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No Degree? 11 Winning Strategies To Help You Compete In The Job Search

 You've got this. / iStockphoto.com ( YiorgosGR)

You've got this. / iStockphoto.com (YiorgosGR)

You're browsing the job boards and you come across a position that's a great fit in every way. The company advertising the job has a great reputation, the role's responsibilities are right in your wheelhouse, and it's just a couple minutes drive from your house.

Then you see the following line in the job description:

"Requires a Bachelor's degree for consideration."

Despite the fact that you've had a successful career to date, have progressed forward in your line of work with multiple promotions, you never finished college.

It happens. Life takes unexpected turns, and sometimes earning a degree becomes less of a priority than earning a living, caring for a sick parent, or raising a child. Next thing you know, the years have slipped by, and school hasn't been a priority any more.

In addition, it's also not unusual for an individual to enter a company at the bottom of the ladder – for example, starting in a retail position working the sales floor and earning a promotion into a management role. However, even their own employer may be hiring their new managers straight out of college (upon completion of their degree) for the company's management training program – in other words, if it weren't for their track record inside the company, they wouldn't even be considered if they were applying for the job they now hold.

Many companies value a college degree for their newly hired employees. There are several reasons for this:

  • Essential foundation of knowledge. Especially in technical fields. Think about a mechanical engineer, for example, and the intensive study they would have undertaken. An auto manufacturer would prefer not to have to teach their newly hired engineer how to - well, be an engineer, and the required fundamental science and math skills. Or consider retail management jobs; employers may want business graduates who have taken accounting, finance, marketing, and operations classes so they can better understand how to manage their store's P&L.
     
  • Demonstrated discipline. A degree shows you had the diligence to complete four (or more) years of rigorous study. True, I know some people who partied their way through college, but employers don't really ask about that in the interview so long as the candidate has a respectable grade point average and a completed degree.
     
  • "Raising the bar." Some employers use a college degree as a minimum screening criteria even for jobs in which the degree doesn't matter, in order to get what is perceived to be a more "promotable" individual. By this reasoning, if somebody wants to become the Vice President of Sales, there won't be any education roadblocks, and they will set a positive example for the other employees as a "highly qualified" individual. It also makes it easier to say "no" to people who don't have a degree, reducing the number of resumes to review. A corollary is the perception that having a degree is a predictor of success, because all the company's current top managers have degrees.
     
  • It's easier to compare candidates. Publications such as U.S. News and World Report publish annual rankings of the best colleges. I've seen hiring managers make sweeping determinations about the relative quality of job applicants based the schools attended. By this reasoning, a graduate of Duke (#8) must be a better candidate than a graduate of UCLA (#24), right? It's much easier to quantify a hiring decision, whereas it's a more difficult comparison point for an individual who didn't graduate college - without that valuable school ranking as a metric, the degree-less candidate doesn't rank. 
     
  • It's always been done that way. Don't underestimate the power of corporate inertia. Many managers fall back on this reason, or, "it's our policy," in order to avoid the heartburn associated with making an exception or - even worse - being accountable for accommodating an exception that flopped.

While the hiring process may not always be fair, take heart. Your goal is to position yourself as a great candidate whom an employer should take a chance on, so irresistible that a potential employer is willing to take chance on you regardless of the fact that you never finished college.

Here are eleven strategies for positioning yourself for a job when you don't have a degree.

  1. Really, really, REALLY show off your skills. All through the process, employers are going to be questioning your ability to do the job. Your strongest selling point will be your applied skills. Be prepared to explain in excruciating detail - both in your resume and in interviews - your foundation of work, and how you've gone about your work. It needs to be glaringly obvious to an employer that you've done this job before, and stepping into this role will be both quick and easy, with minimal learning curve.
     
  2. Get your resume in tip-top shape. You need to make the best possible impression right from go. There's no wiggle room here, since you're already at a disadvantage. It needs to look good - really good. Make sure it's loaded with accomplishments and experiences which reflect the fact you're a proven professional and a low-risk hire.

