In my third year of university, I applied for a coveted summer position at a Big 4 accounting firm despite two glaring facts.
- I was not in an accounting program (I was an IT + business major), and
- I didn’t attend a prestigious business school (The firm didn’t even actively recruit from my school at that time)
To even get an interview, I had to beat out students from established accounting programs and more prestigious schools.
Fortunately, I had one advantage: I didn’t have to prove that I was better than all the other candidates, because I knew how to get in through the side door. In fact, I’d landed a previous job even after the posting for it was already gone because the hiring manager had given up finding the right candidate!
In this post I’ll break down how I land jobs I’m not qualified for and teach you how you can do that, too.
Let’s bust the myth of qualifications right now. Think about it: companies put out job descriptions because they want something done — a job.
And “job” is just a catchall for a set of tasks the company pays you to do.
As long as you can figure out what those tasks are and show the company that you can do them, then you’re qualified for the job.
Simple enough, right? Well, it’s only going to get simpler:
You see, there are only two decisive moments in the job-hunting process that you need to master:
- Getting the interview
- The interview itself
Show the company that you can do the job in these decisive moments, and you can get any job you want, whether you’re qualified on paper or not.
That’s the theory. Now, let’s get into the practicalities.
When you ask, “How do I get my foot in the door for a job I want but I’m not qualified for?” what you should really be asking is,
“How do I get a company to notice me and give me an interview when everyone looks more qualified than I do?”
You need to cut through the noise of other job applications and candidates.
Once you get an interview, you need a different set of skills (more on that later), but for now, you just have to get noticed. Here are a few tips to help you get an interview without looking qualified on paper.
1. Job Requirements Are an Ideal (So Don’t Disqualify Yourself)
Companies put out job descriptions to save time. They write them to increase the probability that they’ll attract and interview qualified candidates and to filter out unqualified ones.
Because of this, when you see a company or job you want to apply for, don’t avoid applying just because you don’t fit the requirements. Remember: you don’t need to be qualified. You just have to be able to do the job.
For example, if a business is looking for someone who can do basic bookkeeping, the job description might say “Graduated with a BComm in Accounting or another related field,” because chances are, these people can do bookkeeping.
But if you’re a photography student who has done bookkeeping for your family’s convenience store, then you’re a just as qualified as someone with a business degree — maybe more. The company just doesn’t know it yet.
Of course, I’m not saying you should apply for a job if the job requirements say you have to speak Farsi fluently and you can’t. I’m not telling you to lie or mislead anyone. What I am saying is, don’t let the more common “we require 3-5 years of experience” or “must have prior experience as a server” dissuade you from gunning for a job.
2. Find and Form a Personal Connection
There’s a Silicon Valley saying that goes, “If you want money, ask for advice.” That is, if you want startup money, then you should go ask a venture capitalist out for coffee and their business advice.
And we’re going to use that same principle to get a job you’re not qualified for: Ask someone at the company out for coffee to get their advice on the job and the company.
For example, my first (and last) full-time job was at a tech startup. Only after I started with them did I learn that this company fielded dozens of candidates a day, but only a handful made it through to the initial meeting with the COO and then to the final meeting with the CEO.
I felt extremely fortunate and grateful because I got this job from (you guessed it) the side door. I got the job interview because I asked the CEO if I could interview him for a school project. In my email, I slid in a P.S. that mentioned I was also interested in a job posting they had. He said yes to talking about both the interview and the job. I ended up hitting it off with him and getting the position.
Now, I don’t suggest you start messaging and interviewing CEOs left and right, but once you’re interested in a company, do reach out to someone who works there. Even if they don’t have any open positions.
- Don’t ask for a job right off the bat. Instead, show that you’re a genuine person who knows your stuff. Once you do apply, this contact can help you get the inside scoop on what the job is really like.
- They don’t have to be the hiring manager or someone in your prospective department. They can just be the friendliest-looking, most accessible 2nd- or 3rd-level connection you have on LinkedIn.
- Frame your request as wanting to learn more about the company. If they’re a hiring manager, ask them more about the role and the department. And if your contact is comfortable, ask for another person to talk to who is closer to the job you want.
3. Be Different, Rather Than Better
When you walk into a grocery store, you probably don’t care what brand of salt you buy. You just grab the cheapest one off the shelf. (Unless you’ve watched Salt Fat Acid Heat, in which case you’ll get the Maldon sea salts.)
Compare that with how you pick a phone.
They are lots of smartphones, but in our minds, we consider a Samsung Galaxy Note in a different category than an iPhone XS Max. A Note might have better hardware specs or a better camera than an iPhone, but there are millions of people who still pay more for an iPhone over a Note.
Why is that?
Because in a commodity category like salt, every product is fundamentally the same and they just compete on the price. Apple, on the other hand, has worked hard to position its products in a more premium category than its competitors’. This allows them to charge more for basically the same features.
