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Overqualified for a Job? What Hiring Managers Mean By It

Elyse Franko-Filipasic

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There are few things more frustrating than being turned down because you’re overqualified for a job. Not only did your perfect resume not land you the role—it may have been your undoing!

The sting of rejection is never fun. But being told you’re “overqualified” can still offer a better understanding of how hiring managers see your application, as well as guide your priorities in the future.

The designation “overqualified” isn’t always so cut-and-dry, though. Here, we've broken down a few common scenarios to help you better understand what hiring managers really mean when they use the term—and what (if anything) you can do to convince them you’re still a good fit for the role.

What they really mean by “We worry that you may get bored”

If a job description states that a position is entry-level, then someone with a master’s degree and five years of experience will almost certainly be labeled overqualified. If you notice the hiring manager bringing up this kind of mismatch in the interview, they may worry that you won’t find the work very interesting or challenging.

In this case, you should probably take the employer at their word. While it may be tempting to apply for an entry-level position to get your foot in the door at a respected organization, you’ll likely be wasting your time. Hiring managers are trying to find someone who will want to grow in a position, and stick around long enough to make all the onboarding and training worth it for the team. So unless you’re making a major career shift that requires a completely different skill set (e.g. changing from a communications job to a statistical analysis role), you should stick to applying for positions that align with your experience level.`

What they really mean by “You’re too expensive for us.”

Discussing salary can be particularly tricky in the social-impact field, where tight budgets are often further restricted by grant stipulations or spending limits. The organization you’ve applied to might not have much flexibility for salary negotiations, even if you’re a perfect fit. If you’re switching from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, a history of high salaries may serve to intimidate hiring managers.

We’d never recommend that you sell yourself short when it comes to salary negotiations. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you should be compensated accordingly! But when applying to a new position, it’s always advisable to do your research on salary survey sites to make sure you know what to expect.

If getting your dream job requires you to take a pay cut, first consider whether it’s worth it—and then adjust your salary requirements accordingly. Especially if the organization offers good benefits (like subsidies for education, extra vacation time, or a good retirement plan), you may be able to negotiate on more than just take-home pay. 

When you talk with a recruiter, make it clear that you have some room to negotiate. If they ask you about your salary requirements, you can say:

“I expect to earn between [$XX,XXX] and [$XX,XXX], but I’ve heard that you offer a great benefits package—I’d like to talk about salary in more detail once I have a clearer understanding of the benefits you offer.”

What they really mean by “We don’t think you’ll like being managed”

Perhaps you’re trying to make a move from managing a division at a small organization to a non-management position at a much larger one. If a potential employer sees “manager” in your title when you’re applying for an associate position, they may fear that you won’t take well to sitting lower on the proverbial organizational ladder.

You know you’re not making a vertical move in terms of job title, so make that clear in your cover letter. You may write:

“I’m excited by the versatility that working with a larger team at [ORGANIZATION] would provide.”

If you move on to the interview stage, ask questions about the division structure. Be sure to emphasize that you’re looking forward to working within a team—not at the top of it.

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Elyse Franko-Filipasic

I believe in the power of good organizations to improve health, stability, and economic development around the world. For more than 10 years, I've been working with nonprofits and NGOs in the global health space to develop engaging, public-facing content and cohesive communications strategies.

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