career-based and otherwise, you’ll have a more well-rounded application that’s likely to catch the eyes of a recruiter or hiring manager.

Sealing the Deal: Tips for Your Interview

You’ve landed an interview. Congratulations! Whether it’s a phone interview or you’re meeting in person, specific strategies will help you stand out. Remember, though, that honesty is always the best policy. “Your interviewer has your resume, so they know your background. It’s okay to say that you’ve never done something before,” says Karen DeVries, a practice manager at Mercy Health who hires for clinical jobs, front end staff, team leaders, and physicians. So how can you be honest and still boost your interview performance?

Research the job and company ahead of time.

While it may seem like common sense, a large portion of candidates don’t do ample research about the company or position ahead of time. Doing thorough research puts you at a serious advantage. “If you don’t have experience with something listed on the job description, make sure you’ve gained a reasonable understanding so you’re not caught entirely off guard when it’s mentioned in an interview,” shares Shovein. “The more you know about the company, the better you can understand the job and how your skill sets will contribute to the success of the role.”

“Before any interview, set aside time to review your key professional experiences so that they’re fresh in your mind when you’re asked for specific examples in an interview.”

“You should be able to ask questions about the role itself, even if you’re not experienced in it,” says DeVries. “Come to the interview prepared with a brief statement about why you’re interested in the position and how you’re hoping to grow or learn, along with a few narrowed questions about the role or department.” That’s right: An interview is a two-way street. “People go into interviews thinking they have to ace it to get the job, but sometimes a job truly isn’t the best fit. Be sure to ask questions about the culture, business, and growth opportunities,” suggests Ebner. These aspects make a big difference when deciding if the job is right for you, too.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

“After 10 years in recruiting, I’m still shocked when I stump candidates with questions like ‘What interested you in this job?’ or ‘Tell me about your most recent accomplishment,’” shares Shovein. Her tip for having solid answers ready? Study yourself! “Before any interview, set aside time to review your key professional experiences so that they’re fresh in your mind when you’re asked for specific examples in an interview. This should alleviate the time spent sulking after your interview when that perfect answer finally came to you.”

Allow yourself time to answer.

Arriving at your interview prepared is essential, but you won’t have perfect responses for everything. “If you come across a question and you’re unsure how to answer, you can say, ‘Let me think about that for a moment,’” says DeVries. “By requesting more time, it shows you give good thought to your answers and you’re not just giving scripted responses.”

Redirect the answer if necessary.

If you get to the interview and are asked about something you don’t have experience with, modify your answer rather than simply saying you’ve never done it before. “Try saying something like, ‘That’s not something I’m well-versed in, but I did have this experience that relates,’ or ‘I’ve never done that, but here’s what I’m looking to do in future experiences,’” suggests DeVries. By changing the angle of your answer, you’re providing the interviewer with honest information and showing you can think critically and connect your other experiences.

Follow the STAR method for behavioral-based interview questions.

Almost all companies and HR departments include behavioral-based interviewing in their recruitment process. Behavioral-based questions prompt you to describe previous experiences—revealing how you handled situations and which skills you utilized.

“Choose simplistic colors instead of bright ones. Let the interviewer ask the complete question before cutting them off.”

“With behavioral-based questions, always follow the STAR method,” says Ebner. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. Find behavioral-based question samples by searching online (or check out The Balance Careers’ list here), then practice describing the situation, the tasks you accomplished, the actions you took, and the final results. By incorporating these four components, you’ll give your interviewer a well-rounded response. Remember that interviewers want to hear examples. “If you say you’re organized, be ready to describe how you’re organized,” says DeVries. Anyone can say they’re a team player or dedicated. But if you can show how you put those qualities into practice, hiring managers will understand the incredible value you offer.

Demonstrate your adaptability and willingness to learn.

Ebner shares that managers may choose lower-qualified candidates if they demonstrate that they’re trainable and adaptable. “If candidates show a positive demeanor in the interview and provide examples of being flexible to change, a hiring manager will have an incentive to hire that person.” So, it’s not just about years of experience after all. It’s about who you are as a person, too.

And…don’t forget the interview basics for getting a job.

Making a great first impression is key, and that can start with what you wear to your interview: “Come to the interview in professional attire. Choose simplistic colors instead of bright ones. Let the interviewer ask the complete question before cutting them off,” reminds DeVries. It’s normal (and even healthy) to be a bit nervous for an interview, but try to remain calm, and focus on answering the specific question asked.   Ebner suggests keeping your answers to two to four minutes long so the interview feels more conversational. By sticking to answering the question, the interviewer will have time for follow-up questions and discussion.

What Not to Do When You Feel Unqualified in a Job Interview

“First of all, don’t show that you feel unqualified,” says Ebner. She recalls a time when a candidate interviewed and said to the manager, “I know I’m unqualified, so this interview is just for good practice. Thank you for having me.” The manager was immediately turned off from hiring them due to their lack of confidence. “It’s natural to experience impostor syndrome when you feel unqualified for a job,” says Ebner. She recommends bringing confidence to the interview and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. That’s part of leaping to that next level.

When to Call It Quits

“Sometimes the hiring process is slow,” admits Ebner. Even if a company has a rockstar candidate, they might be waiting on funding or someone could be on vacation. “Just because you haven’t heard back on an application or interview isn’t indicative that you’re unqualified or not the right fit.” But if you’ve put forth continual effort in applying for similar roles and you’re not getting anywhere, take a step back and assess the situation, says Ebner. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘Do I have real leadership skills? Have I put myself in positions to direct others in their work?’ Identify gaps between your current experience and the role you want. Consider joining organizations or project teams or asking for new assignments to pursue opportunities to build specific skills. “If you can’t seem to move up immediately in your own organization, consider moving to another company,” says Ebner. You can always come back once you have new skills and experiences. Set your eyes on that next role and keep chipping away at achieving your dreams. It will happen.

Jenna Jonaitis
Jenna Jonaitis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, SHAPE, and other publications. She recently traveled with her husband for 18 months—farming in Japan, studying Spanish in Madrid, volunteering in India, and hiking through the Himalayas. She's now expecting her first child and is always in search of wellness in mind, body, and spirit.

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