The Ultimate Guide to Writing An Executive Resume When You Don’t Have a College Degree
I understand the stress executives without degrees feel when they’re ready to make their next career move – or being forced to make it. It can be worrisome especially when so many companies are putting an incredible amount of emphasis on a degree that may not even affect the ability of the person to perform well in the position.
Being an executive without a degree isn’t as uncommon as you may think, though. Many are top performers who have been with their organization for 10+ years and are ready to take on new challenges and opportunities. For example, I spoke with a gentleman recently who has held a multi-unit district manager position at a car title loan company for more than thirteen years. His role touches on business development, human resources, and finance, and now that the company is shrinking and downsizing he is worried about his prospects for making a lateral move or advancing without a college degree.
If you’re an executive without a degree and you want to pursue new opportunities you shouldn’t worry. There are some great ways you can focus your career successes and accomplishments that far outweigh a four-year degree and will resonate with employers. But how?
Emphasize Your Value
It’s true that if you are focused on job postings, it looks like it will be impossible to land an interview (let alone an executive position) without a 4-year degree. But according to a survey through ResumeWriterDirect HR in 2014, 90% of HR managers said they would interview a candidate lacking a degree if they demonstrated “extensive, relevant experience.”
The flip-side of this is that you can’t assume your academic qualifications will land you a great job if you don’t have any real-world experience.
Step 1: Research
In order to convey your “extensive, relevant experience” you need to know which skills and experience are most prized for the type of position you are targeting. Reviewing job postings on Indeed is a good way to get started. Better yet, start by thinking about specific companies you are interested in and research their goals, challenges, social media presence—and of course, the specific role and position description.
Step 2: Brainstorm Your Achievements
Now that you have a clear picture of what your target company is looking for, you can start thinking about your background and the specific achievements that speak to the experience and skills desired.
Questions to ask yourself to capture all of your accomplishments:
1.) What are you most proud of in your current role?
2.) What would fall apart if you didn’t show up at work for a week?
3.) What challenges have you faced in this position?
4.) What improvements have you made across productivity, processes, cost savings, revenue, sales, culture, or technology?
5.) What do your colleagues, clients, employees, and/or supervisors praise you for?
Step 3: Make Your Achievements Shine with Context and Numbers
Resume writers often rely on CAR stories, those that identify a particular Challenge, Action, and Result.
For example, the GM of a luxury resort in the West Indies might not sound all that impressive if he told you he “restructured the resort to capture revenue growth.” But using a CAR statement, the achievement is truly cast in the best possible light:
– “Restructured stagnant resort operations, sales, and marketing—leading to two consecutive years of record revenue for organization in 2010 and 2011, with 2012 revenue pacing 17% ahead of the prior year.”
From this concise bullet, we can glean that he recognized that the systems in place were obsolete, he took action to overhaul existing operations, and the quantifiable revenue gains that resulted from his actions.
More CAR statement examples:
Business Resource Manager for Systems Nutritional Services, which saved money on hospital food without sacrificing quality:
– Identified acceptable low-cost, high-quality items realizing $200K in annual savings by designing and implementing blind-taste-testing system for objective product evaluation and selection.
Corporate Environmental Health & Safety Director who enabled a successful facility audit:
— Prevented catastrophic facility audit failure with crucial vendor by negotiating for more time, overhauling existing processes, and procuring $45K in equipment in 1-month period, resulting in successful audit.
Finance Transformation Manager who led a global team in a bank redesign project:
— Aligned 14-person multinational team in spite of cultural rifts by clarifying all rhetoric/terminology to avoid miscommunications. Ensured unified understanding of baseline problem and implementation goals, resulting in on-time implementation without budget overrun.
As the last example demonstrates, you don’t always need numbers to show results. They certainly help to draw the eye and make the achievement concrete and memorable, but if they are not available (or if they are confidential) it is still key to focus on the outcomes. In this example, the alignment of the global team and the completion of the implementation project within-budget and on-time are wonderful characterizations of the success of the manager.
Step 4: Job Description
Once you have your major achievements on paper and crafted into concise CAR statements, you should have the bulk of your new resume content. Aiming for roughly three to five achievement/contribution bullets per position is a good benchmark.
You also want to provide details about the scope of the role you held by answering questions such as:
1.) How many direct/indirect reports do you have?
2.) What are your main responsibilities? (Think about functions, activities, projects, budgets, clients.)
3.) Have you led or played a role in any corporate transactions such as mergers, strategic alliances, or new market development initiatives?
4.) Do you participate in any leadership forums?
5.) What type of organization do you work for (start-up, Fortune 500, multinational)?
Step 5: Build a High-Impact Career Summary
Once you have your major achievements on paper and crafted into concise CAR statements, think about the top three to five achievements that differentiate you from other job seekers and that are the most relevant to your current job target. It is often easiest to craft the professional experience entries first and then step back and think about the big-picture personal brand that needs to come across in the Career Summary.
