Interview tips when your qualifications don't match the description
May 17, 2018 10:27 AM   Subscribe

I got recommended for a job that I am, on paper, pretty unqualified for (but it sounds interesting and it's something I could see myself doing well at). The initial screening stages went okay, but how do I keep from psyching myself out before/during the in-person interview, where they'll probably be asking me hard questions about things I don't know?

To be clear, when I say "pretty unqualified" I don't mean "they want N years of experience but I only have N-2", but more like "hmm, I have maybe 1 of their 5 key requirements on the job description, and that's probably a stretch". This is a tech job at one of those Bay Area BigCorps, with a typical recruitment process (call from recruiter, phone screen with hiring manager, small technical-type project, all-day onsite interviews).

I'm pretty fresh out of grad school (master's program) and my Not-Supervisor (long story) passed my CV to a friend of his at BigCorp. I was contacted by a BigCorp recruiter, who showed me the job description (cue rising unease) and arranged a phone call with the hiring manager (Not-Supervisor's friend). The call went well, I guess - the HM mentioned that I came "highly recommended by [Not-Supervisor]", and we talked a lot about my past projects, as well as making the transition from academia to industry. There were a number of technical questions that I basically could not even pretend to answer (I think I gave a partial answer to one?), but HM didn't seem too fussed about it - there was an air of "I'm obligated to ask you this set of questions, so just do your best and then we can get back to our conversation". I obliquely brought up my lack of relevant technical background, and the response was basically, "the right candidate would pick things up quickly, so it's not a big concern for us".

Feeling a bit reassured by the phone call, I then completed the take-home portion without much trouble, though it took me considerably longer than their estimated time, me having to google a whole bunch of super basic questions before I could get started.

We're now at the point where we're working the logistics for me to fly down for an onsite interview, and my uneasiness/nervousness is creeping back up again. I'm perfectly fine talking about my projects - I can speak intelligently and thoughtfully about stuff I've worked on and am familiar with - but I'm guessing a good portion of the interview(s) will be about how I approach problems I don't know much about, and whether or not I can pick things up quickly enough for it to be worthwhile bringing me on. There's also a bit of impostor syndrome going on here, with the way I got the interview (inside connection) in the first place. Intellectually I know that they wouldn't bother taking the time to fly me down and interview me if they didn't see something in me, but it's pretty hard to remember that when every time I glance at the job description and count all the things I'm unfamiliar with! (I mean, at this point I've looked up all the unfamiliar terms and now have a general conceptual sense of what they're asking for, but I can't exactly say I know how to do any of it.)

Given all of this, what are some strategies I can use when confronted with unfamiliar problems, to keep myself from freezing up and to best show my thought processes? How can I keep myself upbeat, enthusiastic and curious during the interview when I start getting the sinking feeling that I shouldn't be here in the first place? Any other tips/suggestions? Thanks in advance.
posted by btfreek to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: BigCorps usually have good training budgets, so specific deficits are not necessarily deal-breakers. Don't say that, but let it help you be more confident. There is a serious employee shortage; they may need you. Focus on what you know, and your skills and attributes. Go through the job description thoroughly and see what your training and experience has to offer. Women tend to underestimate their ability to do a job; men tend to overestimate; this is extremely general, but don't sell yourself short.
posted by theora55 at 10:44 AM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: They really wouldn't fly you down for an interview if they thought there was no chance they'd want to hire you. Don't try to bluff or anything, be honest and upfront about what you don't know.

Maybe a good exercise would be for you to think of things like how you felt when you started grad school or some other thing like that. Then think about the skills you used to learn about what you needed to know. That's the kind of thing you could talk about in the interview - things that are kind of parallel to what they're asking.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:19 AM on May 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Remember that job postings are sometimes wish lists and how qualified you are for the position ends up being based on how you compare with who actually applies. I have been involved with a hiring decision where we ended up changing the job title and description because no one who applied met our requirements. Someone who didn't meet the original requirements for experience but applied anyway ended up getting the job.