    By the way, if you did attend college but dropped out, make sure to include your studies in the resume - something like "Studies toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration." This serves two purposes; first, it shows that you were accepted to a degree-granting program, which is an accomplishment in itself and, second, employers' Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS's - the databases they use to store resumes and post jobs) rank resumes according to how closely they match the job description, and the ATS might look for specific words pertaining to the degree. And put your education after your work experience, so it's not the first thing an employer sees.
     
  3. Read the posted job description carefully; you still need to be qualified for the job. Your technical skills and/or past experience need to be rock solid in order to be a candidate for a job - otherwise you're wasting everybody's time, including your own. Do you meet ALL the criteria, other than the degree ? If so, you've passed the first test. And look specifically at the stated degree requirements. If it says something to the effect of "Four year degree preferred, equivalent experience required," this means the employer is willing to look past the lack of a diploma but all things being equal, the process may break in favor of the candidate who graduated college.
     
  4. Apply to the job online. Yes, even if the job says the degree is absolute, apply. Make sure your resume is top-shelf. Look for the employers' keywords, terminology, and requirements, and make sure you're tweaking your resume to include these. And include a title on the resume matching the job's title. Better keyword match = higher ranking. And while it's not a sure thing that your resume will make the cut, one thing is absolutely certain: If you don't apply, you have a 0% chance of getting the job. Just apply.
     
  5. Work your network. You may need an advocate to sing your praises. Leverage referrals to network the hell out of yourself, and to build positive buzz. Let's say you know somebody who works at the company you're targeting, in the group most likely to hire you. A well-placed word from that individual to the hiring manager may convince him or her to schedule an interview, regardless of the degree requirement.
     
  6. Practice interviewing. Again, you're at a comparative disadvantage. So be ready to "wow" the interview team. Be dynamic, be engaging, be prepared. Have success stories so far up your sleeve you're going to need another shirt. Wow the hell out of the interview team.
     
  7. Have your story ready as to why you didn't finish college - and own it. Whatever the reason, employers will want to see that you are accountable for yourself. Interviewers may ask what happened. Even if they don't, it's often best for you to get in front of it, tell your story, and frame the situation. This can often be a fantastic opportunity to really sell yourself - how bad was your life situation, and what were you able to achieve in spite of this adversity?
     
  8. Be strategic about where you apply. Some companies, such as Google, don't care if their software programmers have diplomas. For many companies, it's about finding the best talent, and the degree simply isn't a factor.
     
  9. Know when to walk away. You will never be able to convince everybody that you can do the job. Some employers simply won't budge, and that is their right. But close out the situation cordially, be gracious, and live to see another day; your resume may once again surface in front of another hiring manager who's willing to go to bat on your behalf.
     
  10. Consider re-enrolling in college. Yes, going back to college as a working adult is a pain - it involves juggling a lot of priorities. But doing so can rally some empathy in your favor, and it gives you a current academic credential to include on your resume. Some employers are suitably satisfied if they see that you're dedicated to filling this gap in your work history. I've seen this happen.
     
  11. Never lie about having a degree. Not once, not ever. You will get found out, I guarantee it. And it will haunt you. When I was a recruiter, I ran into several situations where candidates who interviewed for a job indicated that they had completed their diploma - but really hadn't. Once we ran the background check and we found information contradicting the job seeker's claims, it killed their chances. The really sad part of this story is that often the degree wasn't really a firm requirement for the position. But candidates who lied about their education left us with serious doubts about their honesty, and we had no choice but to eliminate them from consideration.

Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.

I Get Tons of Job Interviews, but Never an Offer! Why?

  I don't think this interview is going well... (iStockphoto.com/ imtmphoto)

I don't think this interview is going well... (iStockphoto.com/imtmphoto)

As the old saying goes, "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride."

You have no problem getting job interviews. Tons of employers want to meet you. In fact, you're having trouble inventing new reasons to leave work early – your boss is getting suspicious of all these so-called doctor's appointments, funerals, and parent-teacher conferences.

You've been courted by more hiring managers than you can remember, and filled out scads of employment applications. But you can never seem to close the deal; you get those automated "Thank you for interviewing" notes informing you they've decided to keep looking.

What's going wrong?

It's time to take a look at how you approach the job search and interview process.

