When you find a job description you love, it might be a letdown to discover your skills don’t perfectly align. You might question whether you’re even qualified to apply for the role and be tempted to walk away if your self-talk is screaming “no.”
Generally, being qualified means that you have the skills, education, and experience needed to perform the job, but sometimes, there are nuances in what it means to be qualified. Job descriptions contain several sections that you can use to decide whether you fit the requirements for the position, including:
Skills (may appear as qualifications or “must-haves”)
Education (sometimes referred to as “educational background” or “what you need”)
Experience (often listed under “what you’ll do,” “duties,” or “responsibilities”)
Employers use these sections to communicate what they are looking for in an ideal candidate—the professional who meets every single requirement in the job description. Since there really is no perfect candidate, you can use the job description as a guide rather than a fixed set of requirements. In doing so, you might find that you’re a great fit in other ways that are not outlined in the job description, and in a workforce where 60 percent qualified is usually enough, you might even be the best fit for the job.
What does it mean to be qualified?
Even if you are aiming to meet just 60 percent of the job requirements before you apply, determining what it means to be qualified can still be tricky. Here are a few guidelines you can use to decide whether you’re qualified for the job:
You meet the minimum education and experience requirements of the position.
For example, the position requires a bachelor’s degree and at least two years of experience in content writing; you have a bachelor’s degree and three years of experience in content writing.
You have performed similar work or used the same skills in the past (even if the job title or industry is different).
Perhaps you’ve never had a ‘content writer’ job title before, but you have written and edited blog posts, newsletters, and social media content—you can use this relevant experience to qualify for the content writer job.
If given training or guidance, you have the capacity to perform additional job duties related to the job (may be under “preferred qualifications” in the posting).
Many content writers use some type of content management system, such as WordPress. If the hiring manager prefers a candidate with WordPress experience but is willing to train you in using the system, you could still be qualified for the job.
You might still be looking for additional clues that you’re qualified for the job. To figure that out, take stock of your transferable skills, which are skills and abilities that can be used in multiple jobs. For instance, when you see that “communication skills” are required for the job you want, you may wonder whether you have them. You can figure that out by breaking down examples of communication skills—after all, “communication” (much like leadership and organization) is a broad skill set that includes several specific sub-skills and competencies.
What other qualifications do you need for a position?
If you’re starting to feel like skills are central to being qualified for a position, you’ve got the right idea! Skills are often vital to a successful and fulfilling career, particularly if you are a nontraditional candidate. Nontraditional candidates may not meet the job requirements in a conventional sense because they are changing from one job or industry to another or have an unusual educational or career background.
If you fall into that category, you may find it helpful to identify other qualifications you can use for the position. In addition to transferable skills, personal qualities are often needed for jobs. Let’s say you apply for a job with a company that has recently undergone a merger; mergers often require a great deal of change for the organization. If you have an adaptable personality and are able to quickly change directions in your work without losing momentum, you can leverage your ability to adapt to change to qualify for the job, even if you don’t meet all the experience requirements.
The same is true when it comes to education. Some job seekers assume they are unqualified for a job if they don’t have a degree. In some cases, employers will require you to have a college degree and are unable to waive this requirement. However, in other cases, you can cite certain attributes you have in lieu of a college degree, such as substantial work experience, longevity (sticking with one company for a long period of your career), or nontraditional education (such as independent, self-paced courses or on-the-job training).
The common denominator here is how you approach your job search: Getting your desired job with a nontraditional background requires a nontraditional approach. Most candidates already have solid skills, education, and career experience, even if it looks different than what has previously been accepted in the workforce. And if you still need to gain skills and experience, you should be able to do so with the confidence that, once you’re ready to pursue your desired job, the workforce is ready to embrace your diverse background.
How should we shift our definition of ‘qualified’ to be more inclusive of candidates with diverse backgrounds?
In the past, job seekers were only considered qualified for a job if they had a specific set of requirements. Today, many employers appreciate job seekers with diverse skill sets. This is an important development in the workforce, particularly for career changers, who can use the transferable skills they’ve gained in one industry to make meaningful contributions to other industries—and for people from marginalized groups who might not have equal access to the same job, educational, or networking opportunities as more privileged candidates.
But the transition to this more open mindset is by no means complete. In order for our definition of a “qualified” candidate to shift to embrace a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences, hiring managers must incorporate these strategies into their hiring practices:
1. Develop stronger cultural competency and emotional intelligence
Cultural competency is the ability to understand and authentically engage with people across different cultures and with different backgrounds from your own; emotional intelligence is the ability to build relationships with those people, all while practicing self-management and self-awareness. Hiring managers who continuously build and maintain these skills are more likely to see beyond fixed job requirements and take note of additional skills, education, and experiences that are equally useful for the job. Encouraging awareness of one’s own values, participation in diversity workshops and programming, and the expansion of networks beyond readily available or “like” groups can foster cultural competency.
