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I recently had a phone interview for a subcontracting job at a small programming consulting firm. The interview was very short, and at the end, the interviewer told me that based on my resume, he thought I would be overqualified for the job and find it very boring.

I was rather confused by this because I don't have any real job experience and I'm still working towards my degree. Sure I played myself up on my resume --I go to a rather prestigious school, I listed every buzzword I could think of under my skill-set, and I jazzed up my work in high school for my dad's company --but I thought everyone did that.

What do employers mean when they say "overqualified"? What qualities of a person without job experience or a degree could make them overqualified?

How can I look just qualified enough when applying for future positions? I haven't bothered to apply for anything requiring a degree for fear of being underqualified. (I also hear they have bots that will trash my resume when it doesn't find 3-7 years of experience listed.)

Should I scrap the whole resume and just put I LOVE SINGLETONS! as the whole thing? :)

EDIT A quick clarification of what I mean when I say "I played myself up." I was very careful not to lie on my resume, and I only put things I could discuss and give a couple quick examples that made it seem like I really knew what I was talking about.

For example, under Leadership Experience, I listed a library group I was a part of in high school. We met once a week to mostly eat food and chat, but we did plan 2 events in the 4 years I was there. Without lying, I made it sound like we regularly organized massive library programs the entire 4 years I was there with the intention of describing the 2 events we did do if asked about it. We did legitimately put a lot of time, effort, budgeting, and planning into those events though.

As far as buzzwords go, I wasn't sure whether stuff like Object Oriented Programming would be more eye-catching or Test Driven Design would excite them, so I put everything I was familiar with. We didn't get a chance to talk about either the buzzwords or my work experience during the interview. He mostly just asked some questions about school.

I was really trying to make what I had actually done sound impressive to make up for not having work experience or a degree. Ironically, I was trying not to sound underqualified.

EDIT 2 I was talking to a friend about it, and he said the skills part of my resume sounded like I was lying. It looks like this:

  • Languages: C, C++, C#, Java, Python, Ruby, Javascript, CSS, HTML, MySQL
  • Fast learner: Learned C# in less than 2 weeks, code called “idiomatic” and “professional”
  • Design paradigms: Object Oriented Programming, SOLID, Test Driven Design, DRY, Tell Don’t Ask, Law of Demeter, Principle of Least Astonishment, Information Hiding, Refactoring
  • Design Patterns: State, Strategy, Builder, Factory Method, Abstract Factory, Composite, Decorator, Null Object, Object Pool, Prototype, RAII, Proxy, Façade, Flyweight, Observer, Bridge, Adaptor, Memento, Mediator, Visitor, Singleton

I'm not as proficient in MySQL and CSS as I am in C# and Java, but I did write a website for a class that used these things. I don't use Singleton, but I am familiar enough with it to know alternatives when I'm tempted to use it.

Other than those, I do have skills in these things that I think are adequate for an entry-level position. I started programming only 3 years ago, and I thought people who'd been programming since they were 15 would have more languages under their belt.

The general consensus seems to be that I should apply for my level of experience. Considering my lack of job experience and lack of degree, am I qualified to apply for more advanced positions? How would I get past the resume-trashing bots? Or should I cut things out of my resume to make it more believable for entry-level experience?

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    He's worried the job will be too easy for you, wont challenge you or provide you with new skills, and that you will be easily bored, and leave the company. leaving them to have to find another person anyway. Thats what it really means – Rhys Apr 25 '13 at 8:51
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    Also they most likely expect you to want a higher pay than they want to give. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 25 '13 at 9:29
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    It means the same thing as "it's not you, it's me." – kevin cline Apr 26 '13 at 15:41
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    Delete the line "Fast Learner.." It just makes you sound like a bell-end. I've read Design Patterns too, in more then one language, and don't feel the need to list the patterns on my resume. – TheMathemagician Aug 14 '14 at 18:47
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    Reading your example resume, I wouldn't even have bothered interviewing you. Code called "idiomatic" and "professional" after only 2 weeks of working in c#? Sure..called such by who? Listing design paradigms and patterns means you know how to use wikipedia. I think you might want to review other resumes to get an idea of how to put one together. Maybe even talk to the people at your "prestigious school" – NotMe Oct 9 '14 at 15:54
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Probably being sarcastic -

With

I listed every buzzword I could think of under my skill-set, and I jazzed up my work in high school for my dad's company

And

The interview was very short

To me it's clear, in interview they simply confirmed that buzzwords in your resume are just that - buzzwords; and wrapped it up giving you a light warning.

but I thought everyone did that

I would disagree, but even if it's true - ask yourself a question - do you want to be another resume in the pile or stand out by being candid and up-front?

How can I look just qualified enough when applying for future positions

Don't try to look qualified, find out what you need to do to take your skills to the level required for the position.

No harm in adding flipped_burger_at_dads_restaurant_in_high_school into your resume - it speaks volume about you taking up a responsibility at young age and delivering on it. But if you make it sound like you re-engineered it into a 0 calorie burger and changed the process to quadruple output with half the resources - then you better have actually done it.

