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When interviewing with a company where all the interviewers have lower educational backgrounds from lower ranking schools than the interviewee, should the interviewee appear modest, weaker and reserve (not show off) part of his/her repertoire? The reason behind is that employers might prefer hiring people less or as smart people as they are, or those who don't look too different from themselves. As the saying goes, those who are neither the smartest nor too bad get a job.

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    You seem to assume that lesser educational background necessarily implies less smart. I got my PhD at age 60, after an industry career.. I don't think I magically became smarter then. – Patricia Shanahan Mar 5 at 11:38
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    because you say that they 'might prefer hiring people less or as smart people as they are' and by that are implying that because you are from a higher ranked school you are smarter – Aserre Mar 5 at 13:43
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    Did your highly ranked school teach you about Dunning-Kruger effect? – mustaccio Mar 5 at 14:11
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    I don't understand why so many people downvote this. It's a kind of OK question. That's the criteria that should be used for voting, not whether or not you completely disagree with the asker. I upvoted it just to counter-balance some of this flawed approach (even though I also completely disagree with its premise). – Radu Murzea Mar 5 at 15:25
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    Rankings of schools often demonstrates nothing more than the fact that your parents had a lot of money. – jamesqf Mar 5 at 19:01

15 Answers 15

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I agree that employers might prefer hiring people less or as smart people as they are.

I think that the answer depends on what really you want.

Are you over-educated for that job? And, despite this, do you really want that job?

I have been in this situation, and I tried to reserve part of my repertoire. But, after getting the job, I recognized the mismatch. The employer also recognized the mismatch. And I had to find a new job. After making the same error twice, now I am in a position when my reportoire is appreciated in full.

To sum up: if you reserve your repertoire maybe you get the work. But it won't last.

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    "Might" is an important word in your first sentence. And, even if it's true for a specific employer, it begs a question, which I think you have answered well: do you really want to "fake" the interview in order to get a job, for an employer where you won't be a good fit? Or should you be honest and then be happy about not getting a job where you might not have fit well? – dwizum Mar 5 at 15:19
  • @user3664452 having ur reportoire appreciated in full is difficult unless in academia. luckily u got it. i agree with u. sometimes one just needs a job – feynman Mar 6 at 8:39
  • I know people that have been turned away for being over-qualified or over-educated. One example was right after 9/11 and Y2K, guy with a fresh Computer Science BS and English BA can't find a job in his field, so he turned to masonry to make ends meet. After a while as an apprentice, they wouldn't let him into the union because of his education, and I think they were right to turn him away. Someone less educated gets a good masonry job and he went on to be a technical writer. – rtaft Mar 7 at 13:50
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When interviewing with a company where all the interviewers have lower educational backgrounds from lower ranking schools than the interviewee,

Wait, hang on. While this is a common assumption that reputed schools produce good grades, it does not necessarily imply that the second or third-tier schools are of lower grade. Moreover, it's not only the formal education that matters, there are many proficient engineers you'll meet who are self-taught (up to a very great extent). Some may not have a prestigious alma mater, but they may certainly have brilliant on-job work experience and learning.

The reason behind is that employers might prefer hiring people less or as smart people as they are.

That's almost never true, rather quite the opposite. If I'm hiring someone, I'd expect a smart and capable person, not a "weaker and reserve" one.

To add, don't judge your interviewer by their background - in an interview, always give your best shot.


Note 1:

That said, when you say "all the interviewers have lower educational backgrounds...." - maybe you should be worried about the organization and their work, not the individuals.

Note 2:

Don't make assumptions. In case you feel that you need to underplay your abilities to get a job- ask yourself: "Is it worth it?". Even if you get the job by downplaying your abilities, you can be certain that you will have zero job satisfaction, working in that organization, as you would have to suppress your natural abilities and capabilities and skills to survive also. The scope for your career and personal growth will also be almost non-existent.

So, don't bother about the interviewer's capabilities - they are not under your control. Focus on your capabilities to show the interviewer why you are the "best match" for the requirement they have. Leave the rest to them.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Mar 8 at 10:06
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A good life lesson is, don't make assumptions.

