How to get a job you’re not qualified for

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Getting hired even when you’re not qualified is one of the most important skills to have if you want to keep your work life interesting. Because if you are always taking jobs you’re qualified for, then your learning curve is really flat, and your work life is really boring.

So here are three ways to get hired when you’re not qualified for the job.

1. Create a project from a different arena that interests you.
One reason my resume is so varied is that I have always done two things at once so that I can switch up as soon as my learning curve flattens. For example, when I was playing professional beach volleyball, I was also writing stories every day. So I was ready to go to grad school as soon as I got tired of volleyball.

In grad school, I didn’t have to write–the writing was done. This was when the Internet was emerging as a mainstream tool, and I realized that my writing was perfect for the Internet. So I took all my printed out pages to the computer science lab and asked one of the professors to teach me HTML.

I wrote my master’s thesis in HTML. I might have been the first English graduate student in the whole country to do that. It got me a job managing the web site for a Fortune 100 company, even though I had almost no marketing or technical experience.

2. Take responsibility for your own education.
In my new job, I spent the next six months reading whatever I could about the Internet. I read about advertising and copywriting, I read about programming, I read about everything. I had no idea where I would fit in the Internet industry, but I knew I had to learn about it to succeed in my new job as Internet maven.

I also talked with a wide range of people in my job, so I could learn from them. My next job was being the interface between the IT department and the marketing department. They were not communicating well. How did I know how to communicate with IT people? I have no idea, except that I had read so indiscriminately that I actually sounded knowledgeable about IT issues, especially for someone who went to graduate school for English literature.

3. Just apply.
I have not always had jobs I loved. I was at an advertising agency, and I was really, really not suited for the work. So I was unhappy and desperate to get out, and I started sending my resume out in sort-of indiscriminate ways.

This is a bad job-hunt tactic, and I don’t recommend it, but one of the side benefits was that I sent my resume to jobs where I did not meet the requirements. For example, the job I got had a description that included “MBA required.”

How did that happen? Most of the time the manager or HR person writing the job descriptions has little idea what they really want or need. So write a good cover letter about why you’re a good fit, and ignore the part about qualifications you don’t have. Talk about your track record for delivering what they want.

If you can do that, then you can apply. And doing that makes you are a better candidate, better than they know they need.

53 replies
  1. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    I so agree about writing a good cover letter. It doesn’t work in every company (in huge ones, cover letters may be ignored and computer software is doing the initial screening), but in medium and smaller ones, a good cover letter can get you in the door even when your resume doesn’t really justify it. In particular, use the cover letter to explain why you want this particular job and how your experience, even though perhaps different on the surface from what they thought they’d be looking for, comes together to make your well-suited for it.

  2. James Schellman
    James Schellman says:

    I like your thoughts here. You offer some very practical advice, without going overboard. The one I like the most is ‘Just Apply’. How do you know, if you don’t go for it right?

  3. Music Site
    Music Site says:

    I had worked in many field that didn’t suit me, I had to switch many times for living, for your first 2 points, I did them a lot and many times it worked for me and helped me a lot,
    but for third one, I had a problem that sometimes I feel scared to apply for job and become so worried that I may mess up, I know I am so good at the interviews and I always look confident and good but inside me I feel like I am dying that I may pass in coma at any moment, lol

    But the thing I like about your blogs is that you look like living our all situations, like you have the ability to read our minds and our thoughts and insides and then express them in a beautiful way, I can’t believe that you have passed through all these things to express all this in blogs cause it is not easy and it needs lots of years of experience but the thing I can say is that you are good at it.

    Thank you very much,

  4. Alec
    Alec says:

    Thanks for this really good advice. I’m about to enter university in a few months and I’ll keep the first tip especially in mind. I always think it’s great to keep growing and teaching yourself new things so this will just remind me to do that. Thanks!

  5. LP
    LP says:

    All good tips, but I would add: 4. Do Your Research. It’s one thing to apply for a job you’re not qualified for, and be able to explain exactly how whatever qualifications you do have fit the job and the company; it’s quite another to show up for the interview with no qualifications AND no understanding of what the company is really looking for. Failure to understand what you’re interviewing for might be a bigger hurdle than lack of qualifications.

    • M
      M says:

      When you work well over 40 hours a week at a job that you hate, you don’t neccessarily have the patience to spend hours “researching” companies you intend to apply to online. I speak from past (and present) experience on this fact.

