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You Don’t Need a College Degree to Land a Great Job

Soren Kaplan

May 19, 2023

A college degree used to be the key to landing a great job and launching a successful career. That’s changing. Why? Because it’s questionable whether college really prepares you for the real world. In fact, according to a survey of 1,000 new grads in the U.S., only 25% of college graduates would choose to pursue the same educational path if they could go back and do it again. Fifty-three percent of that same group feel under-qualified for entry-level roles in their field.

If you share this sentiment, or are hesitant to spend your money earning a fancy diploma, there is some good news: You can prepare yourself for well-paying, in-demand job without attending a university. To do that, you’ll need to show prospective employers that you’ve got what it takes and stand out as a strong competitor among your peers. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1) Find forward-thinking companies.

Many organizations today have stopped requiring college degrees as a prerequisite for job interviews. Forward-thinking companies realize that by expanding the hiring process to a broader pool of candidates, they’ll get better talent. The percentage of positions requiring diplomas, for example, fell from 51% in 2017 to 44% percent in 2021, according to the Burning Glass Institute. That’s good news if you don’t have or don’t want a degree.

Companies are constantly updating and changing their job postings and requirements. IT-security leader Okta, Bank of America, and the consulting-giant Accenture are all recent additions to the cadre of organizations that seek experience and skills over degrees. Search the internet for companies in your industry that no longer require a college degree, and you’re likely to find articles and listings that guide you to specific organizations and job postings. 

2) Get certified.

Getting certified is one of the easiest ways to build out your resume without pursuing a four-year degree. It usually involves taking a course, online or in-person, that teaches an in-demand skillset for a particular job, industry, or field. Often, you need to pass a test after completing the training (or series of trainings) before you earn your certification. The whole process can usually be done in weeks at the fraction of the cost of college tuition.

Certifications are available in many sectors, including IT, HR, marketing, and project management. For instance, if you’re interested in securing a project management role, you can take an online course from the Project Management Institute. For those who want to build a career in marketing, Meta has its own marketing associate certificationprogram. People trying to get into  IT can check out several trainings in specialized areas from Cisco. These are just a few examples of the many offerings out there. Just Google your field of interest “+ certification programs.”

In some fields, this credential can instantly qualify you for a job, but at a minimum, it shows you have knowledge that’s highly relevant to a position. Some forward-thinking companies value certifications more than college degrees.

3) Intern or volunteer.

What if you don’t have work experience tied to a specific position? Another way to strengthen your resume is to find volunteering opportunities at community nonprofits or paid internship positions at organizations that relate to your interests and job goals.

For instance, if you want a position in the IT field, you might offer to provide technical support to a local nonprofit in order to get more high-tech experience. Or, if you want to get into HR, you might consider getting trained as a community mediator or seek an internship in social work to help hone your people skills.

Volunteer work and internships not only help you fill out your resume with relevant experience, they can also introduce you to a series of employers and expand your network. If you do great work or prove yourself to be a valuable asset by showcasing skills that the organization is currently lacking, you may even land yourself a full-time role.

4) Tell a great story about yourself.

Finally, don’t underestimate your life experience. Just by existing, you’ve likely gained a handful of skills that you can leverage on your resume. Think about the time that you’ve spent traveling, doing community service, leading clubs, playing sports, making art, or facilitating activities with family and friends. All of these things have given you unique ways of thinking and abilities that might set you apart from the crowd. If you can craft a great story (on your resume and in your cover letter) about why a particular experience qualifies you for a role, you may be seriously considered.

As an exercise to get you thinking, look at the job description for a role you want to apply to. Now, try to think of an experience in your life that has helped you build the skills listed by the employer. Write a two-paragraph story about that experience, including what you did, what you learned, and how those competencies match what the hiring manger is looking for. Use that story in your cover letter and include those skills on your resume. Try to match the language you use to describe yourself with the language the employer uses in the job description or in their company mission statement.

For example, let’s say you’re interested in sales. Traveling abroad may have instilled you with an appreciation for different cultures or even the knowledge of a second language. Both competencies could support a role in that industry. In your cover letter, you might tell a story about how your experience backpacking and supporting yourself through odd jobs along the way helped you develop skills like empathy, resilience, strong communication, and persuasion. Every day, you had to sell yourself for a new role, and your people skills will be similarly relevant to selling products or experiences to customs.

Similarly, if you’ve participated on sports teams, consider the specific things you’ve done outside of actually playing games. It could be fundraising, organizing events, or managing team meetings and newsletters. Whatever your experience has been, ask yourself: How can I use the skills I’ve learned in my field of interest? Push yourself to think outside the box, and get creative.

. . .

Any one of these strategies can improve your chances of landing a role and help you build a stronger resume. The goal is to demonstrate both formal work experience and life experience at the same time. You want the hiring manager to read your application and understand that you’re a great fit for the job. A college degree is just a set of letters. Your experiences and your skills are unique to you. Use them.

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