jobs applying

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.

Crank Your Job Hunt Up to Eleven

"These go to eleven!" / iStockphoto.com (blueraymac)

"These go to eleven!" / iStockphoto.com (blueraymac)

There's a fantastic movie from the 1980's called This is Spinal Tap. It's a comedy (a mockumentary, really) about an aging rock band which is losing relevance. There's a scene in the movie where Nigel Tufnel, the band's guitarist, is showing the narrator his amp. As he shows him the knobs, he points out that the volume knob is marked with a top setting of eleven rather than the standard top setting of ten.

Nigel explains the benefit. "Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?"

The narrator asks, "Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?"

Nigel responds confidently, "These go to eleven!"

My point: Silly example? Sure. But if you want to stick out in the job search, if you want that extra bump, if you want to get noticed, you're going to need to turn your search up to eleven. Go beyond what's expected. Do more. Work harder.

Don't believe me? Here's a real-world example. I was speaking recently with a friend of mine who recruits for a Fortune 20 technology company. She told me that for each job posting, she receives 10,000 applicants.

Let that sink in for a moment.

TEN THOUSAND PEOPLE (that's four zeroes) are competing for the same job you want. Just one job. And, by the way, this company doesn't really advertise the postings, either, so that means people actively went to their website and sought out openings. Do the math:

• Even if you meet all the qualifications...
• Even if you are performing the exact same duties in your current job...
• Even if you're in the top five percent of all applicants...

...you're still just one in 500 applicants.

I hate to depress you, but job hunting is really hard. And it's only getting harder. Employers have erected even more obstacles between job hunters and jobs, in the form of systems and controls.

Think about it - how many times have you been instructed to apply online? Employers direct job seekers to apply on their website – before receiving any consideration – under any variety of circumstances including:

•When responding to an online job posting
•When calling the company
•When stopping by the front desk
•When meeting a recruiter at a job fair
•When getting introduced to a company employee at a trade show

Get the picture? Employers want you to apply online before speaking to you. There are several reasons for this, but here's the big one:

It's easier for the company. Talking to job seekers takes time. Collecting and scanning resumes takes time. Entering a job seeker's information into the system takes time. When you apply online, you're getting yourself into the system and the employer is able to move on to other duties. And if you're a recruiter who wants to quickly review resumes, having everybody's resume in one place simplifies the search.

There are other reasons, of course – tracking, governance, document control, process management, reporting, and so on. In any event, the employer wants you to do what's easiest for them.

My point is this. Most job seekers simply post their resume online to a company's job posting – and pray they get noticed. And then they get frustrated and annoyed with the process when they never hear from any employers.

I get these job seekers' frustration – I truly do. The application process is demoralizing, annoying, painful, and quite often ineffective for the job seeker. The numbers alone will work against you.

The Bottom Line: What you're doing simply isn't enough.

Being a job seeker today means stepping outside your comfort zone to get noticed. You have to go into the job search with a strategy other than "Post and Pray," because that's probably not going to work.

Individuals getting calls from potential employers generally work harder to make sure that they get that they do. If you want to compete, you need to take your job hunt to the next level. I'm not suggesting that you make job hunting a full-time job, but here are some activities which can pay big dividends.

1. Make your resume align with the job description. 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. That way, the recruiter gets to look at the resumes which score the highest first, as opposed to going through resumes alphabetically or in order received. In other words, if your resume is a 90% match against the job description, you've got a higher chance of getting a glance. 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.

2. Make your resume appealing to people, too. It doesn't matter how great your skills or accomplishments on your resume are if they don't align to the position posted. Don't count on the recruiter wanting to read your resume or submit it to the hiring manager if it's clear that you posted for another job and used the same resume for this one. The title of the job you're posting for should be front and center on the resume, the resume skills and accomplishments should align with the career direction, and make sure the resume is well formatted, easy to read, and pops. Interesting is important.

3. Check for jobs on all the boards that matter. You can't always know where a company's going to decide to post an opening. That dream job could be posted on Monster, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, Indeed, SimplyHired, Recruiter.com, Dice, ZipRecruiter, Glassdoor, or even directly on a company's website. Set a routine to check these sites. Build a rotation. Set up alerts that notify you when a job that meets your criteria gets posted. And apply quickly - it's easier to get noticed with less competition.

4. Go around the system, find a stakeholder, and sell yourself. That's the beauty of LinkedIn - after you've applied online, you can find somebody at the company who cares that you applied (preferably a hiring manager) and you can message them through the system to express your interest. A manager in need may take your note seriously and ask human resources for your resume.

By the way: I'm often asked if it's worth paying for a LinkedIn premium subscription. The answer is, unequivocally, YES! If you're searching for a job, you can leverage the increased functionality that the premium access gives you. Namely, you have the ability to do in-depth searches across the system AND you can send a limited number of direct messages (InMails) to people you're not connected to. This access, combined with a well-timed note, may turn the tide in your favor.

5. Nurture your network. Keep in touch with past managers and coworkers, and get out there and meet new people - often. People refer people they like for jobs. It's that simple. During the course of my career, several doors were opened for me based upon who I knew. I obtained multiple interviews and several job offers because of my existing network. If you're looking for a job, tell your network - they may be willing to put you forward for a job. Go to professional organization meetings. Ask for informational interviews. Attend local college alumni events. Hit those department reunions. Invite your old boss out to lunch (and offer to pay). And this works both ways, by the way - people will remember (and likely repay the favor) if you were generous in putting them forward for a job.

6. Polish up your LinkedIn profile. Employers and recruiters are actively combing LinkedIn to find passive job seekers. An effective profile will help sell you and maybe get you noticed for a job you hadn't considered. And people in your network on LinkedIn may refer you if they like what they see.

7. Get your interviewing skills up to standard. Be ready for behavioral interviews. Display a lot of energy. Get a nice suit. Prepare for the salary question. And treat that initial phone screen by an employer as a real interview - because it is. Send thank you notes to everybody.

8. Remember – There's always somebody out there willing to work a little bit harder at this than you are. Proceed accordingly, and crank your job search up to 11.


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.