2. Embrace gig workers, freelancers, independent contractors, and small business owners
As a career coach, I get lots of questions from my clients who have “nontraditional” employment experiences, such as freelance and contract work. Many of them are concerned that hiring managers will deem their career experience irrelevant because it was developed in a nontraditional way. Although this perception is slowly changing, there is still work that needs to be done. Provided that candidates can clearly explain their duties and responsibilities as well as the skills they developed from their contract work, they should be considered just like other candidates with a history of standard, full-time work. After all, gig work often shapes candidates into more proactive, efficient workers who are prepared to deliver results beyond the scope of the job.
3. Write more inclusive job descriptions with a broader, more diverse audience in mind
Currently, there are no hard-and-fast rules for creating job descriptions, meaning that job postings can vary widely in what they include. To be more inclusive of candidates with diverse backgrounds, hiring managers should push for more inclusive job descriptions. In addition to the standard sections of the description, the job posting should include a section that describes what it means to be qualified for the role. For example:
A candidate is deemed qualified (and encouraged to apply) for this role if they:
Have hands-on experience managing projects, even if they have not held a “project manager” job title
Can provide at least one example of a time when they successfully learned and applied a new skill
Have the training or experience needed to meet the expectations of the position within the first 90 days of hire
This section would aid hiring managers in selecting a qualified talent pool, but it would also greatly assist candidates with determining whether they should apply, which is a big time-saver for both parties. The first bullet point confirms that having the exact job title isn’t always needed to be qualified, which is something that many job seekers grapple with. The second point sends a message to candidates that if they are coachable, they can be successful in the role. And finally, the last bullet point sets an important expectation: that being ready to hit the ground running on day one is great, but not required. Instead, the candidate would have at least three months to gain their footing, a sigh of relief for most candidates.
Read more: Gender-Neutral Terms for the Workplace & Beyond
4. Cultivate an inclusive culture to back up the claims in the job description
The same way you want job candidates to be honest about their qualifications, you must be transparent about company culture, job requirements, compensation, and other aspects of the opportunity, particularly if the job description includes claims of an “inclusive culture.” These claims need to be supported by an inclusive company culture that accepts and values team members, regardless of their background.
Why job seekers who don’t think they’re ‘qualified’ should apply anyway
One way you can encourage hiring managers to diversify their idea of what a qualified candidate looks like is to apply for the jobs that you know you can do, even if you’re coming from a different industry, sector, or job function. With the exception of highly technical jobs that require specialized experience (think medicine, behavioral science, or engineering), many jobs can be done with the right set of transferable skills and openness to continuous learning.
By bringing your own set of diverse skills, experiences, and personality traits to your desired job, you not only help to expand the idea of what it means to be qualified, but also help to enrich the team, improve productivity, and provide a broader sense of support shaped by your own unique experiences.
Nontraditional backgrounds translate in a variety of ways. Check out these examples of how someone might position a “reach” for a desired job in the real world:
A public school teacher who has been developing curricula, presenting new lessons, and mentoring students for seven years decides to transition into a training facilitator position in the HR department of a private company. He could also transition into several other fields, including instructional design, educational consulting, or admissions counseling.
With 10 years of experience communicating directly with doctors and patients, explaining how different medicines can impact patient health, and using critical thinking skills to resolve issues, a registered nurse pivots into a pharmaceutical sales career. While she still needs to complete on-the-job training, the nurse can also use her experience working in a fast-paced environment and building relationships with health care professionals to excel in pharmaceutical sales.
As a program manager for a nonprofit, a job seeker decides to pursue a career in DEI. While they has not held a DEI job title, they has helped HR review organizational policies to ensure they are fair for all employees and recommended ways to market programs to underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, and individuals in the LGBTQ community. This career changer can also use their experience in program strategy, project management, and budget management to transition into a DEI role.
A broadcast journalist who has been writing her own scripts and editing news reports for the past five years is interested in a role in digital media. She already has skills in writing, video editing, communications, and multitasking—all skills that are highly useful as a digital media manager, social media manager, or communications specialist.
The key to all of these career changes is transferable skills. If you can demonstrate how your skills and experiences can help the hiring manager solve a problem, complete a project, improve operations, or otherwise positively impact the team, you can prove that you are qualified for the position.