The good news first. Employers are noticing you, which means your resume and/or your LinkedIn profile are doing what they are supposed to do, generating interest with employers by highlighting your skills, accomplishments, and experience.

The bad news? Something is breaking down in the process after you get the call for the interview that's influencing employers not to hire you. Employers tend to be risk averse, and I once knew a manager who said very plainly about hiring decisions: "If it isn't yes, it's no." In other words, there's not much middle ground here - it doesn't take much to sink your chances.

Here is a checklist of things to consider.

• How's your interview style? Are you approachable? Friendly? Engaging? Positive? Don't underestimate the value employers place on personality. They want to hire employees they enjoy working with every day. A grumpy, curt, not-so-personable interviewee is a turn-off. Also, arrogance doesn't play well; yes, the company wanted to meet you, but they also want you to convince them that you're right for the role – and that you really want the role.

• Do you appear professional? Did you wear a suit to the interview? As in, a clean suit, without a ketchup stain on the lapel? Is your hair brushed? Are your fingernails clean? Did you remember to wear deodorant? How about brush your teeth? Also, even if you hear that the whole company wears jeans every day, wear a suit to the interview unless the Recruiter specifically tells you to wear something else; if you work in a business casual environment, and need to leave directly from work for an interview, keep a clean suit in your car and find somewhere to change into it before taking your first step into the interview.

• How did you answer the interview questions? Did you give smart, well thought out answers to the interview questions? For technical questions, were you able to explain effectively how you would solve the problem with sufficient detail to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about? If they asked you a behavioral interview question (i.e., "Tell me about a time when you had to..."), could you tell a story which explains how you overcame adversity? People are visual by nature, they want to have things explained to them clearly so that they can picture the situation.

• How were your manners? Did you show up on time? Did you remember to say "Please" and "Thank you?" How about answering questions when asked, and not interrupting? What about sending a "Thank You" note to all the interviewers afterward? The list of potential infractions goes on and on, but your mommy spent a lot of time teaching you how to behave for a reason.

• Did you oversell yourself in your resume? There's a temptation to really sell the heck out of yourself in your resume, and you should – so long as it accurately captures what can do and have done. But if you've exaggerated (or straight out lied) about your skills and experience in your resume, it will become apparent as soon as interviewers start asking in-depth questions about some of your stated accomplishments and you can't provide the essential details and knowledge to back up your braggadocio. If your answers don't feel right to an interviewer, you'll be knocked out of contention.

• How did you handle the compensation question? Companies want to know how much money it will take to get you into the job. It's a tricky discussion, loaded with traps and if the conversation goes poorly, it can end the interview on the spot. Learn more about the process here.

• Is there something funky on your background check? When you filled out an employer's application, you also completed an authorization for that employer to run a background check on you. So long as they have your signature on the background check authorization, the employer doesn't need any more approval or provide you with any notice to run it. And there could things showing up on there which give them pause; maybe there's a criminal offense you didn't disclose which pops up, or the dates of employment you provided on the application and the resume don't align with what came back in the check. Prior to extending an offer, here's a list of some of the ways employers might investigate you.

So what can you do to be sure that you'll be more successful in your interviews going forward? Here are a few strategies:

1. Practice interviewing. Interviewing is a learned skill, and you can get better at it. Engaging somebody to provide you with another perspective of your interview performance and presentation through mock interviewing – either a career coach or a very honest friend – can be highly beneficial. They'll be able to see things in the way you present yourself that you can't. Can you answer questions well? Are you being polite? Do you fidget?

2. Look the part. Think about upgrading your presentation with a modern, professional interviewing suit. Get your hair done. And make sure your shoes are polished. Practice good grooming. Don't give anybody a reason to knock you out due to your appearance.

3. Polish up your resume. It your resume accurately capturing you, your skills, and the value you've brought to an employer? While a resume is your platform to brag about your accomplishments, you also need to balance this with an honest approach, and a clear understanding of what you've done for an employer, in what capacity. Don't oversell yourself. Here are some tips for building a good resume

4. Learn what's in your background check. In the United States, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you have a right to know what an employer finds in your background check that makes them decide not to hire you (disclaimer: I'm not an attorney, this is not legal advice – please consult an attorney for more specifics on FCRA and your rights). I would encourage you to take a proactive approach; if you think there's something adversely affecting you in your background check, it's better to know – hire a background check company to run a check on you so that you know what may be found in your files and be prepared to disclose it and answer questions about it.

