If you're unemployed, applying only to jobs with qualifications that closely resemble your skills makes sense. The job-searching process can be less taxing when you know your background gives you a decent chance of landing a position, and filling out application after application isn't a complete waste of time.
But if months pass without a bite on your résumé, it might be time to consider jobs beyond your scope of experience and education. Here are some pros and cons of applying for openings above your pay grade.
A compelling cover letter may persuade the skeptics. A cover letter that rattles off past accomplishments and highlights how your skills can propel the company to new heights could outweigh other gaps in your background. Stress how certain skills, such as your knowledge of social media or ability to find new streams of revenue, meet the company's needs.
[Read: Why You Didn't Get the Job.]
"One of the strongest things that any job seeker can do with a cover letter is not just talk about their past achievements but identify where they can be of value in the new organization," says Lynn Dixon, co-founder and chief operating officer of Hourly.com, an employment network that matches people looking for work with local opportunities.
A company name can leave a lasting impression. The sight of a high-profile company name on your résumé may encourage a skeptical employer. Better yet, securing a reference from the organization that speaks to your knowledge and strengths "goes a long way in overcoming any shortcomings that you have," Dixon says.
Your reputation may offset holes in your résumé. It can be advantageous to apply to a company you previously worked for. Familiar with your abilities and work ethic, the management team may be enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing you back on board. "The employer can see the employee's performance in their records and can also get information from people they have worked with, so it can be easy to see if they meet the right requirements," says David Couper, a Los Angeles-based career coach.
On-the-job training. According to a CareerBuilder survey, 39 percent of companies plan to train candidates with no experience in their field and hire them for positions this year. An employer's willingness to add skills to your arsenal is a signal that it "understands and appreciates the contributions made by personnel and that they're really willing to invest in people," Dixon says.
You may come away with the job. The employer decides your strengths and potential outweigh your lack of experience. The days of visiting one job board after another are gone.
The extra burden of proving yourself. Competing with a flood of qualified candidates certainly leaves you at disadvantage. On paper, those candidates already meet a hiring manager's expectations and will have an easier time getting a foot through the interview door. You, however, must dispel the notion that your background automatically excludes your candidacy.
"If you are underqualified, you're going to have to take extra steps, whether it's in a cover letter or your résumé, to really showcase why you're ready to take on this position," Dixon says.
Overcoming an ATS. Larger companies that rely on an applicant tracking system, a computer software program that weeds out unqualified candidates, may prevent your résumé, cover letter and references from reaching a hiring manager's inbox. "For someone who's underqualified, [ATS] is a big, big problem," Dixon says.
False hope could arise. While those at the lower end of the hiring bureaucracy may think well enough of your résumé to move it along, the senior manager making the final decision may decide you don't have the credentials. Couper says an experience like that can make "you believe you are never going to find a job" and "feel very unsure about the future." Also, by pinning your hopes on that one opening, you lose valuable time searching for other jobs.
You could end up hating the job. You may get hired. But if the gap between your skills and those required to perform the job is wide, you could quickly become overwhelmed. Hesitant to admit an error, employers may not fire you right away. But if dissatisfaction on both ends grows over time, "one party may quit or move on," Dixon says.
Be Optimistic, But Don't Swing For the Fences
If you decide to apply for jobs you're unqualified for, don't put all your stock in those positions. With only so many hours during the day to devote to job searching, it's important to find a proper balance between applying for positions that align with your qualifications and those that don't.
Also, don't let hope turn into wishful thinking. If you only have three years of experience when the position calls for nine, or a high school diploma when the education requirement is a master's degree, you have to be honest with yourself when assessing your prospects. "You can be underqualified, but it still has to be in the realm of your capabilities. You have to be confident that you have the skills and the knowledge to get the job done. You shouldn't be applying to jobs far beyond your capabilities," Dixon says. "Go big, but not off the chart."
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