How to Apply for a Job When You Are Not Qualified

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Job qualifications are negotiable. Most people don’t realize this. They see a posting or hear about a job that sounds cool to them and immediately see if they’re qualified. They see they lack relevant experience or a credential or a specific skill and never apply.

Don’t do this.

Always apply if you think you can do the job well.

(Even better, email the person in charge of hiring directly expressing your interest after applying. You can use my 12 Done-For-You Email Scripts for this.)

Anticipate Objections in Your Cover Letter/Email

Don’t lie to people.

Don’t deceive people.

If you lack relevant experience or qualifications for the job, don’t hide that fact. The person doing the hiring will find out and they’ll be irritated that you didn’t mention it in the first place.

Instead, you want to anticipate and counter their questions before they’re brought up in the first place.

This is where a well-written cover letter, email to the hiring manager, or just a note sent along with your application comes in handy.

Remember, your cover letter just needs to be good enough to get you an interview. Don’t fret over little things and making the “perfect” cover letter. Better to get something good enough out the door and wait for feedback from hiring managers.

Here are two quick examples to illustrate my point:

Landing an Internship in Washington DC When Not Qualified

When I was first getting started in my career, I applied for internships in Washington, DC straight of out of high school. I grew up in a rural coal community in the middle of Pennsylvania and had never held a real office job before. The closest I had was some volunteer work I did with the Harlan Institute, a project a friend of mine ran.

Most of my professional experience came down to three things:

  1. Working with a bunch of ex-cons on a landscaping job that I did for a summer.
  2. Working in a fruit market as a box by. This job mostly consisted of throwing away moldy citrus and stacking apples in pyramid shapes.
  3. Working as a lifeguard at an indoor pool my school district owned.

Not exactly “relevant work experience” for competitive internships.

Even worse, the people I was competing with for the internships were college — and sometimes — grad school students. Some of them studied at great schools.

Here I came along, some kid from rural PA wanting to work in DC for the summer.

Instead of hiding this fact that I was completely at a disadvantage to everybody else applying for the internship, I owned the fact that I wasn’t experienced.

In the cover letter, I let the hiring manger know, that what I lacked in experience I more than make up for in drive, conscientiousness, and my desire to complete the role successfully. 

That’s all I needed to show since this was a junior role. For more-experienced roles, you’ll want to develop substitute signals for the experience or contribution you lack. This might be a portfolio of work, a set of testimonials, or a particularly impressive contribution.

Self-Taught Software Developer Applies for a Job When Not Qualified

I have a young person I work with who is a self-taught software developer. She’s generally followed a just-in-time model of learning, where she focuses her attention on learning the skills she needs for the next job.

(The opposite of this is just-in-case learning, where you spend your time racking up skills “just in case” you need them.)

She recently saw a posting for a software developer job at a company she wanted to work with.

She wasn’t really all that qualified for the role. She knew some of the skills they wanted from her, but didn’t know others. She hadn’t read the books they wanted candidates to be familiar with. And her previous experience was mostly independent work.

She applied anyway. Before sending the application in, she sent the cover letter to me. I told her to throw in a closing paragraph addressing her lack of qualifications.

This is along the lines of what we added:

While I lack the relevant qualifications you’re looking for in this role, I more than make up for it in my track record of growth and learning quickly. While working at [example company 1] [example of impressive contribution]. I used this experience to move into [example company 2] where I [example of impressive contribution]. I have a strong desire to grow with a company and make conscientious contributions to the codebase of the teams I work with.

This was good enough to land her an interview the next day.

Get a Killer Reference

The other way you can work around objections about your experience, age, or qualifications is to get a killer reference letter that counters these for you.

The best reference letter will say more than just, “Zak is great. I recommend him.”

It will come from more than just some random person you worked with.

A killer reference should come from a person who is:

  • As senior as or more senior than the manager you’re applying to work with.
  • Respected in their role.
  • Credible. They have substantive experience to back up what they’re talking about.

In the letter, the person should actually address concerns they had about hiring you. They should then move on to say how you exceeded their expectations.

References are essentially just extended testimonials. My copywriting coach Marc Aarons recommends this article for understanding testimonials. You can apply it to getting a reference, too.

You want the reference to answer a few questions:

  • What hesitations did this person have about hiring you?
  • What results did they get as a product of hiring you? What value did you contribute?
  • What, specifically, did they like about hiring you? What makes you stand out?
  • Do they recommend you?

Anything else they can answer is icing on the cake.

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