your next move

‘How Do I Show I Can Handle Jobs I’m Not Fully Qualified For?’

A woman wearing hoop earrings and a light blazer sits at a desk in front of an open computer. Her head rests on her right palm and she looks to the right with a contemplative expression.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Kimberly,

It’s often said that women only apply for positions where they are close to 100 percent qualified. Knowing this, I have grown into the habit of applying even if I think I fit only 65 percent of the required qualifications/experience. (Please bear in mind that I am a close-to-mid-30s young Black woman evolving in the tech industry. It might give context for my questions.)

Two things typically happen:

  • HR likes my profile and my drive but redirects me toward a more junior position (where I feel I am 125 percent qualified).
  • HR likes my profile and my drive, but the hiring manager feels safer going for someone overqualified.

I am often overlooked based on my experience and my academic qualifications in interviews. But I end up getting promoted from the junior role I was pushed into within three to five months, with a bonus.

I am 300 percent confident in my ability to rise to any challenge. How can I translate that confidence into reassurance for the hiring manager without sounding like an egotistical and cocky candidate?

I am actually a great team player.

I’m so happy to hear that you’re applying to roles when you meet a reasonable amount of the job qualifications. Job descriptions are like a Christmas wish list. The hiring manager is putting down every potential skill, task, and experience that they would prefer the candidate possess. After working in talent acquisition for a few years, I’ve seen my fair share of job descriptions listing unreasonable qualifications that even the candidates who eventually get hired rarely have.

I’m also relieved that you’re getting call backs when you apply to jobs; that tells me that your résumé is reflecting your skills fairly well. But something is happening in the interview process that needs to be rectified. The dilemma you’re having is all about positioning. From the moment a company interacts with you, it is confirming or denying its assumptions as it relates to the role you’re applying for. Your answers in an interview position you for salary, seniority level, and access to resources.

Before we talk about the interview process, I want to address academic qualifications. I’m not a big believer in higher-level degrees unless you know it will directly correlate to obtaining a certain role. For example, when I worked in higher education, I knew that a master’s degree would be required if I wanted upward mobility. Could I have gotten promoted without a master’s? Maybe, but it would have been an unnecessarily difficult uphill battle. The master’s degree automatically qualified me for the higher-level roles and more pay. If this is what you’re running up against, it may be worthwhile to pursue the education level that’s frequently required for your area of expertise and industry, be it a certificate, bachelor’s, master’s, or something else specific to your area.

When preparing for the interview, spend some time thinking about the gap that exists between your current experiences and the role you desire. Between any two roles, there is a gap that you must address in an interview by telling stories about your skills and work experiences. Common gaps for many professionals include:

  • People management
  • Budget management and oversight
  • Technical skills or knowledge
  • Executive/stakeholder management
  • Client presentations or public speaking

First, determine what is the gap you must speak to in your interview process. If you’re unable to determine the gap from the job description, I recommend reaching out to your network to see if you can get some insider information on the role, so you can better understand what the hiring leader feels is the most important qualification. Again, they created a Christmas list in the job description. It’s your job to instill confidence in the one or two qualifications that would make Christmas a complete bust if they didn’t receive them.

Once you understand the gap that you need to speak to, determine which stories about your previous work will speak to your experience in those areas. Most interviews are behavioral, which means they want you to convey your qualifications by sharing stories about when you’ve done something related to them in the past.

For example, if you know that you don’t have any people-management experience, but the role you’re applying for involves managing a team of five, it will be crucial that you showcase your ability to lead others. If the hiring leader were to ask, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult co-worker who had a difference of opinion,” it would be helpful for you to pick a leadership example versus something unrelated to the key skills of the role. A poor example would be talking about a disagreement you had with one of your peers or a manager about how to approach a project. What would be most helpful is to speak about a time when you led a project or committee and had to align a team that disagreed with your plan of action toward the objectives.

When sharing any story in an interview, drive home results by using the STAR answer format. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. It ensures that every story you share is anchored to your experience and details the impact of your work. Using the same question above, the story could sound like the following:

During my time working at ABC Company as the senior marketing manager, I was charged with leading the committee that would be managing the activation at the U.S. Open. Our goal was to create a customer experience that would introduce our brand to new clients while also creating social sharing moments for anyone who interacted with our suite. 

I conducted market research on how our competitors showed up at the U.S. Open for the past three years and the social impressions that resulted from their activations. Based upon my research, I presented two options for us to execute, but the team disagreed with the core idea that was iterated in both options. Knowing that the research supported the main theme I created, I asked the team to present a third iteration of the theme that they felt best represented our brand and supported the data collected. As a result, we were able to execute a branded activation that supported the research and yielded 1.5 million social impressions. 

If you really want to drive home how your story correlates to the job you’re applying for, add in a closing statement about how this prepared you to do something similar that you’d be charged with in the new role. Again, the interview process is all about telling stories that position you for the job. Take some time to curate success stories that showcase you winning and “do better” stories that showcase your ability to overcome challenges in the workplace. You stating the facts about all that you’ve accomplished is not being egotistical or cocky. It’s your job to make sure the hiring manager understands the great work that you’ve done — be shameless about it!

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to walk away when offered a lower-level position. You can always ask to keep in touch for future opportunities that align with where you’d like to be in your career.

Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move. Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here and keep up with Kimberly on her website.

‘How Do I Show I Can Do a Job I’m Not Fully Qualified For?’