Let’s apply this to job hunting. Instead of trying to better, what if you flipped the script and differentiated yourself?
By doing so, you force the company to assess you for who you are, instead of comparing you apples-to-apples with other candidates. Because let’s face it: there’s always going to be someone who looks better on paper than you do.
When you differentiate yourself, however, the company won’t care what’s on your resume or your cover letter. They’ll just want to hire you.
If you don’t believe that’s possible, here’s a crazy detail about how I got my full-time job from the previous section:
They never asked for my resume.
After my interview with the CEO, they asked me to interview with two managers that I would work with, and then I started work the week after. A few months later, the COO mentioned that he had read my LinkedIn profile and my blog, but that was all the research he did on me.
I’m honestly not better — I graduated with a 3.24 GPA and close to zero extracurricular activities in school (that’s the trade-off for spending all my free time on my side hustles). But from the beginning, the folks at the company knew that they’d have a hard time finding someone like me who fit their needs so well.
In fact, thanks to my lifelong obsessions with entrepreneurship, writing, and marketing, I was a downright bargain for them. I brought skills to the table that only someone who’d already spent years in the industry could possess, yet they were able to pay me an entry-level salary.
4. Focus on Your Skills and Strengths
And don’t worry about your weaknesses unless they ask. Again, it’s hard enough to get through to the company without you disqualifying yourself. I won’t go into detail on applications here because we’ve already got some excellent resources like this article, this article + video, and this podcast episode.
But on your resume and cover letter be sure to include things you might not have been paid to do. Things like:
- Unpaid volunteer opportunities
- School organizations
- Relevant online courses
For example, I invested in a $997 course to become a Certified Scrum Master. This wasn’t a school course, but it helped me get a project management job that paid $22/hour for 8 months at one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. So the course paid for itself after a couple of weeks of work.
Once you get scheduled in for an interview — congratulations! You’re halfway there, but don’t let your guard down just yet. Walking into an interview is just the tip of the iceberg: 80% of the work happens before the interview.
Here’s how to prepare for that, especially if you’ve never done anything like the job before:
1. Talk the Talk
You don’t have to be an expert on the job you’re about to take on. They know you’re a student. But what would be impressive is if you used the lingo that professionals in that area use.
In addition, more points to you (and your Hogwarts house) if you can talk about influencers in that specific niche and dialogue on industry issues.
For example, for my second co-op term, I wanted to get a growth marketing role at this mobile gaming company. I’d been reading about growth marketing for a while by then, so I knew whose books and work to mention.
Finally, although I never talked about it, I had a wide range of industry issues I could potentially ask about: remote work, fintech, and how marketing for a B2B SaaS company is different from marketing for a consumer-facing one.
Now, before you turn up your nose at talking the talk, I’ll beat you to it: This tip is not about faking it ’till you make it. It’s about taking on the onus of learning about the job and how you can succeed in it to show initiative and eagerness. It’s also about showing a genuine curiosity towards the role and the company. Because of that, you need to…
2. Learn the What and Why Behind the Job Description
Knowing why the company wants someone from an Ivy League school or why they want someone who has excellent communication skills is key to nailing an interview.
Knowing this helps you dig up stories from your experiences that correlate closely with parts of the job and show the interviewer that you’ve done something similar to the job description.
Here’s a fact: the folks who write the job descriptions at companies write them from their perspective. Meaning, a description for a PR intern job could say,
Requirement: Degree in marketing or similar discipline and excellent writing skills
But in truth, all they want is someone who can write press releases and stay in contact with journalists.
Walking into that interview for that job — even with a totally unrelated biomedical engineering degree, for example — and talking about how you once wrote a press release for a medical non-profit will help you land that much better than talking about how you wrote for the school paper.
If you have a contact in the company, then hit them up and ask them about what the job is really like.
You can also ask about the what of the description in an interview.
For example, when I was interviewing for the accounting firm in the intro, I asked the partner interviewing me what COBIT/COSO was. I’d read it in the job description and read a paragraph about it in a textbook somewhere, but I just couldn’t understand what it meant.
Asking the question didn’t make me look stupid. In hindsight, I think I got the job because I asked a question about a topic that only an accounting student would normally catch. It also showed that I had an eye for detail and actual read the job description.
A caveat though: This tip only works if the question is not incredibly basic, like “What’s Microsoft Office?” (If you’re reading this article, you’re probably fine, even if you probably prefer Google Docs to Word. 😉)
To get a job you don’t seem qualified for, you have to get out of your own head. If you can pick up the tasks in the job description, chances are, you can do the job. Don’t disqualify yourself.
Then, you have to get in front of the right people by finding a contact in the company and getting the inside scoop and present yourself differently from everyone else. Don’t let them compare you to other candidates.
Remember: You’re not a brand of $2 salt that no one cares about. You’re a special friggin’ jar of 100-year-old fermented soy sauce from the jungles of Japan.
Image Credits: do something great