You’re Overqualified. Now What?

New research shows many hiring managers shun people who look “too good.” What candidates can do.

More than 52 million Americans have lost their jobs since the coronavirus forced thousands of businesses to close their doors. Many of those workers have excellent skills and would be a good fit for many roles. And that, it turns out, might be a problem.

According to new research from professors at the universities Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, almost two-thirds of a wide range of hiring managers and grad students reviewing job applicants rated the less capable candidate as “at least as likely or more likely” than the highly qualified candidate to be chosen for the job. When asked to choose, they said they would hire the less capable candidate more than half the time.

The study, just released, took place before the pandemic but has a stinging relevance to the millions now hunting for work. The bias, experts say, stems from organizations trying to keep hiring costs down, figuring lesser-qualified candidates would be satisfied with the work and not quit. “If high-performing, high-achieving candidates have already mastered a role, skills, and challenges, they are less likely to stay in one role for very long,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

That said, experts say candidates shouldn’t need to start erasing all they have done from their LinkedIn profiles or go quiet in an interview call. Here are three steps to help get past the overqualified “stigma.” 

“Commit” in a cover letter.

Cover letters may not be as important as they used to be, but they still offer the space for a candidate to talk about what motivates them. This is where the candidate can discuss how the role being offered helps them feel purposeful or how the hiring organization resonates with them. “Talk about what is motivating you,” says Scott Macfarlane, the global account leader for Korn Ferry’s Financial Services practice.

That includes being explicit, he adds; a hiring manager wants to be assured that a candidate will not walk the moment a role with better pay comes along. At the same time, it’s also OK to leave out of the cover letter experiences or skills that exceed the requirements for the job, Olson says.

Highlight the “right” experiences on a resume.

It’s only natural that job candidates want to highlight all their biggest accomplishments on their resumes. But those accomplishments might, without context, look too good, experts say, when compared to what a candidate could do with the job being offered. For instance, a sales leader highlighting how he managed 100 people across 12 countries might look like overkill for a company looking for someone to lead a five-person, US-based salesforce. Experts say picking an experience that is less grand but more in line with the job or organization could end up convincing the hiring manager that a candidate will bring a lot of value to the role.

Customizing your resume along these lines may help. “Change your resume with every job you apply for,” says Hamaria Crockett, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “Producing the same resume over and over isn’t very thoughtful,” Macfarlane adds.

Network your way in.

“Don’t rely on applying for a job off a website as a primary way of securing that job,” Macfarlane says. Indeed, managers consistently prefer people they’ve established a personal connection with.

So write an unsolicited email or find someone in your network who can refer you to someone at the organization you want to work for. A networking conversation gives the job candidate a chance to explain their motivations and reasons why they would want a particular role that may seem like a lateral move or even a step down from their prior work.

Remember, successful networking is about building relationships, experts say, not asking for a job immediately. Perhaps you can make a connection to an important partner in someone’s field or point to a little-noticed but fascinating new research paper.