Think a position is out of reach? Not so fast.

Have you ever found a position description that looked fantastic – except that the experience it required was a little out of your reach? There are many reasons why that “perfect match” position is sometimes tricky to find. Whether you’re searching for an opening that represents a promotion, changing industries, or trying something new, sometimes your skills and past experience do not quite meet the opportunity’s stated requirements. But don’t let yourself give up. Applying for a job with no experience or not quite the experience on the job description is okay!

From someone who has been in this situation (and has seen countless professionals do the same), I have good news. The lack of a perfect match is not necessarily a verdict. This may sound counter-intuitive, but not all listed job requirements are 100 percent required. To be more precise, any job description is a mix of must-haves and nice-to-have qualifications. That makes your position as a candidate a little more challenging, but also gives you more options to explore.

So, let’s say you came across a job opening that has you really excited, even though it does represent a bit of a stretch in terms of experiences and skills. What do you do?

To apply or not to apply?

Your first order of business is to decide whether you want to throw your hat in the ring. Consider the position carefully, and ask yourself how close of a match you have between the requirements and your experience. Are you applying for a job with no experience? Or do you have some of the skills necessary? Your chances are better if the position is just a little out of your reach on paper. If you notice a significant skill and experience gap, making your case will be more difficult.

Let’s say you have one year of relevant experience. A position that requires three to five years of experience may not be completely out of your reach. However, getting interviews for an opening that calls for 10+ years of experience will be tougher. Similarly, if a position requires a Master’s degree and all you have is a Bachelor’s, you may not be out of the running yet. In some cases, your experience or professional certifications might make up for the lack of an MBA. On the other hand, hiring managers that are looking for a candidate with a Ph.D. may not give someone with a Bachelor’s a second look.

As you measure the gap between the position description and your resume, consider whether you have what it takes to do the job well. If you feel that you would be out of your depth in a way that could compromise your career, the timing may not be right. However, if you know you can be effective in the role, it may be time to move into strategic preparation.

Pre-interview strategy.

Your pre-interview strategy can be summarized in one short phrase: do more homework than all other candidates. Here are three preparation steps to consider, with a fourth one for extra credit.

Step 1: Understand what you’re stepping into.  

In order to get an offer, you must understand this position as well as someone who has been in it. This is particularly important if you are a bit underqualified. You will need to do a lot of research, which can include industry magazines and blogs, as well as informational interviews with professionals who can offer advice and share insights. Reach out to your professional network. You can also use LinkedIn to make new connections and ask for introductions if needed.

During the informational interviews, focus on the biggest challenges of the position. What does it take to be effective? Ask for advice, insider tips and interview questions to anticipate. Your goal is to gather the information that will impress the hiring manager and convince him or her that you have what it takes to succeed, even if your resume does not directly back that up.

Step 2: Dig deep.

As you remap your resume and work on your cover letter, go beyond your obvious job duties and accomplishments. Your first area of focus is transferrable skills. From project management to working with difficult personalities, think about your overall talent build and experience, and package it all in a way that highlights your qualifications.

I also encourage you to think of the unique perspectives you would bring to the position. Sometimes you don’t have the necessary experience for a reason that actually makes you a great candidate! Having worked in a different industry or country means that you have experienced a range of tools, approaches, and techniques that are broader than those of a candidate who chose to homestead within the traditional career path. As a result, you have the potential to enhance the department and bring a fresh perspective.

Step 3: Get really good recommendations.

With the core experience just shy of the mark, you will need strong recommendations to bridge the gap. Be strategic about who you ask – a letter from a manager carries more weight than one from a co-worker. You want to select the person who is in a position to write a strong recommendation, complete with examples and a powerful endorsement. I recommend taking the time to speak with the recommendation-writer over the phone or in person, so that you can share an overview of the position and mention specific skills that make you a great candidate. Your tips and ideas will make writing the recommendation easier.

Step 4 (extra-credit): Complete a pre-interview project.

I know that this step is ambitious and time-consuming. However, when done right, it has the potential to elevate your candidacy and get the hiring manager to look beyond the missing qualification (or three). The idea is to prove to the company that you understand the challenges of the position and can solve them.

Depending on your target company, the pre-interview project could involve performing a product positioning assessment, building a website, or conducting interviews and proposing improvements to anything from packaging to software user experience. Your creativity, understanding of the industry and genuine interest in the company can boost your credibility and make you stand out among the applicants.

Interview strategy.

Congratulations – your hard work has paid off! The hiring manager is intrigued enough to offer you a chance to interview for a “stretch” position. Now is your chance to show him or her that you have more than just the potential to do the job well.

Strategy 1: Ask really good questions.

If your goal is to set yourself apart from other candidates, you must do some extra preparation to ensure you’re asking great questions during the interview.

How do you ask great questions? Imagine that you already have the job, and are in conversation with your manager about the challenges ahead and the strategies to overcome them. This is where your prep work, particularly the informational interviews, has the potential to set you apart. Be sure your questions are open-ended and genuinely thought-provoking.

Strategy 2: Connect with the hiring manager.

Creating a strong personal connection with the hiring manager is a powerful way to elevate your interview. Working together isn’t all about technical qualifications! If you are able to demonstrate that you are a loyal team player and a dedicated professional who is committed to doing the right thing, the hiring manager will be more likely to take the leap of faith.

Strategy 3: Tell the truth.

In everything from your resume to your interview, be honest about your skillset and experience. However, that does not mean that you should resign yourself to starting your sentences with “I know I am not qualified…”

Tell the truth, but do it in a way that is positive. Instead of saying “I understand that I don’t have any experience in the healthcare industry,” open with “My experience in the professional services industry has taught me …” Remember: your experience is highly valuable, even if it is not an exact natural match for the job description.

In closing, I encourage you to use your networking muscles – for every job opportunity, and particularly those that are just outside your reach. An introduction and an endorsement by a company insider is a powerful way to skip the experience match-up exercise and get you in the door. However, even if you don’t have an insider introduction, “stretch” positions are often worth applying for. At the very minimum they give you an opportunity to learn more about the industry, meet new people, and test your readiness for the next level in your career. If you get the job, it will be a fantastic growth opportunity. So, be strategic, prepare well, and go for it!

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