  6. Kevin Wallace
    Kevin Wallace says:

    I would add a number 0.5: There could be a very good reason they set the qualifications the way they did. Make sure you could actually adequately perform the functions of the job you’re applying for. Then, perhaps, you can make the case that the formal qualifications are a bit too strict.

    Another thing I would consider is that HR professionals often already get too many applications. Your resume and cover letter aren’t thrown out by some automatic resume filtering software, which would mean that all of your time is wasted. If not and there is someone properly qualified for the position, then you’re wasting the HR person’s time, which I would consider to be inconsiderate. Any further application traveling across that person’s desk, although you may be well-qualified for the position, could be negatively tinged (there’s a thin line between “dedicated” and “annoying”).

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:


    I especially liked your advice in #2 – Take responsibility for your own education. Even though you went to graduate school for English literature you continually expand your education in other areas as is necessary to achieve your career goals. Education is a life long experience and it doesn’t start and end in the classroom. In addition to learning from your own research having a good mentor is invaluable as you have said in previous posts.

  8. Flying Squirrel
    Flying Squirrel says:

    I’m all for applying for jobs that I’m not “qualified” for. Often the job posting lists “requirements” that include things like being familiarity in the company’s obscure email or FTP program. Oh please.

    The posting is their wishlist. It’s sort of a game. They know they will get a flood of applicants so they narrow it down as much as possible. And they know that people will apply anyways.

    If you’re honestly think you’re up for the job, I say ignore the requirements and give it your best shot and write a convincing cover letter. If you get an interview, it’s up to you to be able to convince them in person you can do the job.

  9. Finance Monk
    Finance Monk says:

    I think an important tip is to contact the actual future manager rather than the HR rep that’s recruiting. I’ve heard from an HR rep friend & consultant that many HR departments at large firms that get applications over the internet flat out discard resumes that don’t fulfill the requirements (i.e. if you do’nt have an MBA for “MBA Required,” you’re not getting looked at.) The idea is that if they choose to look at yours, they need to justify why and show it’s not discrimination to others who aren’t looked at.

    The best luck I’ve had is with contacting the person you’d actually be working for, who will generally be more impressed with skills, personality, and unusual experience than the standard MBA he or she wrote up and sent down to HR to find candidates.

  10. Rick
    Rick says:

    Nice post, especially to emphasize the point that the job seeker need not be pigeonholed in his or her career choices. In these days of more job mobility, you need to build up your sense of self awareness to learn what makes you tick, what you would like to learn on the job, and where you want to go.

    As others have pointed out here, taking responsibility for research and your own education is very important in this regard. What also needs to be stressed, Penelope, is what you touched upon in your learning HTML: being at the right place at the right time. That – and I’m just guessing here – is how you wound up managing the web site at the Fortune 100 company. A few years later and you might have missed that opportunity, or have been beaten out by someone with more experience. The lesson there is to stay abreast of trends and what might be coming down the road tomorrow. Not easy, but essential if you want to create similar opportunities.

  11. David Rees
    David Rees says:

    Here is a tip for those of you who want to “apply up”. Do not try it with an external recruiter. Not only will you not be sent to the client, there is a fair chance that you will be considered too unreasonable to work with on a position that might be a good match.

    Of course there are zillions of recruiting firms and they tend to have a short memory, but be warned.

    The time is coming when it will be much easier to move up – the labor pool is drying up and hiring paradigms are going to be forced to change. Having a good education will always help you but if the person from the state college can read, speak and write rings around you, they will get the job.

    Competence – especially in communication, is the new universal job requirement. Education has always been a good criteria to filter on in a candidate rich market (like in 2002 when you could hire a Masters for the cost of an intern), but that is no longer the situation.

    When I decided I wanted to get out of IT and become a recruiter, I decided the number one thing that I had that would get me the job was just raw assertiveness. I worked up a cover letter and resume and walked in to about 20 agencies and told them I was there to be a recruiter. Turns out they really liked that approach (most of them anyway), but I doubt it would work as well in non sales driven fields.

    Just remember, there is a fine line between confidence and being unreasonable. My latest search is for a VP of Sales in a very particular niche selling to a particular kind of channel. Time is short so we put it on a specialized job board and 99% of what I get are people who are not remotely qualified telling me they can “sell anything” (see blog for my rant on this).

