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Career Advice

Is It Ever Okay to Apply for a Job if You’re Underqualified?

Posted by Julia Malacoff

Last Updated May 15, 2017
|6 min read

Short answer: yes.

If you’re on the job hunt, you have probably seen many postings that you almost meet the requirements for, but you’re not quite there. Alternatively, you might be fresh out of college or looking to make a complete career change, in which case you likely don’t technically qualify for any of the jobs you’re looking at.  But chances are, you’ve heard of people winning jobs they’re not fully qualified for on paper. In fact, you’ve likely encountered this personally if you’ve already been out in the workplace. That’s because more than ever, employers are looking for potential rather than exact match, which means there are jobs that you may seem “underqualified” for that you absolutely should take the time to apply for.

That being said, there’s a difference between underqualified and unqualified. Here’s how to tell the difference.

You’re Almost What They’re Looking For

Ask yourself: Are you an 85 percent match for the position or a 10 percent match? “If it's a 10 percent match for skills and experience, don't bother,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. You’ll be wasting both your time and the recruiter or hiring manager’s time. Although, let’s be honest, resume bots weed out those who are completely unqualified in many cases. On the other hand, if you’re near meeting the qualifications, go ahead and apply. “If it's a dream job at a dream company and you're the perfect culture fit and your qualifications are a 80 to 90 percent match, I would advise that you apply,” Hernandez says.

This is especially true for recent grads and those earlier on in their careers, not necessarily because you’re likely to get the job (although it’s possible), but because it can help you get a foot in the door. “When I was fresh out of college, I applied to a position that I was not qualified for but was in the field that I really wanted to pursue,” Hernandez says. “The headhunter called me when she received my resume not for the position that I applied to, but actually for one that was right below it that I was a great match for. It had just opened and no one even knew about it yet.” Obviously, this is an exceptional circumstance, but it shows that the gamble of applying can be worth it.

You Have Impressive Achievements

Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’ve done something really incredible over the course of your career — won a major prize in your field, have distinguished military service, or recently sold your startup for a massive sum — you can use it to your advantage. “Instead of automatically disqualifying applicants that don’t have ‘mandatory’ skills or sector experience, hiring managers and their talent acquisition peers are looking to see if candidates have achievement and success indicators,”  says Keith Johnstone, Head of Marketing at Peak Sales Recruiting. “These include past awards, consistent achievement and overachievement of performance standards, upward career progression and title advancement, and educational and professional certifications,” he adds. “This has opened the door for 'A-player' candidates to apply for positions they may not initially qualify for.”

You Are Completely Sure You Can Do The Job

You should feel comfortable applying for a job “when you feel absolutely certain that you have the capacity to conquer the learning curve and acquire whatever skills necessary to meet the requirements of the position,” says Jada Willis, Founder and Chief HR Advisor at Willis HR Advisory Group. This doesn’t simply mean that you have an “I’m smart; I can learn how to do anything,” mindset, but instead that you know you already have the specific skill set needed to learn what you don’t already know on the job. Maybe you did sales in one industry and you want to transition to a similar job function in a different industry, for example. This does not mean that if you’re an accountant but you’re a really good cook, so you should apply to a head chef position.

You Have Something You Believe the Company Needs, and You Can Sell It

Willis says that if you can honestly answer how you can add immediate value to the position and the organization in your cover letter, that’s a surefire sign you should go ahead and apply. “If you are aware that you do not meet the qualifications, then you have to articulate what you can bring to the table,” she explains. If the hiring manager has other, more qualified candidates, what do you offer that none of them do? This is where you can play up past experiences, ideally ones that are different from what one might expect from the typical applicant to the role.

You Have an “In” at the Company

Often, the easiest way to get noticed is to have someone on the inside. “Minimum requirements can be overlooked in many instances, and the best way to unlock them is to get a glowing referral from someone at your target company who you may have worked with in the past,” says Jon Silber, CEO of Purple Squirrel, an online recruiting and networking marketplace. Sometimes, these connections and referrals can even outweigh basic job requirements. “Google found that college GPAs were almost completely unrelated to performance, so it increased the number of candidates it hired who never graduated from college (as much as 14 percent for certain teams),” says Silber. “This is interesting because if Google is willing to overlook a standard minimum requirement like a college degree, and it is one of the most difficult companies in the world to land a job at, then job seekers should feel optimistic about their prospects.”

You Are Fine With Being Rejected

Hearing “no” is just part of the job search process, but this is especially the case when you’re applying to a job you’re not completely qualified for. “The only way you will ever move to the next position is if you are able to accept hearing that you were not selected,” says Willis. “I use the same phrase time and again with my clients: Never tell yourself no. Always let the employer tell you no.” You’re never going to know whether you’ll get the job or not if you don’t try. As for what to do afterwards? Willis says: “If you receive a rejection email, move on to the next one and take another chance.”

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