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Now, more than ever, “professional” job descriptions include a specific level of education required (four-year college degree), with additional education preferred (master’s degree). Going to college has become the traditional route for most high school graduates – it’s just what comes next.

I won’t debate the merits of a college degree as a requirement (although I do have a ton to say about this), but this trendy requirement has left many qualified working professionals without a degree, in a lurch.

What are you supposed to do if you don’t have a college degree? How do you get a new job?

First, let’s talk about what a college degree is supposed to show to a recruiter – knowledge, skills, determination, and a thirst for learning. Without a degree, you have to show these same skills and knowledge, in another way!

If you have been working for more than 10 years, there is no doubt that you possess all of these attributes… and they are probably more applicable than what was learned during your college years.

Show me baby!

Knowledge: Think about areas in which you are a subject matter expert. What do you know like the back of your hand? What class could you teach in school? Take this expertise and incorporate it into your resume and cover letter. You want it to shout, “I know so much about this!”

Skills: On-the-job skills well outweigh classroom learning – and that’s not just me talking, that’s every study about adult learning. But it’s your job to remind the recruiter about this. And it needs to be extremely obvious to get their attention. What skills do you have? What unique skills can you deliver, that can’t be learned in a classroom? What skills are in high demand for the position you are seeking? Show them, repetitively, throughout your resume materials.

Determination: For most, attending college isn’t a walk in the park. It takes time, money, and a commitment to push everything else aside to graduate. What projects have you worked on that took relentless determination? How have you “stuck-in there” with something? Have you been loyal to a company – turn that around to show a willingness to “stick.”

Thirst for Learning: This is probably the most important attribute to show, but it doesn’t have to apply only to college-level work. In your professional life, what courses, trainings, volunteering, or other things have you done to improve yourself? Be sure to add these details in a section in your resume titled Training or Personal Development since you won’t necessarily have an Education section. Only include things that are career-related and make an impact.

Tactical Application

Ok, so you haven’t officially graduated from a college… so what do you include? Here are a few rules:

  • Unless you are actively enrolled in college and taking courses, if you have not completed your degree, there is no use adding it to your resume. I know, you want to show that you took some hours or got this close to graduating, but showing that you attended and didn’t finish you degree isn’t helping your cause. Leave it off, altogether. If you are actively enrolled, add your education information as you normally would, with an expected graduation date.
  • Don’t list the courses that you took in college, unless you received a certificate or degree from it. College courses aren’t all that awesome to begin with, so unless they are highly specific and rare, they are wasting space.
  • When completing an online application, follow the directions. Most application software will ask you for the highest completed level of education. Aka – where did you last graduate from? Most likely, the answer will be high school, so add that in. If it asks you last school attended, answer that honestly as well – if you did attend college for a few courses, enter that information.

Two Especially Critical Elements without a College Degree

When you aren’t able to say “graduated from” on your resume, two other application actions become critical – your cover letter and follow-up. Both are essential (and required) for general applications, but you are (unfortunately) going to have to work harder to get past the gate keeper.

In you cover letter, you have to explicitly show the above mentioned qualities and add in a little bit more background about why you are an awesome candidate. More than others, you have to convince the recruiter that you are worth taking a chance on because your skills outweigh any type of college degree.

You most likely won’t get past the application tracking system robot. Especially if a degree is a requirement. So if you want the job, you are going to have to ask for it! Research who the hiring manager is through this technique, and then follow-up! Get their attention and remind them why you are qualified for the position – degree aside.

The Cold Hard Truth

This part hurts my feelings to say, as much as it probably hurts yours to hear… but sometimes not having a degree is going to limit your options. It’s not right, but it’s still there. People are biased – thinking that a degree sets people apart, categorizes people into “like me” categories, and holds some cache.

If this happens, more likely than not, it has nothing to do with you personally. It may feel like a personal slight, but really it’s just a bias that would be applied across several people. And if makes you feel any better, there are companies that will only recognize degrees from certain universities, snubbed the rest of those with degrees as well.

Final thought… would you want to work for a company that has an elitist attitude anyway?