Overqualified? Tweak Your Resume

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When Linda Seger began her search for an entry-level job in the film industry, her biggest obstacle was her own success. Seger had spent years earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate in drama and the arts, eventually becoming a college professor. Then she decided to start fresh and pursue a career in script writing. Unfortunately, she knew she had far too much academic experience to land any of the entry-level jobs in the field.

“I realized the only thing I had to offer when entering the business was my typing ability,” she said. “I typed 123 wpm on an electric typewriter at the time. So I took all my degrees, except for my B.A. in English, off my resume, and sold myself on my typing,” she said. With that change, she managed to get her foot in the door as a secretary, and in the three decades since then, she has become a successful script writer and author. She admits there were moments when a boss would be surprised by how “educated” she was, but she said that was fine with her “because I had proven myself.”

Seger’s predicament may sound unusual, but in the past few years, many job hunters have run up against an unfortunate conundrum. These days, due to the poor economy, many of the best jobs are scarce and more competitive. As a result, unemployed Americans must often aim lower and turn their attention from ‘dream’ jobs to ‘settle’ jobs.

As we reported recently, 6.7 million Americans have now been unemployed for six months or longer. If that’s not bad enough, earlier this year the AARP announced that the number of unemployed Americans who are 55 and older had increased by 331% between 2000 and 2009, eventually totaling more than 2 million last year. All of this contributes to a new trend in America where older and more experienced job seekers are forced to look to jobs for which they are overqualified just to make ends meet. The New York Times cited estimates which argue that as many as one in five Americans are “toiling in positions where their experience or education exceed their job descriptions.”

The reality though is that when applying for lower-level jobs, there is a good chance that these candidates will be viewed as having too much experience, and may be turned down for that reason. This has led some job applicants and career experts to take a page from Seger’s playbook and find creative ways to tweak resumes.

“We’re living in the era of overqualified candidates,” said Rob McGovern, the founder of Career Builder and current CEO of JobFox. “It's better to be employed in a lesser job than to have an extended unemployment period.” With that in mind, McGovern recommends that candidates craft their resumes to focus less on “high-level capabilities” and more on their skill handling lower-level assignments. “For example, if you were a CFO, I’d talk about accounting and finance management responsibilities more than your experience attending board meetings.”

Similarly, Tory Johnson, founder of WomenForHire.com, argues that candidates should learn when it’s appropriate to downplay their experience and fight the typical urge to “embellish” your resume. In particular, she suggests not just changing the job’s description but sometimes even the job title too. “Remove titles if they’re very senior,” she said.”Instead of the VP of customer service, just list customer service.”

Nicholas Carroll has taken these ideas to their logical extreme. Carroll goes beyond just making small changes and instead preaches the merits of “dumbing down” your resume. On his Web site and in his e-book, The Layoff Survival Plan, Carroll offers some advice that seems to go against common wisdom for applying to jobs: “Remove your highest degree from your resume,” learn to “downgrade” your job titles and copy as much of the original job posting as you can into your resume and cover letter so you appear to be a better fit.

Much of this advice stems from Carroll’s own experience struggling to find work at fast food restaurants and the like after having lost his good job as an e-commerce developer with Hastings Research during the dot-com bust. “I was ushered out dozens of times before I wised up and dumbed down, on the advice of a college friend who bellowed at me, ‘If you want a job, boy, you better dumb down!’,” he said.

For Carroll and many job hunters like him who apply for positions below their experience level, the goal is essentially to do anything to get one foot in the door, in the hopes that they might be able to impress their potential employers.

However, as ABC News points out, there are essentially three big concerns that overqualified candidates must overcome. There is the fear that an older and experienced employee won’t want to listen to a “younger or less experienced manager,” or that this candidate will “get bored” because the work is so far below his or her experience level. And, perhaps the biggest concern of all, is that these candidates are just biding their time and will “leave when something better comes along.”

Yet, the tactics that Carroll proposes raise a serious question: How much liberty can you take in remaking your resume before the resume police come after you?

According to Yahoo Hot Jobs, one should be careful not to deliberately lie about job details like your salary, but “a sin of omission just to get in the door is fine.” But some argue you should be more judicious in the application process. “The resume should always be tweaked to reflect the position, but only because it will make you a more relevant candidate, not because you need to hide experience,” said Alexandra Levitt, author of New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career.

Instead, Levitt suggests that you use your cover letter and interview to be more open about your reasons for wanting this lower-level job, whether it’s because you want to “learn a new skill set, work with a different type of client or in a different type of industry.” In fact, she says that “it may even be appropriate to say that you are raising a family and are therefore looking for a less intense position.”

Similarly, Johnson, the founder of WomenForHire.com, urges applicants to find the silver lining in your experience. If your employer is worried that you might leave abruptly because you are too experienced, turn this around on them and argue that your longevity in previous positions is the ultimate indication that you are a loyal employee. And always offer to sample the job you’d be doing for a couple days so you can prove your ability to handle the work. “The key is to get beyond the label ‘overqualified,” she said.  “Look the deer in the headlights and ask them ‘What specifically are your concerns about my ability to excel in this role?’”

Ultimately, some might worry that landing a lower-level position could reflect poorly on their resume in the long run, but Johnson has an answer for this too. “It’s all in what you make of it. If you’re miserable serving coffee at Starbucks, then I’m not going to be impressed that you took that job. If you tell me that you learned a lot about the customer experience and it’s given you a new appreciation for the front line workers, that’s a great thing to come of a lesser position,” she said. “No job should be beneath any of us when it comes to supporting ourselves and our loved ones.”

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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