I’m a 29-year-old millennial without a bachelor’s degree. I’m just one out of more than 36 million people over 25 who never graduated. You’ve probably heard the news around people like me are doomed. We’re the “Lost Generation.” For many, that might be true. However, it doesn’t need to be the death knell of your career. It wasn’t for me.
While I attended enough college for an associate’s degree thanks to the local community college, life took me on a different path. One with successes, failures, and navigating through being newly married during a recession. Top ramen dinners, side gigs using my photo skills, and utterly failing at starting and running my photo business. All the while my friends who graduated posted online about the struggle to find a good job to pay back their student loans. I was told I should finish my degree, but I wondered if the debt was worth it. I decided it wasn’t, as the degree wouldn’t guarantee anything — it sure didn’t for my friends. I opted for hard work and developing skills on my own terms.
I don’t regret my decision. The failure and rejection made me adapt, learn skills on my own time, develop relationships with those who shared opportunities as they arose, and helped me to develop myself as a leader. My failed photo business did lead to landing a corporate gig as a product photographer with low pay. Within two years, that lead to a management position with better pay. Eventually, I left for another marketing management position at another company. More than 10 years later, I have had the freedom to go after what I want. So if you don’t think college is for you, or the costs may not be worth the return, you’re not alone.
The Degree Fallacy
It’s only fairly recently that higher education has been looked at with a more critical eye, with some people wondering if the rewards are worth the price. Costs have skyrocketed. I was born in 1988, when the average cost of a bachelor’s degree was just under $40k. Fast forward to now, and that same average degree has crossed into six figures to over $103k.
You hear of people (usually Gen X and Baby Boomers) saying you just need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But no one mentions the increase in tuition while wages have remained stagnant for decades. Nor do they mention the notion that, since so many people have degrees, the power of the degree has been diluted. But still. Pull yourself up and deal with it, Generation Me. Right.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that the education industry is one of the next to be disrupted. For many degrees, the classes are already outdated, with employers complaining that grads aren’t prepared for the workplace. The current education model isn’t able to keep up with our quickly advancing world, and companies are adapting where schools are not. Other companies are offering specific tracks and boot camps to teach skills without the extra bloat (why do I have to take the college equivalent of a gym class again?).
I Don’t Have a Degree. What Should I Focus On Instead?
If you’re one of the millions without a degree, but with high ambitions, don’t lose hope. There are a variety of ways to work to where you want to be, whether you like the comfort of a full-time job or want to be your own boss.
I have freelanced as both a writer and a photographer. It’s a great way to make connections, hone your people skills, and to learn discipline. There are a plethora of places to find work. Upwork, Facebook Jobs, and even Craigslist have legit opportunities. [Editor’s note: be really careful on Craigslist.] It requires some legwork, but a good rule of thumb is if it sounds too to be true, it is.
Freelancing can be a tough gig to get into, but luckily there are about a million resources out there to help you get started and stay organized. Organization is key, as you’ll quickly find out. Word of advice: don’t give your friends discounts. You’ll find you’ll have a lot more “friends” than you thought.
Starting Your Own Business
This is a step past freelancing. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs didn’t finish college. They couldn’t play by the rules so they made their own. You already know about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs being dropouts. However, did you know that Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, dropped out of college twice? Ellen DeGeneres dropped out after one semester. Rachael Ray doesn’t have a bachelor’s, nor does she have any formal culinary training, yet she’s a household name. (And even if you don’t like her, you’ve most likely seen her name on TV, online, or in multiple grocery aisles — there’s no doubt she’s been successful.)
While starting your own business isn’t easy, it can be worth the blood, sweat, and tears (and there are plenty of tears). But it’s more than picking a clever name and starting a website (I thought this was the biggest hurdle — not joking). The hardest part for me was finances and marketing. Tracking, spending, taxes, etc. — it can be very difficult to navigate. The combination of Square, Paypal, and Venmo are my go-to when I am hired to do photos these days, but I know there are alternatives out there if you’re not a fan of those. Plus the Small Business Administration (SBA) has got your back with guides.