So often this section of the resume is focused on what someone “can do,” which tends to lead to vague, generic content that could easily be plopped onto someone else’s resume. For example:
“Accomplished pharmaceutical sales executive with track record of driving quota attainment and cohesive teams. Broad pharmaceutical and medical device product knowledge and strong network in healthcare industry.”
All of this may well be true, but the problem is that it could be true for roughly 99% of pharma salespeople. There is nothing concrete, specific, or memorable about it. In other words, it is wasting valuable space on a resume instead of engaging the reader and clarifying the job seeker’s value and personal brand.
A more dynamic and engaging career summary for a pharma salesperson could read like this:
“Sales leader and analytical innovator delivers sales growth of up to 45% YOY coupled with focused, motivational team leadership. Outperformed market share of top 5 U.S. competitors. Prevented XYZ Company default by securing multimillion-dollar contract (75% of business).”
If you were an HR Manager presented with only these two small paragraphs, which door would you open?
Step 6: What Else Needs to Be Front and Center?
The Career Summary is a great place to mention other credentials and qualifications as well. Do you have any awards/honors relevant to your target job? What about licensures, certifications, publications, or speaking engagements? Generally, these are listed only in the Education section or an addendum, but they can be very impactful (when relevant), so consider dropping a line into the Career Summary or getting creative with formatting!
In this sample, we learn at a glance that this healthcare executive has been decorated with prestigious awards, holds a certification in Healthcare Information and Management Systems, and emphasizes the human element of healthcare. Immediately following that we get an overview of his wonderful successes in both bulleted content and a visual graph.
Step 7: Bold the Numbers
This simple formatting adjustment will draw the reader’s eye to the quantifiable achievements and really make your accomplishments pop off the page!
— Generated cost savings of 3% (over $11M) for total spend under management of $400M in 2014 through standardization of processes, effective change management, and program leadership.
You’ll notice that this article—about writing an executive resume when you don’t have a college degree—has not focused at all on the Education section of the resume. That’s because it is far from the most important section, regardless of what your academic pedigree looks like. Having high-quality, high-impact content that draws the reader in and wows them with your achievements and the quantifiable outcomes of your work is going to make or break their decision whether to move forward with your application.
That said, there are plenty of ways to make the most of the Education section, and the best option comes down to your particular circumstances.
1.) How to Include a Degree In-Progress
Maybe you have been balancing your career and your personal life, and at the same time progressing with your college degree. If you plan to complete it, it absolutely needs to be included on your resume exactly as if it were a completed degree, with the small adjustment of an expected completion date in lieu of a graduation date.
Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, Expected 2018
2.) How to Include an Incomplete Degree
The difference between an in-progress degree and an incomplete degree is one of intention. If you do not plan to complete the degree, but you made any progress towards it at all, you can claim that on your resume. A few examples:
100 credits toward Bachelor of Arts in Marketing, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Significant coursework completed toward Bachelor of Arts in Marketing, University of Florida
Relevant coursework includes: XYZ marketing courses
With this sort of approach your resume will still “ping” with the bachelor’s degree keywords and get through Applicant Tracking Systems, but you are still being entirely truthful about the context.
3.) How to List Education on Resume with No 4-Year Degree
In plenty of cases people go directly from high school to work and never attend college at all for a myriad of reasons, but the most common one I hear is that they found success without it.
A great option in that scenario is to de-emphasize the lack of a college degree by expanding the Education section to include Awards and Recognitions, Professional Development, Certifications, Professional Affiliations, Volunteer Experience, Speaking Engagements, and Training. For example:
Job Search Strategy for Executives Without a Completed Degree
Nontraditional job seekers should always keep in mind that job boards and applying through HR are not the most-effective methods to land an interview. Between the Applicant Tracking Systems used by the majority of organizations to screen resumes for specific keywords and experience, and the focus in Human Resources on finding cookie-cutter candidates with the exact qualifications listed in the posting, it stands to reason that lacking a degree will put you at a competitive disadvantage in the most highly competitive job seeking space—the job boards.
To reduce the level of competition and leverage your experience and skills, the best place to start is with your network. Think about all of the people who know your value already—from professional contacts, educational contacts, friends, family, social groups, and online contacts. Put aside time to reach out to people and spread the word that you are looking for new opportunities. A few suggested goals for these networking conversations could be:
1.) Learning “Who else should I be speaking to?”
2.) Sending a list of target companies and asking if your contact knows anyone who works there that they could introduce you to.
3.) Building a rapport with a friend of a friend in your industry so that they think of you the next time they hear of a job opening.
Another great option is reaching out directly to key decision makers at companies of interest with a cover letter focused on the ROI for hiring you (also known as an Executive Value Proposition Letter.) Higher-ups in an organization are often more focused on finding the top talent as opposed to the perfect fit for the job posting, so they would be less likely to be deterred by a nontraditional academic background (assuming your real-world experience and contributions are coming through crystal-clear.)
With an active job search geared toward reaching out to people and companies directly and a resume that highlights your track record of success, an incomplete or missing degree will not prevent you from landing your dream job.