How to Get a Job You're Not Qualified For

Business executive discussing with her client

By Rachel Sugar

The job postings all begin the same way: first the overview of the position, followed by a list of qualifications. And if you've been steadily climbing the ranks of your industry one rung at a time, it's likely you're in good shape — the gig sounds good and you've got the obvious experience to back it up. Let the offers roll in.

But what happens if your path has been a little bit more...winding?

What do you do when you know you'd be great at the position, but your background doesn't make you an obvious fit? If you're trying to redirect your career, how do you compensate for a less than conventional résumé?

The good news, says Aliza Licht, SVP of global communications at Donna Karan International and the author of "Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It In Your Career. Rock Social Media," is that it is possible."It's definitely another barricade to jump over when you're applying," she admits, but you can genuinely — and persuasively — reframe your skill set. For all of us, there is hope.

Here's what you'll want to do:

1. Understand the job

You always want to understand the job you're applying for — that's obvious — but when you're trying to position yourself outside of your normal area, it's even more critical than usual.

That's because you're selling your specific, transferable skills — not your previous titles. And the better you understand the job description, "the more you can hone in on what you know is important to that person," Licht explains. "You have to throw the skill set that you know they're looking for back at them."

2. Cut the jargon

Certain specifics may be very, very impressive to people inside your industry, but to people outside of it — like, say, the people in charge of hiring for the job you're trying to get — those details are (sadly) meaningless. Cut them.

Licht tells the story of a candidate looking to transition from healthcare PR to fashion PR — not, superficially, at least, a drastic career change. But her résumé was filled with the names of pharmaceutical companies and drugs, and those details weren't doing her any favors in fashion.

"The person in fashion is going to read this and think, 'OK, I don't know what you're talking about, I don't know these companies, these drugs mean nothing to me,'" Licht says. The thing the fashion people do care about? "The actual PR skills that she performed on behalf of these brands. That's the nugget that they're going to care about."

3. Lead with the positive

"I know my background in medical research makes me an unconventional candidate for the communications position, but..." is a tempting — and sincere! — opening, but it is not the one you want to go with.

"I wouldn't lead with the negative, ever," Licht says, in no uncertain terms. Instead, she advises, "flip it right around: 'My experience with A, B, and C would enhance your department because of X, Y, and Z reasons.'" That way, you're not giving them a reason to reject you — you're "opening their minds to another possibility."

And with the right spin (and the right hiring manager) it's even possible that your quirky career path could work in your favor. "Sometimes, it's a positive to have someone come from left field because you get a fresh eyes and an outside perspective," Licht points out. Your experience isn't a bug — it's a feature. The challenge is selling it that way.

4. Appeal to their humanity — and their ego

Finding a point of human connection can go a long way toward getting someone to take a chance on you. That's true if you're chasing your first internships, but it's also true if you're trying to change career directions. (In fact, it's probably true under all circumstances. People respond well to people who also behave like people.)

So how do you professionally connect on a personal level? "Acknowledge that person's recent accomplishment, or what that person has done for the company," Licht suggests. "Show you're really a fan."

Will you seem like a pandering suck up? Maybe, she concedes, "but really, have you ever met someone that doesn't like being complimented? Is that really a risk?" The key is to have the facts to back up your fandom. "If you start listing everything that person's done, at least you did the research!" she says. "You may have heard about the person one week ago, but you've done your research and it sounds good."

And keep this in mind: while yes, you do have to "knock it out of the park as far as your skill set," as Licht puts it, a recent Quartz article points out that job postings are largely fictional anyway. If you think you're a fit — and you can frame your skills to make a case — don't an let an overly detailed job description intimidate you. It's likely you're more qualified than you think.
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