They are flying you down because they think you might be a good fit for the position. You might very well be the most qualified person who applied. Try to remember that they aren't going to put time and money into interviewing you if they don't think you are someone they'd consider. As long as you didn't lie on your resume, you're in good shape here.
posted by FencingGal at 11:33 AM on May 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A recruiter once told me "Your experience is your experience. If they decide to reject you based on your experience, there's nothing you can do, so don't stress about it." Somehow that made me feel way less anxious. You can't change the past!
posted by radioamy at 12:28 PM on May 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: When approached with an unfamiliar problem, talk it out loud with the interviewer as if this is an extremely interesting problem to you (hopefully it is!). They primarily want to understand your problem solving and thought process. Use a notepad, use the white board. What are the assumptions? What are the trade offs? Why is this the most efficient approach? If you need more information, what are the significant questions to ask? It is more important to articulate a thoughtful reasoning than to immediately arrive at a correct answer.

If you haven’t yet, go to Glassdoor and see what questions they have previously asked. Go over those. Bullet out your thought process and keep it as notes that you can glance at to jog your thinking if you ever get stuck.

And don’t even dwell on the inside connection. Honestly, that is probably how a significant portion of people got to the company anyways—a referral from a friend, or 3rd connection via LinkedIn, a recruiter they met at a job fair. This is one way to job hunt, and it merely gets your resume into the door so that someone looks at it. That’s all it got. You passed two other steps all on your own.
posted by inevitability at 12:52 PM on May 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly, it sounds like they're trying to hustle you into this job. It sounds like they don't care all that much about the nominal qualifications, at least not as compared to a strong recommendation from someone they respect. This is hardly unusual; frequently, qualifications are set artificially high in order to help screen "stranger" candidates, but will be unofficially lowered for "known" candidates. Your referral makes you a "known" candidate.

In many jobs, it is totally possible to pick up the work as you go, as long as the company is willing to work with you and you try hard. It sounds like this is one of those jobs and that they are willing to work with you. Trust that BigCorp knows what qualifications they actually need, as opposed to what they put in the job posting. I'm sure if you're just honest and open at the interview while also of course putting the best possible spin on the accomplishments that you do have, you'll have as good a chance as anyone. Worst case scenario, it doesn't pan out and you're no worse off than you were before.

Do be prepared to get lowballed on the offer though. Don't accept that. BigCorp can afford it; if they decide you're the best candidate for the job, then you're still the best candidate at market rate.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:40 PM on May 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You don't know what you don't know. Convey your enthusiasm and eagerness to learn and, if possible, draw on your previous experiences where you were presented with problems on the job you needed to learn how to solve. If you have a track record of learning new skills and growing into roles, they will feel good about the prospect of you doing so again - assuming this job requires work you are actually interested in learning to do.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:36 PM on May 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sometimes Job A also turns into Job B during the hiring process, as the hiring manager see who's out there or recognizes that they need slightly different skills and they originally expected. This can be good or bad for you, but just assume that they're interested in you and be upfront about what you do and don't have experience in.
posted by oryelle at 11:15 AM on May 18, 2018

Best answer: "Given all of this, what are some strategies...?" Read Pólya's How To Solve It. Glance at the TRIZ methodology. Read up on serendipitous discoveries like velcro and antibiotics and computers. Read Hadamard's reports of how Einstein felt sensations in his forearms.

Be prepared to say, "Yeah, I got nothing on this one. Let's move on, shall we?"

"How can I keep myself upbeat...sinking feeling...shouldn't be here...?" They see something in you. They value your perspective. If you don't have a handle on the problem they're trying to solve, explore with them the problem in your context: "How does what they do affect me and people I care about? What are the stoppers they have that I have some experience with?"

"Any other tips/suggestions?" Even if it turns out to be a waste of time, it'll be a great experience, and you may get a couple free meals out it. Enjoy it!!
posted by at at 2:30 AM on May 19, 2018

Response by poster: Update: I GOT THE JOB
posted by btfreek at 7:32 AM on June 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

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