For marketing, start a blog or online portfolio. Be active in forums in your industry to learn more. For me, I chose Flickr and engaged in several photo communities (remember, I started my business in 2009). Reddit is all-encompassing; it’s more than just memes and political rants. You can find subreddits to match both your industry peers and your target audience. It’s a lot to take in at first, but give it some time. Ask questions, answer questions. Always be kind and courteous, and don’t feed the trolls. I also recommend signing up for Quora to answer people’s questions. This isn’t traditional advertising, but for reputation building, marketing yourself as an expert who’s helping others. Don’t post an answer just to add your site or product, however. Genuinely answer people. It’s a long play, but it works.
I failed in my photography business at 22, so you can take my advice with an entire shaker’s worth of salt. But hindsight has made me able to pinpoint exactly where and how I went wrong, so let me help you avoid some of the biggest potholes.
Applying for Jobs Without a Degree
If you think I get passed over for a lot of jobs because I don’t have a degree…you’d be right. There’s plenty of “gatekeeping,” where a company won’t even look at your resume if you haven’t graduated with the degree they want. However, there are some loopholes to this. They don’t work all of the time for every company, but they are great at showing your tenacity and ability, and when they impress they do so big time!
Find the job posting or company recruiter on LinkedIn or the company’s site. If you know you’re a great fit for a company, don’t just throw your resume into their inbox hell and hope for the best. Sometimes you can find the recruiter’s email or number (or they accept LinkedIn messages). Create something short that asks a simple question they can answer quickly. The key here is that you just want them to say “yes” and start a conversation, since they’re incredibly busy and probably don’t have time to read a novel.
Possible questions to ask:
- Can I send you my resume directly?
- I have some questions about the position, do you have a few minutes to talk?
- I want to make sure my application went through, do you have it?
Write a very specific cover letter. Cover letters are your chance to shine. Something very few people do is illustrate the problems they’ve solved or the new ideas they’ve implemented through their career. What’s something amazing you did? Did you save money? Did you cut down workflow processes? Did you implement training? Tell that story. Write as you would talk. The best responses I’ve received are when I wasn’t afraid to get passionate in my cover letter or intro. Geek out, but in a way that anyone who reads your cover letter could understand.
Fully fill out your LinkedIn and other social pages. Companies check your social media handles, especially LinkedIn. I even include a link to my LinkedIn profile in my resume to help them find me more quickly. LinkedIn allows you to add more detail than you might to a standard resume without bogging it down. Don’t forget your skills, achievements, side projects, volunteer efforts, etc. This is your personal billboard. Be your best self.
The video cover letter. Yes, this is a thing. Does the written word not even begin to capture your personality and ability? Go for the video cover letter. Keep it under one minute, though I would encourage you to even keep it under 30 seconds if you can do so while still getting your point across. Probably don’t go with your first take, either. Hit record again and again until you’ve made it the whole time without saying “uhh.” Talk about your strengths, skills, and what makes you valuable or worthy of an interview.
Never Let the Absence of a Degree Be an Excuse
It’s easy to blame your circumstances, whatever they may be, on not having a degree. All the statistics are right there for you to use. And, to some extent, you’re probably right. But you don’t necessarily have to be. There are options. They are still hard work and will cost you time, but they can help you rise above the statistics.
The odds said I shouldn’t make what I do. I shouldn’t have been able to buy a house at 24. Or have a car payment while paying one car completely off. Or travel somewhere every year. Yes, it helps that I married someone, so we can share finances. He doesn’t have a degree, either. We’ve stuck together through the recession, learning to climb ladders to where we are now. And through it all, I’ve learned you are only as good the as the investment you put into yourself.
Shea Drake lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she’s currently in the marketing field without a degree. When not writing or working, she enjoys photography, learning new sewing techniques, and traveling. You can find more of her writings on Twitter — she’d love to hear from you.
Image via Unsplash