How to Get the Job When You Don’t Have the Degree to Back It Up

UPDATED: May 1, 2018
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2018

Companies need people, not collections of degrees. Despite that obvious truth, many people who would otherwise be great candidates for open positions don’t apply for roles that advertise education requirements they don’t meet—even when their other experiences and skills would make them the perfect fit.

Related: 5 Ways to Pursue the Job You Want​

This phenomenon is more apparent in some industries than others. According to a Harvard Business School study, while 67 percent of production supervisor job postings in 2015 claimed to require a degree, only 16 percent of people employed in those roles graduated from college.

Those kinds of figures showcase the difference between what companies think they want and what they truly need. The truth is, non-degreed candidates can perform jobs just as well as their peers with them. In the 20-week learning program that we use to prepare candidates for roles in software development, we’ve seen no difference in completion rates between people with Ph.D.’s and people with GEDs. Our experience demonstrates that while degrees might be helpful in some fields, they are not reliable proxies for someone’s ability to do a job well.

Unfortunately, degrees make it easy to trim down piles of applications, so candidates in a competitive job market need to learn how to stand out. By following these four tips, people without college degrees can demonstrate their worth to potential employers.

1. Think outside the application.

If your résumé doesn’t meet the education requirements, think creatively about other ways to distinguish yourself. Offer a portfolio with examples of work to demonstrate marketable skills. That can include a personal website, writing samples, coding projects, podcasts, or anything else that demonstrates drive, passion and follow-through.

“It’s great to see LinkedIn profiles that are engaging and built out with lots of detail,” says Karen Whyte, senior recruiter. “Added bonuses are résumé attachments, project work, videos or blogs.”

Nontraditional résumé boosters like these provide an uncommon glimpse into your skill set that companies would not see otherwise. By offering content that validates your credibility, you can convince would-be employers to look past your lack of a degree and consider the proven value you offer.

2. Understand the company’s pain points.

If everything at this company were going perfectly, its hiring managers wouldn’t need to hire anyone. Research ahead of time to figure out what the company needs, then provide potential solutions to the problems this role is designed to solve.

Sometimes, that means solving a problem the company didn’t know it had. If you have experience in an area where the company is lacking, point out opportunities for easy wins. When the interview rolls around, ask pointed questions to show that you not only understand the company’s pain points but also see where potential solutions are and how to implement them successfully.

Recruiting guru Liz Ryan calls this “pain interviewing.” By focusing on the problem and brainstorming solutions, you can show the hiring manager how you work through issues and prove that you’re the right person for the job.

3. Demonstrate an ability to learn.

Companies need people who know things on day one and can hone their skills on day 30, day 90 and day 365.

Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt Hotels, says, “We hire more for personality and growth mindset than specific skill set. We believe curiosity, passion and a love of learning together can be greater than a person’s previous experience. Care comes from a place of empathy and understanding—traits you can’t learn from a book but that produce better results.”

Research the company and consider industry trends before applying. Show readers of your résumé that you are invested in learning about the job, then follow through with that impression by learning more about the company and role as the application process progresses.

4. Build an industry network.

Figure out where you want to go, then get to know the people who are already there. Even a brief connection with someone who works at your target company can make the difference between a discarded résumé and an invitation to interview.

Attend networking events, meetups, career development workshops and other events attended by industry leaders. Reach out on LinkedIn and other social media platforms—keep those profiles sharp and updated—to gain the attention of people who will remember you when it’s time to fill a relevant role.

Degrees alone cannot account for passion, drive and willingness to grow. Companies value lifelong learners who demonstrate a desire to evolve professionally. View challenges as an exciting way to prove yourself, rather than roadblocks, to show potential employers that you are the solution-oriented hire they’ve been waiting for.

Even if you don’t meet the minimum degree or experience requirements, you can still land your dream job. Now that you can learn almost anything online, the value of a degree is diminishing in favor of proven skills and a willingness to learn. Don’t let your lack of a degree halt your professional progress—follow these tips to stand out from the crowd and show employers what you have to offer.

Related: 13 Simple Steps to Land the Job You Want​

Haley Shoaf

Haley Shoaf is the VP of Impact at LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization preparing individuals for and matching them with opportunities in the technology industry. As one of the winners of the 2017 MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, LaunchCode has been recognized for expanding “the tech workforce by providing free coding education to disadvantaged job seekers.” Prior to LaunchCode, Haley was a Venture for America fellow in St. Louis.