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The UnCollege Blog

Getting A Job Without A Degree


In a 2013 article on jobs without a college degree, Lifehacker summed up the “do I need college to get a job” question by stating that ultimately, the point isn't whether or not you need college. – it's whether the job you want needs college. As the article points out, obviously, some careers require a degree—I think we can all agree degree-less, medical-school-less surgeons are a bad idea—but a growing number of individuals are forgoing the traditional degree path in favor of other experiences to support their education. And yes, they are getting jobs.

In a study of data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was found that 44% of college grads were working in jobs that didn’t require a degree, while more than 20% of graduates were underemployed. Even though, overall and in general, graduates will out-earn those without degrees, that isn’t always the case, and there are ways to land a job without walking the graduation line—especially if you have skills you’ve developed, and know how to market them.

My first “real” job was teaching ballet when I was sixteen, still in high school, and far before the college application process began. I had trained in ballet since I was seven, and slowly began helping with classes for younger students at my studio. When the time came to replace the instructor, I was poised and ready—I had learned how the studio worked, knew the families, and had my own teaching style. Funnily enough, my background in ballet fused with new skills I developed later to help me land my current job with an arts organization…which I got, despite the fact that I haven’t finished my degree. Being able to draw connections between your skills, background, and experiences can help you stand out as a potential candidate. Here are a few things I’ve learned about getting a job without having a degree, whether you’re still in school and eager to work in the meantime, or don’t plan to graduate at all:

  1. Build your network. Use loose ties.

Networking is such a buzzword, it’s easy to roll your eyes when you hear it (I’ve been guilty of this myself). But it is crucial to almost every kind of work you’ll do in your life: You have to connect with people. If there is a certain industry you’re interested in working with, chat with someone you know—whether they are a friend, mentor, or aquaintance—and pick their brains: Do they know of any openings? Is there a certain organization or position they think you’ll be a good fit? Outside of just getting information, these loose ties come into play when you need a recommendation or introduction.

  1. Master the art of the cold email.

Don’t avoid what seems like a great opportunity because you don’t have an automatic connection. There are opportunities to be gained from taking the leap and sending an email. I got my first full-time, “adult” (i.e.: traditional) job by sending a cold email: I researched the organization I was interested in, and asked if they were looking for interns. They weren’t, but accepted my resume anyway. A few months later, a full-time position opened, and they contacted me. This job was never posted as being available on their websites or any third-party job-search sites, so had I not sent my original email, I never would have known a position was open.

When writing a cold email, make your point quickly, and make it personal. Nothing is worse than being on the receiving end of an email that’s obviously gone out to one hundred other people. What makes this organization or business special? Why do you want to work there? Be direct, and know how to concisely explain your skills. Which brings me to…

  1. Develop tangible skills & know how to talk about them.

Sure, you have great ideas…but the difference between great ideas and great actions is execution: What have you done with your talents and abilities? Where have they played out outside your imagination? This can be anything from that summer business you started mowing lawns or an internship you had once, but you have to develop a solid way of phrasing your accomplishments and abilities.

It’s awesome to say you have great communication skills or are a self-starter, but even better than telling is showing. Think up some specific instances in which you developed these skills, and how you’ve put them into practice. For example:

“Starting my own business, and being responsible for leading a team and creating content has helped me become a self-starter, who is eager to take initiative on new challenges.” 

Reads much stronger than… 

“I am a self-starter” or “one of my best attributes is that I am a self-starter.”

Try to go ahead and answer any questions: HOW are you a self-starter, or a great communicator, or have fantastic organizational skills? Operating in the concrete—what you’ve done—adds validity to your resume, cover letter, or even conversation that discussing your ideas and theories doesn’t.

  1. Get your sentence-bio ready.

If someone asked you to summarize the entirety of yourself as a human being in a sentence, it would probably be impossible to cram all the nuances of who you are into one (non-run-on) sentence. For work, it is necessary: Can you say simply what you do and what you’d like to do? Try to have one written version (for emails) and one spoken version (for interviews and conversations) that gives people a clear idea of what you do. For example, mine goes something like…”Right now, my day job is in communications for the arts, but I’m also working on projects in media and writing.” My email version usually tosses in a few notable things, like where I’ve been published. If you can pitch yourself in the time it takes to ride an elevator from floor to floor, you’re off to great start.

  1. Focus more on what you did do than what you didn’t do.

Nine times out of ten, in interviews, I still don’t mention my education unless specifically asked, or if we’re discussing something that relates to a gap year, where it would make sense to fill in some background. It isn’t an omission—it’s simply deciding to talk about what you did instead of what you didn’t. Of course, if you’re asked about school: Be honest. Explain why you decided to take time away, or forgo your degree. But don’t dwell on the fact that you didn’t go to college, because why waste precious minutes talking about what you didn’t do, when you could talk up all the amazing things you did?

Did you like this article? Check out: 7 High Paying Jobs Without a Degree.