'Overqualified' May Be A Smokescreen
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – At first it sounds like a compliment: "Gosh, you've got such impressive credentials, and your experience is so wide-ranging!" Then the other shoe drops: "We really think you're overqualified." Oh. With hiring still sluggish and many people willing to take a step down just to get a foot in the door, my mail suggests that vast numbers of job candidates are hearing, essentially, "You're so terrific we aren't going to hire you." Thanks a bunch.

What, if anything, can you do about it? Barbara Moses, Ph.D., is a longtime human resources coach for FORTUNE 500 companies and the author of What Next?: The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life (DK Publishing, $20). She points out that since any interviewer has already seen your resume and didn't decide on that basis that you were overqualified (or why call you in at all?), the interview itself must somehow have created the impression. Two possibilities, she says, are that "overqualified" really means "too old" or that you may come across as "ambitious or easily bored, and likely to jump ship when a better opportunity comes along." If you suspect age discrimination, paint your long experience as an asset. "The bloodletting of middle managers has left serious deficiencies in companies," says Moses--meaning, in part, that knowledge often doesn't get passed on to up-and-comers. "Emphasize your willingness to mentor younger workers." Come prepared with examples from past jobs. Try to convey as well that "at this stage in your life, you don't evaluate your success by your job title," she says. Fighting the notion that you won't stick around if you get a better offer is trickier, because frankly it may be true. "When you describe your achievements, do you select examples that suggest you need constant new challenges?" asks Moses. "When asked about a time that was difficult for you, do you talk about a situation in which you got passed over for promotion, or weren't learning anything new?" This isn't the time to rehash thwarted ambitions. Try to focus the discussion on what you expect you'd enjoy most about the job at hand.

William J. Morin, the CEO of executive-development firm WJM Associates (www.wjmassoc.com), agrees: "Suppose, for instance, that your last job was as a sales manager, and you're applying for a sales rep position. You need to explain what excites you about this opportunity, like getting back to working with customers." He adds that "overqualified" may also be a code word for "too expensive." As part of your research before the interview, find out the salary range for the job in question and "pitch yourself somewhere in the middle." If you hear the O-word after one interview, maybe you really were just too much firepower for that job, and nothing prevents you from asking to be kept in mind for higher-level openings. "But if you hear it over and over again, go back and ask interviewers for specifics," he says. "About 70% of the time, 'overqualified' really means something else entirely." People may not want to be candid with you about the real reasons you weren't hired. But then again they might, and, says Morin, "if you don't ask, you'll never know."