  12. HR Wench
    HR Wench says:

    Yes – “just apply”. If the HR person actually knows what they are doing you may be tapped for another position on the horizen even if you don’t fit the one you are applying for now.

    As an HR Manager, I don’t mind weeding through resumes that don’t fit the position I’m looking to fill. It is a great way to find candidates for other opportunities, research competitors or even find MYSELF another job / networking opportunity. Send those resumes in!! :)

  13. Don
    Don says:

    I agree with the point made in #3 Just Apply. In my experience, the HR person writing the job description knows little about the qualifications needed. This seems especially true in larger companies and those with more complex organizational structures where it’s more of a challenge for the HR folks to understand all of the departments and job functions.

  14. Tertius
    Tertius says:

    Finally PT is writing about something she knows about – pursuing jobs she’s not qualified for. Just ask her readers at Yahoo. Those of you who think this is good advice, just look at where it got her. Public humiliation and termination after her contract was up. Please note that “applying up” is not necessarily the same as “applying while unqualified.” Think about this for a minute. Not being qualified is another way of saying not competent to do the job, which if it doesn’t lead to failure, will almost inevitably lead to enormous stress and frustration. If you want to “Apply up,” (and you should) that’s great, just make sure you possess the minimum qualifications to be successful in the job. You owe it to yourself and your employer. But possessing the minimum qualifications to be successful in the job doesn’t by any means mean a flat learning curve as PT states. Ever heard of OJT? Ever heard of cross-training? If not, never mind – just follow her advice. But if so, then you know that her assertion is false. Ta Ta.

  15. Peter Fletcher
    Peter Fletcher says:

    The thing is that it takes a great belief in the self to do what you’re suggesting; and it’s a belief worth having. After 21 years as real estate agent I’ve enrolled in another master’s degree and have no idea where it might lead me. But that’s the exciting part – whatever job I find,I will probably not be qualified for. But so what? The technical aspects of a job are just the icing sugar. What employers want – and I was one for 17 years – is someone who can think well. Even if there not fully qualified, if they have a go-for-it attitude they’ll work out fine. Thanks for being an inspiration Penelope.

  16. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    Oh come on Tertius, Penelope’s Yahoo column wasn’t canceled because she wasn’t qualified to be writing it; it was canceled because it didn’t fit with the direction their business model was going in. It certainly got traffic and page counts, which is basically the definition of success on the Internet.

  17. michael cardus
    michael cardus says:

    Good point about constant learning.
    WHat is needed more than ever is the ability to learn fast and concise.
    Push past your comfort zone and go for those jobs that seem out of Reach!

  18. Amy at CareerSearch
    Amy at CareerSearch says:

    I loved the tips about creating a project to keep your career evolving and being responsible for yor own education, but as an HR professional for the federal government, I advise DON’T just apply (for government work). Federal hiring rules are incredibly strict and applicants get booted out before anyone locally can read their resumes due to not meeting the hiring standards.

  19. B
    B says:

    You seem to have a lot of jobs that you were not a good fit for…
    why are you giving advice about work ?>???

  20. Bruce
    Bruce says:

    Just Apply – there is really no reason for a cold introduction letter or application. In todays world, you are only 6 degrees from the person who can say yes. Read Tipping Point to get the concept.

    Education – In life, you must commit to being a life long learner until you die, can’t read, hear or see. Life is all about a attaining and the transfer of knowledge not just skills.

    Projects – Always challenge yourself in new areas of your life and career. Bill Walsh – San Francisco 49ers coach said he had 10 years of value as a NFL coach then he had shared all he had and it was time to move on.

    Today we have, per your beliefs 2 years, of current value at present careers. So one had better be always thinking, networking and developing new ideas, concepts and projects

  21. Mystra
    Mystra says:

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I spent the first 7 years of my working life applying for and getting jobs I wasn’t qualified for on paper. My confidence, tenacity, and willingness to stretch and learn was all I needed. I struggled, a lot. But, I also learned and grew tremendously in the process. My success brought me more responsibilities and a 3-fold increase in annual take-home.

    Then, at some point, I grew cautious. I adopted the attitude that I had to had to have the paper qualifications laid out for the positions for which I was applying. I felt that if I didn’t have the requisite experience to the job, I wouldn’t get it or be successful. Since this change in my attitude, my career has flat-lined and my annual total take home has fallen by 50%. I’m frustrated at work, unhappy with my life, and a bit aimless.

    What PT is saying here is spot on. Thank you for writing this post.

