I’ve been a career coach for years. And of the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with, I can’t think of a single one without a college degree who wasn’t worried that their lack of credentials would hold them back—or rule them out entirely—from their next job.
The assumption that you can’t be a compelling and qualified candidate for all kinds of incredible jobs without a college degree isn’t just a bummer, it’s simply not true. In fact, there are plenty of in-demand and high-paying jobs—including software developer, software sales representative, e-commerce manager, and executive assistant—that don’t require any college at all. So that’s good news.
That said, if you don’t have a college degree, you’re still going to be competing with candidates who do. And if you’re in a field where college degrees are more the norm than the exception, this means you need to be strategic as you create or amend your resume. As I always tell clients, if you think a reader will wonder or worry about something about your background, assume that they will and go on the offense.
Let’s review some typical scenarios among non-degreed candidates and talk about how to address each on your resume. (If you’re a current student looking to apply to internships, part-time jobs, or other opportunities while your degree is in progress—so you technically don’t have one but will at a predictable time in the near future—you can follow the advice for writing a college resume here.)
You Didn’t Finish Your Degree (and Don’t Have a Current Plan To)
Sometimes, you’re rolling along as an undergrad and life (or lack of funds) derails the plan. If you’re taking a short break, like a gap year, and know when you anticipate finishing your degree, you can list that expected date and approach your resume as a current student would. But in other cases, funds or circumstances make finishing your degree impractical and maybe you’ve decided you’re not planning to go back. Or you might intend to go back and complete the degree at some point, but you don’t have a current plan to do so with a clear timeline. Or maybe you discovered that college just isn’t your jam, and you want to focus on other things. That’s A-OK.
Just don’t sell yourself short by omitting the details of your schooling from your resume. Certainly, you can’t list part of a degree as a completed degree. That’s called lying and, in my recruiting days, I saw things end very badly for candidates who decided to fudge the details. Instead, mention the coursework in your education section. And if the topics you studied are directly relevant to the role you’re pursuing, list a few. Here’s what that might look like:
Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI
Coursework toward B.S., Accounting (Data Analytics, Financial Planning & Analysis, Internal/External Audit)
You Didn’t Go to College (But Took Professional Courses)
Here’s another common scenario: You didn’t do college, but you’ve taken professional courses—whether it’s a leadership program or a coding bootcamp—that have provided you with relevant and beneficial skills. Mention them! I’d set them up right in the education section. (In fact, leaving the education section completely off your resume may be a red flag for both the applicant tracking system and the human reviewer.)
A while back, I coached a client who had worked in the automotive industry for 20+ years. He was the head of a large car dealership yet hadn’t spent a day in college. What he had done, however, was take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow professionally, including enrolling in a rigorous leadership development program offered through a professional association.
Through my work with him, I learned recruiters view candidates who completed that program quite favorably. So we made it extremely easy to find on his resume, as a bullet point in his summary and in his education section. The summary bullet looked like this:
- NADA Academy graduate with authoritative knowledge of operational best practices, financial management, cost controls, compensation structuring, and policy/program development.
And here’s what his education section looked like:
North American Dealers Association (NADA) Academy
2018 Graduate—Curriculum in Business Leadership, Fixed & Variable Operations, Financial Management
Arizona State University (Online)
Leadership Principles Course
You Didn’t Go to College (But Have Valuable Licenses or Certifications)
Similarly, you’ll find plenty of professions that don’t mandate a degree but do either require or strongly favor candidates with certain licenses or certifications. For instance, if you’re an IT project manager with PMP (Project Management Professional) and Scrum Master certifications, that’s money. Or if you’re working to shift into a job as a residential real estate appraiser, you should absolutely mention that real estate license on your resume. In short, if you’ve got licenses or certifications that will give you even a slight advantage, make sure you make them easy to find on your resume.
I would set them up in their own section vs. just putting them in your education section or making a passing mention of them elsewhere in the resume. Here’s how it might look for an IT professional:
- CompTIA Security+ Certification
- CISSP (Certified Information System Security Professional)
- Certified Scrum Master
The more directly relevant the certification is to the job you’re applying to, the higher up on the list it should be. You can also mention the most valuable credentials up in the summary section, much like the examples above.
You Didn’t Go to College (But Have Directly Relevant Experience)
So what if you didn’t go to college and don’t have any certifications but still want to (or do) work in an industry that values higher education? Is this realistic? Depends.
If a company flat-out requires the degree, you may need to consider targeting their competition or refining your search. Sometimes, organizations have unbending policies related to education and you probably won’t get far with them.
However, plenty of companies know and appreciate talent when they see it and will make an exception if you show them very clearly (and quickly) that you’re not just a plausible match, you’re even better than the standard degreed candidate.
I call this flipping the script. You turn what could very well be perceived as a liability or dealbreaker as a decided advantage. Here’s an example: I had a client who worked in marketing within the sporting goods industry. He had progressed rapidly within his company despite having never attended college or pursuing any additional schooling. What was remarkable was that most of his colleagues—including those he now managed—were college graduates, many of whom had also been student athletes at big name universities.
What was his secret? He had experience that gave him an edge. Beyond his current management role, he’d also been an avid skateboarder since his youth, and he’d opened a small skateboard shop in his hometown right after high school. This early experience—which he gained while others his age were earning degrees—gave him direct perspective on the wants and needs of consumers and immersive knowledge of youth culture.
As he worked to land a senior leadership role, we knew this experience had to be front and center on his resume. We included it in the summary section and spelled it out with clarity in his experience section. Here’s how the summary bullet read:
- A marketing leader with authoritative knowledge of youth culture. Having been at the epicenter of the skateboarding community since youth, consistently delivers consumer-first products and strategies.
And here’s how we outlined the job that we knew would help set him apart from his traditionally schooled competitors:
STEEZY SK8, San Diego, CA, 2004–2007
At age 18, launched and led a retail store that was named the 2006 Board Retailers Association “Snowboard Retailer of the Year.” This experience provided an invaluable look at skateboarding and its profound influence on global pop culture.
Look for every opportunity to turn a perceived liability into your secret weapon as you construct or refine your resume for that next great job. Surely, college degrees can be advantageous or required for certain roles. But many employers are simply looking for the best candidates for the job. Make sure your resume does the heavy lifting in announcing that’s you.