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What Employers Really Mean by 'You're Overqualified'

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I got summarily dumped by my first boyfriend. His reason? "You're too good for me. I don't deserve you." My response, I'm embarrassed to say, was filled with desperation: "No, no, I am not too good for you! How could you even think that?!" Of course my tearful pleading didn't change a thing. Nobody really rejects you because you're too good for them. They reject you because they like someone else better. In my case, that someone else was named Betsy.

But teenage boys aren't the only ones who like to sugarcoat their rejections in ways that sound almost complimentary. Unskilled hiring managers sometimes do, too. "You're overqualified" is often just another version of the all-purpose "you're too good for me" breakup line. The real reason they're not offering you the job is something (or someone) else altogether.

Alison Green wrote a great post titled Why You Didn't Get Hired for U.S. News & World Report.  She offers several valid reasons a candidate might not get hired, most of which would be far more difficult to say to someone's face than a generic "you're overqualified." For example, the interviewer might have picked up on some characteristic that would cause problems in the job, such as sloppy communications, trouble answering questions clearly, or a hostility problem. Maybe your working style would clash with the department or manager.

Calling you overqualified feels much kinder than telling you they believe Candidate B will be more fun to work with.

Employers tend to avoid overqualified candidatesHowever, certainly not every hiring manager is lying when they play the overqualified card. Employers have valid reasons to be wary of people who are truly overqualified. If you accept a position even though your experience or educational credentials go way beyond the job requirements, it's reasonable to assume you'll jump ship as soon as a higher-paying, more challenging, or more prestigious opportunity comes along.

"But, but, but!" you cry, "What if I actually want to take a step back in my career and I'm perfectly willing to take a pay cut!?"

Many people are open to lower salaries and less responsibility. The economy has made a lot of job seekers less choosy, but it's also a common desire among new parents, those returning to work, or anyone who experienced burnout in a previous job.

If that's your situation, acknowledge and address the employer's probable concerns up front, preferably in your cover letter. You could say something like the following (feel free to tone down the cheese factor in your own version):

"I recognize that this job is at a lower level than some of my previous positions, and I imagine that's a concern of yours. The fact is, I've been looking to scale back a bit in my career, and this opportunity fits that objective very well. I hope you won't dismiss me as overqualified; I like to think of myself as well qualified—with added value."

Furthermore, as Rick Saia wrote last month, some people are choosing to dumb down their resumes in an effort to avoid the overqualified kiss of death.

Valid or not, hiring managers are unlikely to stop using the term any time soon. Let's just be thankful they haven't adopted that other favorite rejection line: "It's not you, it's me." 

Have you ever been turned down for a job because you were (supposedly) overqualified?  Do you think it was true, or just a generic excuse?

RELATED LINKS
Feeling Rejected? 7 Tips to Take Back Your Happy Place
The 5 'Must Knows' of Job Interviews

A 3-Step Interview Strategy for Career Changers

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