What if I’m underqualified?

We’ve all been there. We want to move up, or are afraid we don’t have the experience necessary to qualify for the job we want. In my own experience, I felt underqualified for the job I have now when they hired me. Just keep in mind, a recruiter may have many ‘wants’ printed out in a job posting. They ‘want’ someone with 3 to 5 years of experience; they ‘want’ someone who is fluent in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Tamil; they ‘want’ someone with a Masters degree in Particle Physics. This is very different than what they ‘need’. They ‘need’ someone who is comfortable picking up new skills on the fly, they ‘need’ someone who can communicate with their customer base, or they ‘need’ someone who doesn’t mind getting into the details of the work. If you can find out how to sort through a job’s ‘wants’ vs ‘needs’, you will find that your qualifications can match what is actually required.

What they say vs what they mean

There are many job postings out there with a massive list of requirements. Those requirements, though, really boil down to an idealized candidate. Not many people come in knowing everything they need to do their job. Most people come in with a few of the necessary skills, and then learn the rest as they go. Can you get comfortable with that idea? It took me a while to figure that one out. My first job out of school, I was overwhelmed by how much responsibility I had, and how quickly I got it. After some time though, I learned a few things and became a better employee because of it.

Knowing that a position you are interested in will have a long list of potentially unnecessary requirements, how are you supposed to figure out what is a necessity to the recruiter and what is filed under the ‘nice to have’ category? My short answer, “read the posting”. Many job postings have a consistent format. There is a block of text that describes the position in a few paragraphs, then at the end, there is a big list of requirements. Definitely scan through the big list at the end and see if you match up to some of it, but your real requirements are going to come out of the paragraphs above the list. Do they describe a high energy, client focused position, or are they looking for some one who is more detail oriented, risk-averse. These aren’t necessarily exclusive, but they describe different requirements.

Your secret weapon

So, you’ve really read through the posting and feel like you have what it takes to be successful in a job(or, like me, you are pretty sure you can figure it out). What is your next step? Maybe you still feel like your resume can’t show why you are a good fit for the position. In that case, it is time to pull out your secret weapon, a cover letter. Now, a cover letter is not a guaranteed in, but it will separate you from the crowd. A cover letter is also a great chance to explain how your experiences relate to what a job posting is asking for, especially if you think there isn’t a clear link between the two. If your ideal position requires a technical background, but you haven’t done anything scholarly or professionally related, talk about your hobby of building or fixing computers. Does the position ask for leadership experience and you are just out of school? Give an example of a group project or club activity that couldn’t have succeeded without you.

Wrap up

There are positions that you want to apply for that you may feel underqualified for. Don’t let that stand in your way! Find the commonalities between the experience you have, and the real requirements a job posting is asking for. Really understand what the job requires and write a cover letter that shows you understand the role and how you would be a great fit. If you’ve had success applying with a cover letter, or feel underqualifed for a job and are applying anyways, let me know in the comments.