  22. Curmudgeon
    Curmudgeon says:

    I feel sorry for someone who believes that not qualified is the same as not competent. That person will stay in his or her small box for an entire lifetime, never even conceiving of the exciting world outside of that box, and never taking the chance to explore it.

  23. Frederick
    Frederick says:

    Finally some good advice. This I will actually use.
    I finished a degree in Criminal Justice and working on a BS degree in Management. For many several years stuck with what I can take. Those days will soon be over and I will be able to go elsewhere to make a difference.
    When I complete my degree, many of the jobs I would like to have, I still won’t have enough experience in that particular field or still not enough education. I can learn from books other people’s experiences (Success and failures) and harness my own work experience to suit what they need.

  24. Tom Ruff
    Tom Ruff says:

    I’ve been recruiting for medical and pharmaceutical sales positions for the past 18 years and couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “weak ties” tack from the Tipping Point on finding a new job:

    …When it comes to finding out about new jobs…”weak ties” are always more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. How much, then, would they know that you wouldn’t know? Your acquaintances, on the other hand, by definition occupy a very different world than you. They are much more likely to know something that you don’t. To capture this apparent paradox, sociologist Mark Granovetter coined a marvelous phrase: “the strength of weak ties.” Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have, the more powerful you are.

    Not rocket science but good reminder for those of you looking to find a new career.

    Tom Ruff

    • M
      M says:

      Well… I guess I’m not going to make it anywhere, because I have strong ties with the people I know. I don’t keep in touch with acquaintances, and most acquaintances I’ve had won’t remember me a month after we became acquainted, let alone won’t help me move up the corporate ladder.

  25. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    I disagree with the use of the word “qualified” because too many box-ticking recruiters and HR managers equate it with competence. Also I think the first 2 tips work on a very different time scale – hence less tactical, more a career strategy tip in general – from the third one, which is an action tip.

    But there is another very important tip here:

    “Work to forget your gender and its conditioned responses.”

    Research suggests that men apply for jobs where they meet 2 of 10 criteria whereas women hesitate to apply even if they meet 9 of 10.

  26. anirban
    anirban says:

    Often tip 1 can be achieved by getting involved in projects outside of work- like joining an open source project online (for programmers who want to shift from domain X to domain Y) or doing program management for a non profit. This builds up
    experience on the resume.

    The other big advantage is to know people in the right places , because while the normal recruitement process will shut you out of those roles (“3-5 yrs experience in managing teams required to apply” or “MBA required”) , inside contacts can waive those criteria.

  27. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    As far as I’m concerned, applying for a job you’re not qualified for boils down to one question: “Can you learn what you need to know fast enough not to make me regret hiring you?”

  28. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    Somewhere I read that close to 40% of all applicants LIE about their work experience or education. This could mean that up to 40% of the workforce did not fill the requirements and yet were still hired. This is entirely possible as some employers may be overestimating what it actually takes to do the job.

    But then again, all this lying may be giving employers the impression that there’s more qualified people out there than what there really is. This makes it hard on people who are honest but who do not have any experience.

    Why play by the rules when so many others don’t?

  29. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    You wrote: “I have always done two things at once so that I can switch up as soon as my learning curve flattens.” I’ve always done that too. I always have “side” ventures and projects going. It enhances my creativity, opens doors of opportunity, and teaches me a lot about myself. I figure that time is short and I only have one life to live so I better make the most of every moment…

  30. Dina
    Dina says:

    You are very gutsy. I never dare to send resume to jobs I’m not qualified in and even in jobs I am qualified sometimes I have to be pressured to take the job – I am a freelance and use the moving from job to job process that you describe all the time but I usually feel really incapable at the first months of a project in a whole new area.

  31. bkrummel
    bkrummel says:

    Your third rule-‘Just Apply’ was the simplest, beneficial thought I’ve ever been told in applying for jobs. I’ve always thought that you needed to have met all the qualification and requirements that a job asks for. But the simple fact of trying was eye opening. I mean why not, what's the worst that can happen you don’t get the job! Fine, at least you tried! Thank you for sharing this with me! It is very helpful as I start my search to join the real world following college.

  32. Pinny Cohen
    Pinny Cohen says:

    Penelope, great tips. I think you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so applying to anything and everything gives you a shot to meet the hirer at the very least.