Remember - more than all the skills combined, your future employer probably wants some-one whom he can trust.

  • For my work experience, I said "Administrative Assistant" rather than "Person who photocopies and shreds stuff," and I tried to hide the part about my employer being my dad. I kinda lied when I said I worked extensively with Optical Character Recognition technology. Unless a week counts as extensive. – Eva Apr 25 '13 at 22:48
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    I think your answer is the closest to what my friend said about sounding arrogant and this similar question. I think my lack of work experience led me to overestimate my skills in programming languages/technology. – Eva Oct 4 '13 at 4:19
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    @Eva as someone who handles hiring in programming the single worst thing you can do is exaggerate / lie on your CV. When you sit down for an interview even if I don't snag you on a technical question people with experience vs fresh talent just act differently. When I see a CV that is obviously a gross exaggeration if not out right lie I used to tell people they were overqualified or similar as a nice friendly way of saying "take it down a notch". These days though years of that has made me far less diplomatic. I just say "Your CV looks like a bull to me. Sorry, but we're not interested" – RualStorge Jun 17 '14 at 20:25
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    A person who photocopies and shreds stuff is an administrative assistant. But I don't think a week's experience with OCR technology could fairly be described as 'extensive'. – nekomatic Oct 8 '14 at 12:44
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    "your future employer probably wants some-one whom he can trust" THIS. And it is something too often overlooked. – Caterpillaraoz Oct 20 '17 at 13:00
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Employers are typically looking for their employees to be content and even happy at work. One obvious source of discontent would be not having the skills to do your job. Another, less obvious, source of discontent, would be having an insufficiently challenging job.

Consider a cabinetmaker, with many years experience in selecting and buying lumber; preparing and assembling furniture; and varnishing and finishing pieces to meet customer requests.

Now entice them to apply for a job with a title of "Furniture Maker", and on their first day give them a power screwdriver and set them to work assembling IKEA self-assembly desks.

Do you think they would be happy or even content? No: they will yearn for the days when they could do what they know they are capable of - actually making furniture! It will surely not be long before they seek to leave, and they may even spread disgruntlement among the workforce before they do. You would be better off not employing someone so over-qualified in the first place.


That's the general answer. To your specific case, based on what you have said, my guess would be that from your CV and particularly from interview, your interviewer has concluded that you are more of a thinker and less of a doer than they are looking for - someone more likely to want to spend (too much) time doing the perfect thing, than to quickly do something just-good-enough (as small consulting firms necessarily must). Thus this rejection is, although it might not feel like one, something of a compliment.

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    In addition to not being sufficiently challenged, you might simply not be the right person for the job as it requires a more practical skill set/mentality. – Paul Hiemstra Apr 25 '13 at 9:50
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    Someone with basically no work experience, overqualified? He probably had other reasons and gave you this one. – DogDog Apr 25 '13 at 13:07
  • How do I make myself look more practical? I consider myself an unusually pragmatic person, but I'm not sure what I need to change in my resume to highlight that. – Eva Apr 25 '13 at 23:01
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Present yourself honestly - don't add buzzwords for skills you don't actually have. They will expect you to have them and will ask questions about them in the interview. Lying or exaggerating in a resume is something that will harm your chances a great deal once you land the interview.

Then apply for jobs you think you can do (and are at least close to the qualifications of - don't apply for senior positions when you are at entry level) and would be interested in. Some of them will find you underqualfied and some of them will find you overqualified and some will be just right. But the thing is, you can't know in advance which will be which. So apply and realize that you won't get every job you apply for and you won't get interviewed for every job you apply for and that's OK. Honestly the ones that don't want to hire you are the ones where you are likely to be unhappy. It takes time and a lot of effort to land that first job.

I expect in this particular case, they felt that someone attending a prestigious school would not be a good fit. Not everyone wants or needs someone from MIT or Harvard.

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In my experience it means one of two things.

1)They are worried about your long term commitment to the company, why would you stay in a lower paying job when you are qualified for better higher paid jobs elsewhere.

2)They are worried they can't afford you salary expectations which usually correlate to skills and experience.

So to over come these things you need to make sure you clearly define your salary expectations so they know you are willing to accept an offer within their price range and you need to make it clear you will be committed to the position for good long term reasons.

  • How do I tactfully discuss salary before I even have the job? – Eva Apr 25 '13 at 22:49
  • I agree with mat690 : it often means that hiring you would be too expensive... Sometimes salary ranges are pre-defined depending on the employee's qualifications thus you cannot even offer to receive low salary. – Aname Apr 26 '13 at 13:44
  • @Aname How do predefined salary ranges work? – Eva Apr 26 '13 at 18:41
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    @Eva If you don't feel comfortable bringing up salary in an interview then highlight other things about the company such as culture, location or career opportunities that really impress you and tell them you value these things more than a high basic salary. – mat690 Apr 27 '13 at 11:52
  • @Eva In some institutions, the salary is predefined depending on your position, degree, school renown and overall experience. Now that you ask I wondier if it exists worldwide... – Aname Apr 29 '13 at 12:32
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"You're overqualified for this job" is a cop out.