5. Remember: There's always somebody out there who may be a better fit. At last count, there are more than 7.4 billion people on this little planet of ours. No matter how outstanding you are in your profession, no matter how likeable you are, no matter how many Nobel Prizes you've won, there is always – ALWAYS – the potential for another job applicant to come along who has a better resume than yours. Or they're slightly more likeable. Or they have better industry experience. Or they're best friends with the CEO's golf caddy. Or whatever. You won't always get the job, even if you're the best there is.


Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.

15 Ways Companies Check You Out Before Saying, "You're Hired!"

You want the job. You're qualified for the job. Why can't the company just give you the job?

Did you really think it was going to be easy?

Are you kidding? Employers want to know who they're hiring, and they're going to be pretty darn intrusive in checking you out before extending you an offer. 

In case you were wondering, companies have many ways they vet job candidates before hiring them. Some you may have expected, others may surprise you. You will experience some combination of the below. Employers apply the old Reagan-ism: Trust but verify. And, by the way, this list is far from complete. There are other ways for companies to gather information about you...

  1. The Resume - Your resume serves so many purposes to somebody reading it. It's a spelling test. It's a grammar test. It's a Microsoft Word publishing test. It's an honesty test. Reviewers will make several judgments about you, just based upon that 1 to 2 page resume.
  2. Interviews - Grueling meetings with employees of the company. Usually includes the hiring manager, sometimes peers, human resources, internal customers, or anybody with a stake in the hiring decision.
  3. Criminal Background Checks - Employers want to see if you can be trusted with the keys to the company car, or if you're going to take it straight to the chop shop first time you drive off.
  4. Employment Verification - Did you really work at the company, in the role you indicated, for the pay you detailed? Let's find out!
  5. Credit Checks - Another measure of trustworthiness. How do you handle your finances? If you've declared bankruptcy or have overdue bills, what does that say about your ability to manage company resources? Will your expense report be a bit padded to cover your personal expenses?
  6. Physicals - It's rare (but not unheard of) to be sent to the doctor for an evaluation if either your job involves a great deal of physical activity, or if you're considered so critical to the organization that they need to make sure you're healthy.
  7. Skills Testing - The job requires you to be good at Microsoft PowerPoint - would you be willing to take a timed exam to see just how skilled you really are?
  8. Psychological / Personality Testing - These come in many flavors, but the purpose is the same - employers want to see how well you fit within the organization, and what are your predicted behaviors and predilections.
  9. Polygraph - The old lie detector. Legal in several states, another test of your trustworthiness. Don't be surprised to take one of these when applying for security or law enforcement roles.
  10. References - You provide the names and numbers of former supervisors or coworkers, and the company speaks with them to find out what a swell guy or gal you were.
  11. Informal References - Major gray area; this is when somebody at the company says, "Hey, I know somebody who used to work with that guy at my old employer! Let me get the skinny!" Then they do this without the applicant's knowledge or consent.
  12. Deep Background / Character Investigations - Applying to a position requiring access to top secret data? You might get an investigator or G-man poking around, asking your neighbors about your most personal details.
  13. Asking Around - The hiring manager may ask people who interacted with you, how you behaved. Better have treated that receptionist with dignity and respect...
  14. Your Social Media - Who says they won't find those pictures on Facebook from your drunken escapade in Tijuana? And do you know what comes up in Google when somebody enters your name? How's that picture on your LinkedIn profile?
  15. Drug & Substance Testing - About that trip to Tijuana...

Bottom line: There's a lot of information about you out there, and companies won't be shy in gathering as much as they can before deciding whether to offer you a job. Be prepared!

 

Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. He is a Human Resources professional and staffing expert with almost two decades of in-house corporate HR and staffing firm experience, and is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Professional Career Coach (CPCC).

Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.