  33. Jenni Martin
    Jenni Martin says:

    I totally agree with what “Music Site” posted which was “But the thing I like about your blogs is that you look like living our all situations, like you have the ability to read our minds and our thoughts and insides” so I didn´t want to repeat it with my own words as it explained exactly how I feel!
    I just got here – to your blog I mean – one hour ago and I can´t stop reading it! It is 2am in Spain though so I will HAVE TO come back tomorrow! But I can assure you that from the “little bit” of blog I´ve seen you will hear again from me soon! THANK YOU PENELOPE.
    Jenni Martin

  34. Resume Alex
    Resume Alex says:

    Very nice post. I especially agree with #3 – “Just apply”. If you don’t, how do you know if you can get the job? When I graduated I wanted to work in the marketing field but had no relevant qualification. Nevertheless, I wrote a good cover letter, attached it to my resume and applied. Guess what – I got the job!

  35. Jen
    Jen says:

    Well, I just got that job that I am not qualified for. I haven’t started yet, but I gotta tell you – the stress is not fun. I actually only found this blog because I searched “what to do when you get a job you are not qualified for”. I don’t have time to read everything and educate myself on everything I should already know. I didn’t exaggerate my skills, and they had my actual and true CV, so I keep telling myself they know what they are getting. But I think in a very real way my good schooling means more on paper than in real life, and they might be reading more into my past jobs in terms of experience gained.

    I am not so unqualified that I am going to completely flounder. It’s in my field. It’s just a senior level position and I am entry level. I am completely skipping the meaty stuff in the middle where all the ‘real’ experience is supposed to come from (that qualified you to then be senior level). But I lay awake thinking about how disappointing I am likely to be. One of those senior level folks that everyone below rolls their eyes about because they know less than those under them.

    I had to take it, though. What’s the alternative? I get offered a senior level job and I say, “oh, no thanks. I think I’ll just move up the ladder in tiny little steps like you’re supposed to”. Who succeeds in life that does that? I keep telling myself that successful people leap at opportunities to bounce ahead. But right now, waiting for this job to start and knowing that they expect more from me than what I’m actually bringing to the table, all I can think about is how much easier life would be to just accept that flat learning curve and get rid of all this stress stress stress stress stress!

    • guest
      guest says:

      Wow. Sounds like the position i am applying for and hoping to get. For health reasons i have been applying to jobs and looking around to find an improvement.

      A decent portion of the job i am not qualifies for, the rest I am.

      I have applied to about every other job in the area. I have not recieved any bites on most of the jobs that i have applied for. The few that i have interviewed for haven’t gone the greatest. I have always been good at labs and coursework, but not tests. I am good at my current job, but pretty bad at interviewing. This is my forst big career change and i am finding out late(after i have applied to everything else) how to build a better resume and how to interview better.

      I am down to my last option using multiple connections to try to get an interview for a job that i am lacking qualifications for. But it is the last one in the area that i want to be and i don’t know if i would be effective enough to not fall on my face

  36. RN Description
    RN Description says:

    This article is actually very beneficial. I admire the effort you used up posting this document. I would like to become a nurse, do you have any strategy where I could get details about nurse incomes, career points and what is the basis. Any thought where I could get this data?

  37. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Penelope, you are working for yourself. Congratulations!
    If you can no longer afford to work on commission or by contract, how are you going to get a job with a corporation or non-profit? Let’s assume you are 48 years of age, single, and raising a child completely solo. There is no assistance what so ever.

    Let’s assume your background says: Risk taker (entrepreneur), highly educated, hold multiple professional licenses, make decisions easily, and rarely under scrutiny of a supervisor (entrepreneur responsibilities).

    This is typically where the resume and skills get #86. Age discrimination for a woman is fact after 38. If a company doesn’t respond, then they cannot be sued; if they hire than the corporate insurance costs rise due to age.

    There are factors in your message that do not apply to the experience and independent professional. These factors can be assumed by Human Resources, and threatening. Additionally, HR knows you know your worth.

    Thus, let us talk about realistic situations and not quaint maneuvers.

  38. samora
    samora says:

    Such a good advice…I realy needed it right now…send me links to your other blog through my email.thanks.

    And check out my website.It also has a lot of knowledge wealth which we can share.


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  40. Eric French
    Eric French says:

    After reading this article I got me a job that I am completly unqualified for. I lack the basic tools and skill set to accomplish my job adequetly and still maintain my postion.
    Thanks Penelope ;)

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    Pure Leverage Blog says:

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