Being overqualified can be a tough cross to bear, as plenty of out-of-work people are discovering. Here, the secrets to moving down the ladder.

ALAN HAMERSTONE didn't foresee this. Not too long ago he was pulling down nearly six figures as a program manager with Merrill Lynch, helping develop its online brokerage. Then, in July 2000, the ax fell. For months he looked around for work, going to job fairs and contacting headhunters, hoping for something Web-related. No luck.

Hamerstone now had so much time on his hands that he spent it fixing up his house in Lawrenceville, N.J. One day last April he was shopping for supplies at Home Depot when, on a whim, he applied for a sales associate job, working the floor. "My severance package was running out," he says. "I figured, well, maybe I should get something to tide me over. I'll just look around for a low-key job I can do evenings or weekends."

One problem: The folks at Home Depot weren't sure they wanted him. At the interview the HR manager hemmed and hawed for a while, then popped the question: "I don't get it. Why do you want to do this?" In other words: How could the company be sure he wouldn't jump ship at the first opportunity?

"I can't promise I'll be here for the next 20 years," Hamerstone answered candidly. "But I wouldn't be asking for the job if I wasn't committed. At the very least, it would be for a couple of years."

The interviewer chewed on that for a while...then came hard at Hamerstone with some real-life scenarios: "So if a customer came in and wanted to buy windows, what would you ask him?"

Luckily for Hamerstone, he had replaced his own windows. "I'd ask them what height they need, do they want grills, do they want screens," he said without missing a beat. Two weeks later he started his new job.

Though Hamerstone managed to win over the manager, many laid-off workers are finding overqualification a surprisingly tough obstacle to get past. It's hard enough to swallow your pride and apply for jobs that seem beneath you. Now you have to convince skeptical employers that you're serious. "It's so easy for them to say, 'They'll get bored here, they'll go on to something else,'" says Bob Rosner, author of The Boss's Survival Guide.

So how best to play it when you're clearly overqualified? A few tips:

Hold back on your brilliance.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you splash all your stellar experience on the table right away. Not in this case. Saunter into the room and start boasting about your multiple degrees or how you once ran a multinational, billion-dollar division and the employer will be turned off. "If you're going to a company that only has 100 employees, to say that 300 people once reported to you might not be the best door-opener in the world," says Rosner. So what is? "Limit yourself to explaining your understanding of the work that needs to be done and how you're going to do it, and the employer will stop thinking of you as being overqualified," says Nick Corcodilos, a former recruiter and author of Ask the Headhunter.

Launch a preemptive strike.
Hit the overqualification issue head-on and bring it up before your interviewer mentions it. "You can tell that I've worked at a higher level. But we all know there are no jobs out there, and I want to earn a living," Corcodilos suggests saying. "I realize you might be concerned about me leaving, but I promise to stay for at least six months." Once you make your pledge, the ball's in the interviewer's court to judge whether or not you have the character to keep it. Just don't remain silent on the subject. Otherwise, you may get dismissed without ever getting a chance to make your case.

Let them in on your plans. One way people often weather downturns is by taking a lower-demand, lower-paying job while boosting their education on the side by, say, getting their master's in the evenings. Rather than turning HR types off, such a strategy can actually make them warm up to you. Why? It demonstrates that you're not going to run off after a couple of weeks, because you've factored your job into your midrange plan. If possible, point out how the training will help them. One client of New York City-based executive coach Elizabeth McAloon is using her downtime to sharpen her advanced Excel skills. That's something she can use in her stop-gap sales job-and it bolsters her case for a later return to the executive ranks.

Ease up on the salary demands. In this environment, you're not likely to maintain your previous pay, so be flexible. The "smartest thing" Hamerstone did in filling out his application, he says, was to leave off his hefty prior salary. "If I hadn't done that, I don't know if I would've even gotten a call back." If the HR manager presses you on whether or not you can live with lower pay, point out that you're seeking a better work/life balance. "Look, my retirement is fully funded from my previous job, and now I'm willing to make a tradeoff," Rosner suggests saying. "A little less money for a little more sanity."

Hamerstone, for instance, takes advantage of his flexible, part-time schedule to care for his two-year-old. He's enjoyed the experience so much that rather than plotting his return to corporate America, he's now thinking of going full time at Home Depot. "It's easy for me to shine there," he says. "I'm working beneath my capabilities, but at the same time, I find it a hell of a lot more rewarding."