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There’s nothing like the feeling of reading a job description that sounds like it was made for you. With each bullet point, you get more excited, and maybe even start to imagine how it would feel to get the job and go in on your first day.

That is, until you get to the qualifications section. Most feel like a fit, but there are a few that don’t. And so, with a sigh, you move on without applying.

That’s your mistake!

Contrary to what that little voice in your head may tell you (also known as impostor syndrome), you do not have to meet 100% of the job qualifications in order to get—let alone apply for—a job. If you hold yourself to that standard, you’ll miss the chance to go for jobs that may be a great fit.

You don’t need to meet every qualification, and here's why

The belief that you can’t get hired without meeting all the qualifications is a complete misunderstanding of how most hiring processes work.

“I think what a lot of hiring managers are writing in those job descriptions are for the dream candidate,” says Jamie Jensen, a recruiter at Careers in Nonprofits. “But how often are we going to cross off all of those bullets? That’s not going to happen often.”

Instead of viewing the qualifications section as a checklist, reframe it in your mind as a wish list.

An employer comes up with what they'd like to see in an employee, knowing that there may not be someone out there who fits that exact profile—or that there may be someone with skills that aren’t in the posting but would be an asset in the position.

Kelsey Roebuck Neilson has hired grant writers at Elevate, a consulting company that helps its nonprofit clients find and apply for grants and craft other fundraising strategies. Neilson says that when she reflects on the staff who have been most successful at Elevate, half of them had lots of relevant grant-writing experience and the other half came right out of college or from a different career. This shows her that the best candidates are not always the ones who meet all the qualifications on paper.

Instead of viewing the qualifications section as a checklist, reframe it in your mind as a wish list.

How to tell which qualifications are negotiable

If you reframe the qualifications section of a job posting as a wish list, then the next task is to figure out which qualifications are the “need to haves” vs. “nice to haves.”

The word “preferred” is a huge tip.

If you don't have the preferred qualifications, that's okay—and if you do have them, that's something to play up in your resume and cover letter.

The phrase “or equivalent” also suggests that the qualification is negotiable. Neilson says Elevate uses that phrase to invite applicants to make the case for why their experience is a fit.

On the other hand, “minimum” is a different kind of important signal. In some fields, such as the federal government, applicants who don’t meet the minimum requirements are screened out before the hiring manager even sees the candidate pool.

In other fields, whether “minimum” is flexible depends largely on how far you are from the minimum. If a job posting says you need a minimum of four years experience and you have three years, that difference could be negotiable depending on your other qualifications. But if the posting says you need a minimum of eight years experience and you have three years, that’s a stretch.

Tips for applying when you don’t meet all the qualifications

You could parse words in a job posting all day, but ultimately, it comes down to one question: Can you make a compelling case for why you would succeed in this position?

“Our whole sector would benefit from people being pretty gutsy about applying for positions,” Neilson says. “If you feel confident that you can make the case, I think you should try.”

So, how do you make your case?

Cover letters matter

Neilson and other hiring managers we talked with point to the importance of a well-written, personal, and compelling cover letter.

Jensen of Careers in Nonprofits says a cover letter explaining how an applicant’s skills and experience relate to the position is “definitely key to getting past my skepticism” when the person’s resume reflects some, but not all of the listed qualifications.

Draw on various types of experience

Don’t undersell your volunteer experience, Jensen adds. She often sees candidates go into detail about their professional experience while listing their volunteer experience as only one bullet point on their resume.

“Just because you weren’t getting paid doesn’t mean you weren’t doing the work,” Jensen says. Showing that you were willing to dedicate your time to a cause— especially if your volunteer work has a similar mission to the organization you're applying to work with—can make a big difference.

Student experience may also be valuable. Morgan Moran, senior coordinator for the Student Ambassador program at Save the Children Action Network, says her experience starting a campus chapter of The ONE Campaign to organize fellow students around global poverty helped her land her current job.

Success story

When Moran first saw the job posting at Save the Children Action Network, she noticed that it called for two to four years of experience. She had only been out of college for one year, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“The worst thing that could happen if I apply is I never hear back,” she recalls saying to herself. So, she personalized her cover letter to demonstrate her passion for social justice and explained how her college experience would enable her to relate to and support the student ambassadors she’d be working with, and it worked!

Moran’s combination of hands-on campus advocacy experience, passion for the work, and other skills she brought to the table were all compelling enough for Save the Children Action Network to reclassify the job to match her years of experience and to hire her.

Lesson learned from this experience? “I always push people, especially young women at the entry level, to definitely just go for it,” Moran says.

Pro Tip: Check out other advice and success stories from social-impact professionals who landed the job without meeting all the qualifications.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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