I’m Not Qualified. Should I Apply Anyway?

By: Nancy Ordman

A recent New York Times op-ed piece suggested this article’s topic. The author, Allan Ripp, had advertised for an account director at his public-relations firm. Among the 500 applicants were a fragrance designer, a policeman, and a home health aide. Ripp describes one cover letter as “like reading Mad Libs.”

The mismatches between qualifications for an account director and a collections manager should be obvious—unless the collections manager was an account director in a previous incarnation. What if an applicant can tick off some, but not all, of the requirement boxes? Conventional wisdom encourages job seekers to apply for positions that are not perfect matches. Now that unemployment is the lowest it has been in 16 years, many employers are complaining about the dearth of qualified applicants. Why not take a stab at landing a dream job?

“Job ads … are ridiculous. Employers don't know that they're driving talented people away with their overloaded job ads,” Liz Ryan, a senior human relations vice president, and Forbes magazine contributor, said.

She contends that no one matches these aspirational job ads. So if an applicant is only unqualified on paper, Ryan offers a strategy: find the name of the hiring manager and write what she calls a pain letter. A pain letter identifies a management “pain point”—a problem that needs a solution. The applicant then describes how her work experience and skills would enable her to solve that problem. Read more about Ryan’s approach in the article linked above.

The LiveCareer website has practical advice for explicating the value a supposedly underqualified applicant brings to a hiring manager. Some advice is common sense: focus on transferrable skills, like excellent communication skills and teamwork experience. Other suggestions focus on tailoring a resume to highlight skills rather than listing previous positions chronologically or to compile a career portfolio with work samples. This article also warns the applicant to skip a job if he or she is grossly underqualified—like the fragrance designer that landed in Ripp’s applicant pool.

Part of the art of applying for an aspirational position is to address the size of the gap between the job description and the applicant’s qualifications. How large is the gap? The first order of business is to figure out the position’s core competencies, weeding out items in the HR department’s wish list—otherwise known as the job posting—that do not directly relate to the position. One HR expert recommends meeting 75 percent of the requirements, focusing on the core and not the “nice to have” extras.

Advice from Kari Reston in The Muse reinforces LiveCareer’s instructions to bridge the gap between the applicant and the job qualifications, including bringing in relevant activities and achievements from volunteer work and stressing areas where the applicant is ready to start on Day One. Another reminder from The Muse: network. Check contacts who might be able to help establish a connection with the company. An applicant with a contact inside, particularly one who can give her a good reference, might get away with fulfilling fewer requirements.

Probably the most important qualification for any job is an applicant’s genuine enthusiasm for the job and the company. Crafting a read-worthy application takes thoughtful research and writing, effort not worth expending for anything but the most appealing positions. Try not to make experience as a perfume designer look perfect for a big data analyst, and go for that dream job.