Typically an HR manager isn't going to tell you the reason you were not selected for a position. Think about it from the company's perspective - what do they have to gain by being honest with you, and what do they have to lose by being honest?

If the company is honest with you, they gain nothing. They stand to lose a lot.

At the most basic level, they stand to lose time. If they tell you that you weren't hired because of some technical deficiency, there's a good chance that you'll end up wasting their time by debating their assessment with them (i.e. trying to convince them they are wrong). You do after all want the job and you feel you are a good fit (otherwise why did you apply?).

There's also the possibility of losing your good will or losing you as a prospective customer. Imagine the company tells you (yes, you, though I'm sure you are a perfectly fine human being so please don't be offended) that you weren't hired because all the interviewers got together and agreed you were just a big jerk. You probably don't think you are a jerk. In fact, upon hearing this, you're much more likely to think they are in fact the big dumb jerks. Maybe you tell all your friends this; maybe you write mean things about them on the internet. Thus they've damaged their company's brand by being honest with you (even if it is just in your eyes).

Finally, depending upon your locality, there's employment law. There are certain factors (age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc) on which employers are not allowed to discriminate. That doesn't mean every hiring manager at every company is necessarily following the law, however. If the employer illegally ruled you out, they open themselves up to litigation by disclosing the real reason you weren't hired. Even if the employer was entirely on the up and up, there's always the chance that when they tell you why you weren't hired you think it sounds like you were illegally ruled out and decide to sue. In the worst case then, the employer might even be opening themselves up to litigation by telling you why you weren't hired.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that in software development there is no such thing as overqualified. This is personal opinion but if I am looking to hire you and you are better than what I am looking for and not asking for any extra compensation, well, I'm going to hire you, let you finish the easy thing and then point your big brain at some other issue you can solve to make me money. If Larry Page and Sergey Brin come to me in 1998 and want to help maintain my crappy JavaScript (needs more alert boxen!) I'm going to hire them, and then once all the pages are sufficiently alertbox-ified, we can work on this Google idea of theirs and figure out how to monify.

In summary, "you're overqualified" is just a polite, non-confrontational way to say "we're not interested in hiring you and we are also not interested in telling you why" - at least, in software.

  • I actually agree here, this is an "It's not you it's me," speech. Designed not to offend or insult. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Dec 2 '14 at 21:43
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"I jazzed up my work in high school for my dad's company" Was this programming work?

I started programming at age 15, 'for my dad's company' figuratively speaking, although for people quite a bit distant from the area my dad worked. So at the point where I was finished with school I had 2 years of high school experience plus about 3 years of experience working while I was in college. This would have left me overqualified for an entry level job, particularly if at that point I had programmed in both Datapoint 2200 assembler and Z80 assembler. As it turned out, the first 'real' job I had was pretty boring - and I quit.

You may not know your own strength, but in another respect you're going to have a hard time finding an employer that believes you actually do as much as you claim. A good approach might be to peek over the shoulder of some of your college classmates, and water down your resume to little more than what they're offering. However, including the high-school work is a good idea. Skip the buzzwords. Focus on what problems you solved. That's what they're trying to hire.

  • My dad owns a small petroleum engineering consulting firm. I mainly photocopied and shredded stuff, but I said I was an "Administrative Assistant" working with "technical documents". It was really boring, but I can do boring if it pays. – Eva Sep 20 '13 at 21:22
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Different roles in a company require different educational backgrounds and interests. For example, if the job is primarily simple coding under strict supervision versus being a system architect. For the first job they would be interested in someone who has done a lot of Java programming classes, primarily focused on practical programming skills. For the second one would be looking for a computer science MSc/PhD with less programming skills and more abstract thinking and designing skills.

If you apply for a basic programmer position with too much background, you will not be the person they are looking for. Not only might the job not be challenging enough, you simply do not have the skills set they are looking for for that particular job. The fact that they say you are over qualified is that they are looking for someone with a more practical education and skill set, with less education.

For example, I applied for some programming positions last year. I simply got rejected because I did not have the C++/C#/VB.NET skills they where looking for. I had a PhD, but for them that just meant I was over-qualified. The company I presently work for was specifically looking for a blend of a scientist and software engineer.

The problem might be that you are applying for the wrong type of jobs.

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Ahh, similar to the unemployed person's plight.... that if they get hired, they'll leave as soon as they find a better job. I'm amused how they think this when some of us can't even find ONE job, whereas the very people they're worried about are actually the ones who are currently employed and are jumping ship to join them.

As for addressing concerns, I'm still struggling with these, but AFAIK:

1) you'll get bored, try to sound as enthusiastic as possible when in and interview, and talking the HM an HR folks. Don't make it too bubbly and creepy though. When I talked with my sister over the phone, she said my voice sounded monotonous and that I was bored. I can't help it... I'm not going to drool like some fanboy even if I'm excited about the job (or more so, the prospect of getting a salary and fringe benefits). Something for me to work on.

2) If you're afraid of pricing yourself too high (they can't afford you) or too low (you get hosed and/or they think you're not worth the value you claim to be), then consider asking them what the range is, and if they tell you, let them know you're fine with it.

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