I'm saying this because your question is rife with them:

  • You're assuming that you know the educational background of everyone at the table.
  • You're assuming that educational background is an indicator of smartness.
  • You're assuming that the person who appears the smartest doesn't get the job (your last sentence, which references a saying I've never actually heard).
  • You're assuming the interviewer won't want to hire someone who appears smarter than them in the interview.
  • You're assuming that you're skilled enough at modesty that you would be able to "hide" your smarts from the interviewers at will, if you so choose.
  • You're assuming that "smartness" is an important factor in the interview process (versus, say, skills or the ability to complete tasks for instance).
  • You're assuming that the interviewers are all inherently comparing you to themselves (versus, say, comparing you to other candidates or people currently performing that role for the employer).

Regardless of whether each of these are true or not (and I think there are strong arguments that they're pretty much all patently false), the biggest mistake you've made is making so many assumptions in the first place. Every time you make an assumption about an interview, you run the risk of being wrong, and blowing the interview over something that could have been avoided.

When preparing for an interview, you need to be able to show actual worth in terms of performing work. Instead of focusing on the appearance of smartness, focus on the requirements of the job, and your ability to practically show that you have the skills they're looking for.

The good news is, by taking this approach, it's actually easy to prepare for an interview. The employer has given you a template of what they're looking for (the job description), so you don't need to make assumptions. If you go in to an interview ready to show how you match that template, you'll do well.

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    "skills or the ability to complete tasks for instance" - or passion (which may be correlated to how smart you think you are, but less so how smart you actually are). – Dukeling Mar 5 at 16:42
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    The last two paragraphs are especially important because they give the OP something to focus on instead of educational attainment. Advising someone not to think about X tends to be ineffective. Advising instead thinking about Y is more useful. – Patricia Shanahan Mar 5 at 21:03
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    It might be worthwhile to further emphasize avoiding focus on "smartness", because in some fields being 'too clever' is a bad thing. Notably, a solution in software that's so clever it's not readable... isn't a good solution. I'd guess this applies elsewhere too. – Delioth Mar 5 at 22:00
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    @Delioth Some might say writing unreadable code is not very clever at all. – Dukeling Mar 6 at 0:47
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    "You're assuming that you're skilled enough at modesty that you would be able to "hide" your smarts from the interviewers at will, if you so choose" Would stress this one; since the question strongly suggests otherwise. – UKMonkey Mar 6 at 11:40
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Here's something you probably haven't realized yet:

1 year in the workforce is equivalent to about 3 years in college. You divide your attention in college. You are given problems that the answers to are already known (unless you're pursuing doctoral / PHD degrees), and there is far less "on the line" than in a real job.

The one advantage "good schools" have is a lifelong network of other graduates that you share a connection with.

That person who's been working 5 years from "Average Joe Tech" knows as much, if not more than any high-end bachelor's degree holder, and he knows more about what is needed in that situation than ANY applicant could possible glean from a job description.

So you go in there with your best shot, but you go in there understanding that they need you to fit the job, and they're not going to make the job fit you.

I've hired good and bad graduates with "top school degrees," but I've also hired a fair number of people with no or unrelated degrees who turned into phenomenal individual contributors.

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    I totally agree with the concept of a year in the workforce being worth more than a year in college, I just think your scale is off in a way. I think I would say a month in the workforce might be worth less than a year of college, but that a year in the workforce could be worth all four years of college, and five years in the workforce is worth more than a lifetime of college. So I suppose if I were to get mathematical about it, I feel like the relationship is perhaps exponential and not linear. I've ignored college completely on resumes that have more than one job listed. – Todd Wilcox Mar 5 at 14:17
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    I don't agree with that estimate at all. One year in the workforce provides you the skills to deal with problems that you were exposed to. Learning by experience is inductive and usually deep but narrow. With inductive learning every new problem is a new problem. With a university background you already know the general cases and all that comes in your work is just a special case/application that you can pick up pretty fast instead of learning it from scratch. Even 15 years in the workforce will rarely provide you what good education does in 3 years. – Džuris Mar 5 at 16:20
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    @Džuris - and you are absolutely entitled to hold that opinion. My experiences and assessments would differ. – Wesley Long Mar 5 at 16:22
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    In my field, the only useful thing people learn from a college degree is how to carry on learning. None of the specifics that you learned amount to much, in practical situations. – alephzero Mar 5 at 20:11
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    Completely false . 1 year on a good job equals < 1 semester of a good uni (and does not even need to be tops) .. unless the job were exceptional in which case it's closer to even (but still weighted towards school). I'm saying this after 2 decades of experience and then going back to school. What exactly do you do on the job that would make you come up with this? 12 hours a day 365 days a year running and evaluating experiments to complex hypotheses? That sounds like someone preparing their dissertation .. not in a 9-5 job with long coffee breaks. – javadba Mar 6 at 10:34
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This question makes assumptions that are worth being picked apart in detail.

