Ask the Headhunter: How do I explain my lack of a college degree?

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Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I have 10 years of work experience, but I do not have a degree, and I keep getting rejected for jobs I know I can do. What is the best way to answer when an interviewer asks why I do not have a degree? I know that my experience is more than sufficient to do the jobs that I am applying for. How should I answer this question? Can I get around my lack of a degree?

Nick Corcodilos: Before I address your question, I'll offer some advice to non-degreed people who will naturally ask how to get in the door for an interview when a job posting requires a degree.

When you don't have the money to buy something you want, you either forego the thing, or you come back when you have the money. If you are pursuing jobs that require a college degree, stop fooling around, pretending a degree shouldn't matter. If you choose to apply to an employer that requires a degree, go get a degree. You can do this cost-effectively (in terms of both time and money) at accredited distance learning schools. One that I recommend is Thomas Edison State College, a state-funded school in New Jersey. Beware of unaccredited or self-accredited colleges.

"A degree is not necessary to have a successful career, but not having one means foregoing certain jobs."

I find that older workers tend to rationalize this problem more than younger ones do. They think they're too old to get a degree. That's nonsense if what you want is a job that requires a degree. I recently met someone who just completed his B. A. — and he's 62.

A degree is not necessary to have a successful career, but not having one means foregoing certain jobs. If you think not having a degree is hindering you, find the time, make the investment, and earn it.

But you've already gotten in the door — good for you. What can you say in an interview when asked about your lack of a degree? Be honest, because a contrived answer will hurt you.

Why haven't you earned a degree? If it's because you don't think it's necessary for the work you do, then say so, and be ready to explain why. Start by outlining the work you would do for this employer, to show that you truly understand it. That by itself will score points with the interviewer. Then explain how you would apply your skills and specific tools to do that work successfully.

Here's where I recommend taking an extra big step. Say this to the interviewer:

"I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me. But I don't expect you to hire me unless I can convince you that I can do the work — and do it profitably."

That's a very powerful statement that implies a commitment. Employers love commitments. Now it's up to you to explain why your approach to your job is profitable to your employers. Take the time before your interview to work this out — be ready.

  • How do your methods reduce costs, improve efficiency, or increase revenues?
  • How does the way you do the job increase customer satisfaction, or reduce errors?
  • Focus on the outcome of how you would do the job, and your lack of a degree might not be an obstacle.

Whether a degree is required or not, a job applicant must be able to show how he or she will do the job properly and to the employer's satisfaction. All job hunters face this challenge, but few meet it, whether they have a degree nor not.

Many degreed applicants think their degree speaks for them, so they don't need to prove themselves. This is not true. A degree is not an automatic "in." Be ready to compete with degreed applicants on the basis of what you can do. Just remember that it's entirely up to you to demonstrate your abilities clearly — unfortunately, few employers will figure it out for themselves. They'll just use your lack of a degree as an excuse to reject you.

"Many degreed applicants think their degree speaks for them, so they don't need to prove themselves. This is not true."

Bear in mind that degrees are very important to some employers — and the knowledge behind them might be necessary to do some kinds of work. Lots of people believe that while a degree might not make you an expert at your job, it allows you to interact effectively with other educated men and women. There's something to be said for that, although I know lots of degreed people who fail on this measure.

Having said all this, now I'll let you in on a dirty little secret, if you don't already know it. A college degree does not guarantee you a job. Worse, colleges and universities market education as the path to a great job — but few build their curricula and degree programs to support your getting a good job.

I'm a believer in education for its own sake, and I think a college education is a powerful benefit in life. But I also think colleges have an obligation to prepare all students for a job — while few do a good job at this. I wish that parents who fund college educations (and students themselves) would revolt and demand better career components to all college curricula. I'm really tired of college administrators pontificating that "Preparing students for a job is not our responsibility. Our job is to educate them." I think that's bunk and a cop-out.

Nonetheless, I'm not here to tell you to get a degree. At some point in your career you'll probably find that lack of a degree will hold you back. What you do about that is up to you.

The bottom line is, if an employer requires a degree, a non-degreed applicant will likely lose. If skills and experience are acceptable substitutes for a degree, then your success hinges on how well you can prove that by demonstrating your abilities. For more about this, see "No College Degree, No Problem" and "Desperate: No degree, can't get interviews!"

Dear Readers: If you don't have a college degree, have you nonetheless won jobs that required a degree? How? Do you think you've been wrongly rejected because you lack a degree? Tell us your story — give us some inspiration and alternate ways to prove you are worth hiring.


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth "how to" PDF books are available on his website: "How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you," "How Can I Change Careers?", "Keep Your Salary Under Wraps" and "Fearless Job Hunting."

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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