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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.