First, there are two things to keep in mind: One is that some career paths require a degree, and if you’re interested in one of those, maybe consider taking a gap year to benefit your education, rather than dropping out of school (for example, would you really trust a doctor who hadn’t gone to medical school?).
Second is that, in addition to the personal enrichment that’s supposed to occur in a four-year window devoted to learning, fundamentally, we go to college to have proof that we’ve attained a certain level of knowledge or skill in a given area. While “it’s not that college creates success,” the degree is basically a checklist that proves you have skills. This function of a degree gets fuzzy when “there is a lot of noise interfering with that signal and employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace,” given that the underemployment rate for recent college grads is around 44%, meaning that almost half are working in jobs that don’t require a degree at all.
Now more than ever, a traditional university is not a guarantee of a successful career, not is it the best path for all students. Trade and technical skills, on-the-job learning like apprenticeships, and career-specific certifications are all regaining traction as valuable means of learning accreditation, which, at its root, is what most employers are viewing college degrees as anyway.
You don’t always need a degree, it turns out. What you do need is experience, and a way of demonstrating that experience that makes it clear you are a qualified, excellent candidate for whatever industry you want to enter. It is easy to rely on college as a qualifier of intelligence and career capability, but a university education is not the only path to qualification. If you have two job candidates, one with a degree, no work experience, and unenthusiastic references, and the other with no degree, tons of work experience, concrete results to show for their work, and great references, who is the better hire? The answer seems obvious, but the trick is ensuring you’re that second applicant. If you show up with no degree and no work experience or means of explaining your qualifications, you’re likely not going to be a stand-out applicant. So, you get a job the same way you would get a job if you had a degree: You work to show you’re qualified, capable, and ready. Your means of doing it are just a bit different.
Degrees may matter to some employers or careers, but skills outweigh the allure of saying you have a Bachelor’s degree, especially given that while 87% of college graduates feel they’re well-prepared for the work force, only half of hiring managers agree. When I started my first “career” job in marketing, I had never taken a marketing class, though I knew tons of people who had declared that as their major from the starting gate. By contrast, my freshman year of college, my major was Literature. According to recent research, only 27% of college graduates are working in a job that even relates to their major, so it is experience that counts, not necessarily the area of study that is listed on that degree. There’s a tweet that seems to circulate every few months that says employers want to hire twenty-three year olds with ten to twenty years of experience. That’s the ticket: Get the experience. I never took a marketing class, but I dove head-fast into working with a small nonprofit to help create a marketing plan that intersected social media, public relations, and advertising. Because I wasn’t undaunted with what marketing “should” be, I had room to draw on other areas of knowledge that ultimately ended up strengthening the marketing plan. Slowly, through internships, volunteering, and reading everything I could get my hands on that related to marketing in the digital age, I had built enough experience not just to show I could market--but that I was pretty good at it. The experience is what landed the job, because the proof was in the examples: My employer knew I was qualified to market through media, because I already had. Here are a couple ways to ensure you’ve got the certifications and experience to land that job:
You might have to work for free at first.
This was tough for me to swallow at first: After all, these businesses and people were getting my time, effort, and ideas while I was getting nothing in return! Wrong. While I’m in favor of paying interns and think everyone should be compensated for their work, initially, your compensation is your experience. After all, ideas are just ideas if they aren’t put into action, and very rarely are you going to get hired on the basis of an idea alone. It took two internships before I got paid (the third internship turned into a part-time position), lots of volunteering to supplement the internships, and I estimate I took around ten unpaid writing jobs before I found a few that would pay me. It is no coincidence that I got paid for writing after having the ten or so other publications listed on my resume. It showed I wasn’t someone who just wanted to write, but rather, a writer. You have to start with something tangible, so, get to work: Contact local businesses who are in the area you’re interested in. Ask if they’re taking unpaid interns. Ask to shadow an employee for the day. Volunteer to help clean, organize, or take on extra work to get your foot in the door.
Network, network, network.
You need to build connections--that is a given, whether you’re in school or outside it. Seek out experts in the field you’re interested in, even if only via email. Know someone creating a great start-up that is basically your dream job? Get in touch. Have a publication in mind you would love to write for? Reach out. The thing about crafting your own proof of skill is that you can’t wait for things to happen to you; you have to make them happen. With more access online than ever, you have to take advantage of people you can connect with, be it at community events, their online presences, or even professors who are experts at your local college.
Be honest about what your potential career entails.
Gap years and time spent learning out of school can benefit almost every education. But if you know your future career as a lawyer, doctor, or degree-specific job requires a certain kind of accreditation, it is best to focus on innovating once you have that, rather than trying to rebuild an entirely new system. Chances are, you won’t get much access to cases if you’ve never been to law school, so level with yourself: Are your experiences going to be enhanced by the accreditation college provides?
Know how to show your skills.
So, you’ve been gaining those experiences. You’ve been doing internships, developing projects on your own, building connections, and establishing a steady stream of results for yourself. Now, you have to communicate that to a potential employer. Start thinking about what ways are best to showcase what you know, something that depends largely on the area you want to work in. While careers like writing, marketing, and editing might be best served by creating a portfolio of work and projects you’ve done, a career in technology might necessitate a certificate, a workshop, or a bootcamp (check out the UnCollege Resources page for details on tracking those down). Again, this requires thinking critically about your own knowledge: You want your resume to read solidly, not piecemealed together, which means you have to demonstrate a steady progression of your career with tangible experiences to bookend it. Did you get a certificate in creative writing you thought you’d never use? Well, that could be a great asset to your marketing career. Do you have experience refurbishing old computers or building websites, even if you did it for free? That needs to go somewhere. Focus first on getting experiences to prove you have a foundation of learning, then start transcribing them into specifics of what you learned, what you did, and how you did it.
Simply, you prove you are qualified by ensuring you’re qualified. Degree or not, there’s no way around experience and finding a way to show it. If you’ve dropped out of school, part of your learning is doing everything you can to show that your experience is better because of what you’ve done, not lacking because of what you haven’t.