First, if the company wanted to hire people stupider than themselves, and believed that the quality of school was a proxy for how smart the applicant is, and that the school on the transcript was a school smart people go to, they wouldn’t have brought the candidate in for an interview in the first place.

Well managed companies typically want to hire people who are smarter/better than the people already working there, because they need people to do work that they cannot already do. If a company wants to hire people who are stupider than the people who work there out of some sort of inadequacy that normal adults grow out of after leaving school, then that is a company you should avoid working for. That would imply acting more smart, rather than less.

But even then, you shouldn’t try to “game” these aspects of interviewing. You don’t know in advance what sort of preferences the interviewers have. You don’t know whether they want smart people or whether they want dumb people out of their own insecurity. You don’t know whether they want people who went to good schools or people who went to bad schools. You don’t know if they’re virtuous or vicious. Because you don’t know these these things, it’s hard to play a game to get them right. It’s hard to pretend.

What you do know, is if you take an offer, you’re going to have to work there for a time long enough that everyone is going to see through your pretending ability. So, don’t waste their time and yours pretending to be something that you are not.

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The candidate should behave reasonably, regardless of the interviewers.

Think about this: how should Einstein behave during a job interview? Of course, almost everybody on Earth would look stupid by comparison, regardless of University degrees.

By "reasonably" I mean:

  • be polite and civilized;
  • answer the answers as truthfully as possible, while selling yourself in the best way possible;
  • do not boast about yourself;
  • let the interviewers deal with what / who they want to hire for the job they have to offer.
  • good, but who knows how einstein behaved? – feynman Mar 5 at 7:42
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    @feynman anyone who knew him? He isn't some legendary being, there are still people alive today who met him. (Granted, the number is dwindling rapidly, but still. He died only 65 years ago.) – Erik Mar 5 at 7:47
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    It is not the point how he actually behaved - he probably did not get interviewed by the companies, but companies were interview by him. The example is related to OP's statement "interviewers have lower educational backgrounds" - in comparison with Einstein, even some real geniuses had lower educational backgrounds. – virolino Mar 5 at 8:54
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While you don't want to appear arrogant or a "show-off" there's no reason to appear weaker or less intelligent/capable then you actually are.

I always want to hire the best person for the job, regardless of their relative intelligence vis a vis myself, in fact hiring people smarter than yourself is what we call "good management".

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    Exactly. A job interview is not the time to be modest. – Mike Waters Mar 7 at 23:29
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Other answers have pointed out that the educational background detail is loaded with naive assumptions, but putting that aside and addressing your core question: Should you purposefully make yourself appear less capable in order to get hired somewhere where you suspect your hiring manager(s) won't hire somebody more capable than they are?

Unless you have a really compelling reason to want to get hired for this particular organisation / role, if you suspect this is the case you're better off walking away.

Managers not hiring people more capable than them is a huge red flag that the team / organisation's culture is not a good one. Both your immediate day-to-day and longer term career growth prospects will likely be much worse in such a culture than in one where managers are simply looking to hire the best people they can find, at all levels.

If you are confident in your abilities, as you seem to be, you likely have other, better options. If you even have to ask this question going into an interview, it's a signal you should just decline it and look elsewhere.

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    You can push it further and, paraphrasing Groucho Marx "never work for a company that would hire you as an employee" :) But seriously, great, great answer. – R1ck77 Mar 7 at 16:34
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Sell yourself as who you are. No more, no less, because your actual credentials will come out during the course of employment. If you misled the people you will be working with, you will not do well on the job.

