Not having a college degree may disqualify you from some jobs, but it does not mean that you won't be able to get hired and here is how you tackle this issue.
If you are searching for a new job and lack a college degree, you will no doubt encounter some employers who, if they learn this, will automatically disqualify you. Others may not disqualify you, but they may have concerns, wondering whether this indicates perhaps a lack of ambition, discipline, or persistence. There isn't much you can do about the first category, but there are many steps you can take to improve your prospects with those in the second.
Keep in mind that many employers are more concerned today with specialized courses and training, than whether you have a particular type of degree. As technology races ahead, many employers know that no degree program will prepare their new hires sufficiently and specifically for their purposes, and that they will have to train these people themselves.
Consequently, it is quite possible that the sum total of your courses and specialized training will be more impressive to some employers than a degree which does not relate directly to the talents they need. They are correctly more concerned with your ability to do the job, rather than your paperwork. Ultimately, this is what really counts. An executive past 40 may well find that experience plus his or her track record will be all that really counts.
Your attitude toward yourself and your ability to make things happen is important. Remember, many of the brightest, most talented people do not have college degrees, but they usually possess and display extraordinary self-confidence, with strong, deeply held convictions about their ability to accomplish.
If you have had impressive titles, commonly associated with people who have a college degree, emphasize them. If not, structure your resume according to the functions you filled, and emphasize achievements in each of them. In either event, in an up-front summary, succinctly get across your key contributions in recent years. This puts the focus where it should be, on achievements that indicate you can deliver results for the employer.
Group education under a heading that includes other categories at the end of the resume. For example, "Education ... Professional ... Civic ... Personal" allows you to graphically minimize education. When you present it, list first any advanced courses, seminars, and specialized training you may have taken. Then list any certifications that apply to your field. If you attended college but did not graduate, you can use a phrase such as, "Undergraduate studies at XYZ College, with a concentration in Computer Science."
If you have an interest in cultural or scientific subjects commonly associated with education, such as art, music, theater, literature, biology, electronics, physics, etc., be sure to mention them.
Interviews / e-mail / Letters
In interviews, if you are asked directly, be sure to tell the truth, then immediately ask if that is a concern. Whether it is or not, point out that you enjoy learning and have an aptitude for it. Review the advanced and specialized training you have completed, and state that you are seeking an employer that encourages people to further their studies at any level, because you'd enjoy studying for a degree. Let them know you are confident that, with the advantage of your experience and all the intensive training you've taken, you'll do quite well.
If you have supervised people with degrees, emphasize that in order to reassure the employer that you have what it takes to deal effectively with people at that level.
Make sure that the employer understands your lack of a degree is not an indication of lack of ambition or discipline, but rather, reflects your practical approach to getting the education and training that would enable you to make the most substantial contributions on the job the education your employer needed and valued most.
It will be to your advantage to direct the interview to a discussion of the functional areas where they need help. Ask questions that direct the discussion toward the functions and personal strengths that will be most important for the person who wins the job, and when they are identified, relate examples of how you have used those precise abilities and strengths to make significant contributions to your employer.
The most memorable and credible way to do that is through concise situation-action-result format stories which show that you analyzed situations well, took appropriate actions, and achieved measurable results. The actions in particular should show that, even though your past challenges and those they face may not be exactly the same, you know what course of action to take to get results, and you have the confidence which stems from having addressed these challenges successfully.
Because hiring decisions are seldom made purely on the basis of a logical match between needs and strengths, make sure you have all the intangibles going for you. Project enthusiasm, show that you've taken the time to learn a lot about the company and the industry, and ask what personal qualities are important for the position. Then relate examples of how you've used those same qualities to achieve results.
If possible, enroll in a course of study that is either pertinent to your job, contributes toward a degree, or both. There are a few good universities which let you earn a degree at home, and the Internet has made remote education more common and acceptable than in previous decades.
You may be entitled to credit for life experience, you may gain credits by passing selected tests, and many schools have advanced degree programs for persons who never completed graduate school. If you are studying for an MBA part-time, this may completely neutralize an employer's concern about your lack of a degree.
For those in technical areas such as science and engineering, it is usually worthwhile to return to school full-time to complete coursework if possible. If not, pursue part-time studies toward a degree, even if it is not a full four-year degree. If you are perceived as someone who intends to progress, it helps in the hiring decision and makes it easier for you to advance.
Examine your past contributions closely, and take sufficient time to prepare and rehearse several action-oriented stories that demonstrate your talent for moving rapidly to get results in the types of situations that resemble those likely to be faced by the person who wins the job you are seeking.
Look for as many specific result indications as possible. Be prepared to give a wealth of evidence in the form of these memorable stories. They will reassure the prospective employer that in terms of what really counts, you have demonstrated that you are more than capable to handle the challenges of the position you want.
Develop and coach enthusiastic references from selected individuals you can trust inside your employer organization, if possible, and from outside of it, e.g., customers, suppliers, sales reps, consultants, etc., who will be happy to attest to your ability to deal at high levels, as well as your action orientation, ambition, and ability to deliver results in a demanding, fast-paced environment.
Review your resume with these references, and make sure they keep a copy available to scan when and if they are called. You can if you choose give them "special assignments," where in addition to an overall enthusiastic endorsement, each of them will be expected to emphasize a different strength or ability in a special functional area.
This step will enable you to make the statement in an interview that, "You've heard about my achievements, but only from me. You really need to hear it from people who have seen me in action. Experience in Function X is important to you, and for that I suggest you contact Harry Jones. Experience in Function Y is also essential, and for that you'll get good input from Phil White. Personal traits A and B are needed for this job, and the people who would know best about that are Sue Griffith and Tom Robbins." It would be to my benefit if you contact all of them, and I hope you will." Such a statement will erase any lingering doubts about your being ready and able to turn in outstanding results, regardless of your education.