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If You Didn't Finish School, You Should Still Include Education On Your Résumé. Here's How.

Résumés are less who you were, more who you want to be. The education you list should reflect that.
College is not the only kind of education data point job applicants can include in a résumé.
College is not the only kind of education data point job applicants can include in a résumé.

When you apply for a job with your résumé, you face the challenge of distilling your entire professional identity into short, bulleted summaries you hope will be read by a hiring manager.

The stakes are high. Résumés are how we market who we are and where we want to go in our careers. Deciding what to keep and what to leave out is hard, especially considering an applicant has seven seconds to capture a hiring manager’s attention. It can be even harder for those who don’t have the educational background desired for a job opening and are stumped on what to put in the “education” section.

But being schooled is not the same as being educated. You can still gain extensive work experience without completing a formal degree. And careers are not a linear path. Oprah Winfrey dropped out of Tennessee State University in 1976 to pursue a media career and didn’t complete her degree until 1986, after she had her own nationally syndicated talk show.

Many people take detours or go off the beaten path in their careers. For those who do not have formal education credentials or are embarking on a career switch, résumé experts advise highlighting relevant professional development. Here’s what you should know:

“Put B.A. or B.S. coursework, and then list the degree you were going toward.”

- Virginia Franco

1. Know that courses count as education.

Unfortunately for employees who did not finish higher education, many corporate employers still want applicants with college degrees.

Ashley Watkins, a nationally certified résumé writer and a corporate recruiter for over 15 years, said she would advise applicants to include any relevant education they have.

“I would rather them get credit for some college or some education versus no education, and that’s in cases where the job posting may require that they have some college or it may have a bachelor’s degree preferred,” she said.

Widely used applicant tracking systems may be scanning résumés for keywords like a bachelor’s degree, and they may penalize job applicants without one. But there are ways around that if you completed courses toward a degree, said Virginia Franco, a nationally certified résumé writer.

“Sometimes, the people who program applicant tracking software, they’ll put as either a requirement or an ideal qualification that someone has finished their undergraduate degree, and then you might get hurt, you won’t score as high,” Franco said. “A workaround is to put B.A. or B.S. coursework, and then list the degree you were going toward.”

2. List self-studies at the top of your résumé if you’re switching careers.

Alison Daley, the founder of a tech recruiting training platform called Recruiting Innovation, said job applicants should treat their résumé as an “introduction of where you want to go instead of a recitation of where you have been.”

If you’re an employee making a radical career pivot and you lack the ideal schooling or certification, she recommends showing where you want your career to go and listing any initiatives you are undertaking to reach that place at the top of your résumé.

“Moxie and determination sure compensate for certain education pedigrees.”

- Alison Daley

Prioritizing your self-studies at the top can tell a recruiter, “I have done these studies, I’m motivated in this direction, I have these skills,” she said.

If you are making career moves toward a path that is not reflected in your formal education, emphasize that in your résumé. Mention those LinkedIn learning courses and digital boot camps to help an employer understand your career leap.

“If experience isn’t super solid for whatever reason, but then [applicants] are showing that they’ve gone to hackathons on the weekends ... or things on their own, that shows determination, that shows focus, it’s self-motivation, and those kind of candidates are definitely highlighted in my experience,” Daley said. “Moxie and determination sure compensate for certain education pedigrees.”

The order of what you share first on a résumé matters. Lead with what you have, Watkins said. “Anytime your experience overrides your education, you would put your education at the bottom, and if you have a brand new degree that’s relevant and you’re transitioning, then you want to list that at the top,” she said.

“The top one-third, that space is dedicated to the biggest bang for your buck, because that’s what we’re going to see first as recruiters when we’re reading your résumé,” she said.

3. Don’t be put off by a bachelor’s degree requirement, even if you don’t have one.

Here’s a lesson about hiring: If you don’t meet all of the qualifications, you can still apply. Not enough workers know this: In a survey of thousands of U.S. professionals, 46 percent of men and 40 percent of women listed “I didn’t think they would hire me because I didn’t meet the qualifications” as the reason they did not apply for a job. But required qualifications are not always required.

“Even if a bachelor’s degree is required, I would still go ahead and apply. In my experience, we’ve made exceptions before,” Watkins said.

Candidates may also discount themselves for lacking a recommended certificate or certain degree, but that does not necessarily mean they are unqualified.

“I would let the employer tell me ‘no’ instead of me making the assumption,” Watkins said. “If you have 80 percent of what the employer is asking for, you’re more than likely safe to apply, because that other 20 percent is a learning curve. You don’t want to apply for positions where you meet 100 percent of the qualifications, because you run the risk of being overqualified. You have no room for growth there.”

Changes in hiring practices will need to come from the top.

Of course, these are individual résumé strategies that don’t address the larger question of whether hiring practices need to emphasize formal schooling as necessary to get a job in the first place. That would need to be answered on a structural level.

According to a 2019 report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a group that tracks college completion rates, there is a college graduation gap that varies by ethnicity and race. Looking at students who began public four-year colleges in 2012, the group found that the national rate of college completion for white and Asian students was 72 and 77 percent, respectively, while for black students the rate was 48 percent and for Latino students 57 percent.

Children of richer families are also more likely to have degrees. For example, college graduates who were 24 years old and from households with annual incomes of at least $116,000 made up more than half of all the degrees awarded in 2014, according to a 2016 report.

Speaking of her work in the tech industry, Daley said she would advocate for less emphasis from recruiters on requiring a bachelor’s degree from applicants.

“When we’re making an emphasis on recruiting and hiring for diverse candidates, we also have to recognize they come from diverse sources,” she said.

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