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Copying the manners of the people you are talking to is actually a pretty neat psychological trick to make yourself appear more likeable. People generally like people more when they are similar to them. This is called mirroring. And besides, nobody likes arrogant know-it-alls. Talking in a way which is appropriate to the audience is an important social skill. But keep a few things in mind:

  • Using psychological tricks to your advantage raises ethical problems. You are literally manipulating people into liking you.
  • They might know that trick and realize you are trying to pull it off, which would be a red flag.
  • They might actually be consciously looking for someone who is smarter than they are (or as smart as they think they are). Remember the job description and consider what kind of person they are likely looking for.
  • If you have to "play dumb" in the interview in order to get the job, you will have to to "play dump" for the rest of the time you are working there. Do you really want to keep up this charade? Or wouldn't you be more comfortable working for someone who accepts you the way you really are?
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There is much here already for the OP to reflect on about the true value of degrees, and more importantly how other people view them.

But I can tell you one thing for sure: I wouldn't hire someone who flounced into an interview to show off. At work, arrogance is a real hindrance. As mustaccio pointed out so aptly in the comments, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not a good thing to be dealing with.

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From personal experience, I can recommend not downplaying your abilities - but definitely downplaying the "education" part. In many fields, the degree itself isn't particularly valuable, but the skills you developed while studying can be valuable.

I completed an M.S. in the social sciences. My work focused on computer simulation of social activities, so I had pretty solid quantitative skills and reasonable programming skills. My first job after college was in advertising. In my organization the only other person with a graduate degree was the CEO, who had an MBA. Some other high-ranking people had bachelors degrees, but many (if not most) people had no degree at all.

Having a degree, and the reputation of your school, will largely not be impressive. Instead focus on your skills. For me, this meant discussing how well I understood social behavior (which is important in advertising), quantitative skills, and technical skills. Don't focus on theory. Don't talk about your intelligence or education. Tell them what you can do for them.

One last piece of advice: don't suppose that you have any significant advantage over other staff because of your education. Many of those people have a lifetime of experience in their field and are incredibly talented. You do contribute a different skill set, which also brings value.

  • its interesting u do quant work after an MS in social sciences – feynman Mar 6 at 8:35
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I would suggest not trying to guess what the interviewers want to see (i.e., whether they want to hire someone with more/less knowledge than themselves). Be yourself. If your knowledge and personality don't match what the hiring team is looking for, then it's best to not get hired at that company. Pretending to be one thing in an interview when you'll be another thing on the job is asking for a lot of trouble.

In general: If you are asked to solve a problem or demonstrate knowledge, do it to the best of your ability. If you do something "over their heads", or they have other reasons to ask for clarification (e.g., to see how you handle the situation), verify that you understand the question being asked and then answer it as best you can.

Don't be a show-off talking about how great you are and how much you know, and don't put anyone or their education down. Be factual about your skills and knowledge, but not opinionated about it. For one thing, I challenge your opinion that a better ranked school implies that the graduating student is smarter or got a better education. I don't have time to get into the specifics, but in my 20+ years of professional experience, I've found that a lot of the best (and most knowledgeable) employees came from tier 2 schools.

Good luck with your job hunt!

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As the saying goes, those who are neither the smartest nor too bad get a job.

Where does that saying come from? I've never heard it. I've never seen anyone acting according to it. Now it is of course possible that someone is very smart but has problems that make them hard to employ, but in general the smartest person has definitely an advantage to everyone else.

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I have seen the hiring process quite a few times from both sides (first hand and second hand). In general you don't need to worry about appearing too smart/capable, as long as it avoids rubbing people the wrong way on a personal level. If you appear arrogant, or completely unable to connect with the people that are hiring you that is bad, but otherwise you should be good.

The real reason that I have seen people not get hired is because they are 'overqualified'. Note that intelligence is only a small part in this, as experience and extreme ambition count heavily as well.

If you get a candidate that will be bored with the challenges the job presents, or dissatisfied with the career possibilities, then you would often not choose them as you know you will have to start hiring again in no time.

The good news is, that unless you are purposely and covertly looking for a job for a short time, you should also not want to get hired in such a position. Hence my conclusion:

In most cases showing your capabilities in a positive way, will result in the best OUTCOME for all involved.

Whether it results in you getting hired or not!

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