How I got a job I Was Unqualified For

working at coffee shop

You see a job description online that jazzes you up. You read through the job ad, and you think, “I’d love to apply for that,” but you’re hesitant, because you can’t check all the boxes they’re asking for. Maybe you have an opportunity to interview for a job that you don’t feel qualified for, and you’re careful not to get your hopes up, because you know that likely every other candidate is more qualified than you, so what chance do you have anyway?

Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? I’ve been there.

Early in my career, I was working at a cafe in a large industrial park, where I’d see the same customer faces each day as they came in for their morning coffee. I’d remember their orders each morning. I wouldn’t always remember their names, but I’d know that was the guy with the “grande double decaf americano with extra room.”

My plan was to work at the cafe until I finished college, where I was getting my diploma in Business Administration. While I was at college, I stayed late one night helping a fellow classmate with economics homework. Because I had been helpful to him and “saved his butt,” he asked if I wanted to apply for a job where he worked. He said he would gladly refer me.

I was excited! My first question: Where do you work?

“Abebooks,” he said (Which unbeknownst to me was about to be acquired by Amazon).

“Sure!” I said without giving it anymore thought, “That sounds amazing! Send me the job description.”

When I got home, I excitedly checked my email. I saw this description, and I almost fell out of my chair. I realized immediately that I was not even the slightest bit qualified for this job. The only thing it had in common with me was that people would be in that office, and I talk to people at the cafe.

I wondered how my classmate even thought that I’d stand a chance here. Then I figured he was probably just being nice, even though nothing would likely come of it.

Some of the responsibilities as I read down the page included things that I didn’t even understand, like:

“Support seller acquisition campaigns and account management”

“Knowledge of SQL and/or HTML”

“Experience in Sales and Account Management”

“Associate or Bachelor Degree in Business or related field preferred”

These were just a few of the bullet points that made me think to myself, “Should I even bother with this? The other candidates surely all have more experience than I do.”

As I actively tried not to get my hopes up, I started thinking about a process to prepare for this interview that would make me different. I’d already said yes. Even if no job came of it, I knew I had to at least try. I had to pinch myself because this job paid more than I had ever been paid before. The company was prestigious and had won many awards. Looking at my background, it looked completely out of my league.

How did I do this? Decoding the process now, I attribute 3 key things to why they chose me out of what later I found out was a pool of 7 shortlisted other qualified candidates.

1. A Referral Goes a Long Way

I know now that a lot of companies give quite a high preference to referred candidates, even if the candidate doesn’t check all the boxes right away. If they’re a referral they’re more likely to get invited in for an interview. I had some courses from school that made me sound smart, and I would highlight my people skills and cross my fingers.

Before I handed in my resume, I figured if there was ever a time to invest in getting it to be as close to perfect as possible, it was now. I had a professional resume writer help me with it (actually I had three). You might not always have time for this, but it gave me the confidence and reassurance I needed to finally hit “Send.”

One of the resume writers said to me, “What makes you think you’re going to get an interview for this job?” Long story short, the resume (along with my classmate’s good word) was compelling enough to have them interview me.

2. Likeability is Underrated

I learned later that being likeable is actually more important than skills, education, or experience. At the time, I think it was a highly contributing factor. It may have been the one thing that got me the job. It’s hard to tell but I have a feeling it was big. I can’t explain getting hired any other way.

It may sound unfair or even unprofessional to hire someone that you like over someone who is more skilled or experienced, but sometimes human nature trumps logic. This was confirmed when I came across a study in the Harvard business review. It proved that people might say that they’d choose the more skilled person over the more likeable candidate; however, in practice, when it comes right down to it, they don’t.

Quoted from the HBR review:

“Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”

3. The Questions YOU Ask Are Everything

At the very beginning (before they had a chance to go “stream of consciousness” with their questions), I asked them what the top priorities would be for someone entering the role in the first three months on the job. This was a strategic move. I wanted to find out in their words what exactly they wanted from their new hire. I was looking for anything other than the gibberish on the job description. My thought was that once I knew this, I could position myself as a better candidate as I answered questions throughout.

The truth is the answer wasn’t super helpful, but it was good enough. They said, “The successful candidate will spend the first three months training, learning our systems, tools, and procedures.”

This information helped me enough that I talked about my love for learning new things. It gave me a focus that I knew was desirable to them. I made a point to talk about examples and stories of learning new software programs and new concepts, and how I loved putting time and effort into learning, because it always paid off in the end. I talked about techniques I used for learning, and I captivated them with some things I’d learned that were interesting. People also like people that are interesting and can share interesting, entertaining and new info.

Another thing that I think contributed was that at the time Abebooks didn’t have a way for customers to provide feedback on their site for whether or not books were received on time and in good condition. I said, “I notice that you don’t have a way for customers to provide feedback on your site at the moment. For such a large site with so many customers, I would think something like that would be beneficial.”

I brought up this gap in their business, and I noticed the interview panel glance over at each other and smile. The gentleman on the end, who was one of the Department Managers, looked over at the Director (who was seated in the middle) and said, “Do you want to take this one?” She laughed as she started telling me how they’re excited to launch their feedback feature. After long and hard hours of working on it, the release date was less than six months away! She talked excitedly about how it worked on a star rating system, which is what you see if you go to their site today.

Sometimes it’s not about what they have in place; it’s about what they don’t have in place yet (and who notices).

The takeaways from my story include:

  • Being qualified isn’t everything
  • People will more likely hire who they like vs. who is the most skilled or the smartest
  • If you can get referred, that’s even better
  • Be strategic with when and what you ask

Try out these ideas at your next interview, and keep the doors open. Unlikely things do happen, even if they seem impossible. When that opportunity came up, I had no idea how I was going to approach it. All I knew was that there was something inside of me that was nagging me (perhaps it was my dad’s voice). “Just say yes,” he would say, “and then figure out how to do it later.”

I may have hated this advice when I was younger, but I will admit that it was not the worst advice my dad ever gave me.

Natalie Fisher is an enthusiastic HR Generalist who loves her job! She’s been on over 50 interviews and received 48 job offers. Download her Free Guide: How to Nail an Interview You’re Unqualified For.

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