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Stop Confusing Your Job Skills With Your Credentials

The big-name employer you worked for or the elite university you went to may matter less than you think. It’s what you did there that counts.

Stop Confusing Your Job Skills With Your Credentials
[Photo: Flickr user Guy Dickinson]

Credentials ruled in the traditional job market. Candidates were coached to dial up the prestige on their resumes, on social media, and on job interviews. Saying you went to Harvard was better than saying you went to the University of Illinois. Describing a stint at Deloitte at age 22 was better than talking up the rare and desirable skills you picked up in a second-act career.

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That’s finally staring to change, but not every job seeker has quite gotten the memo. Many still tout their credentials as stand-ins for the job skills recruiters and hiring managers are really looking for. Here’s how (and why) to switch up your approach.

The Trouble With Pedigrees

Employers in all industries are finally wising up to the limits  of fancy credentials as predictors of on-the-job success. Too often, high test scores and degrees from elite universities signal wealthy parents and other forms of privilege at least as much as they signal competence and expertise. Relying on signs of prestige doesn’t provide either the diverse perspectives or the grit that employers need their workforces to possess in order to thrive in the modern business world.

For the 2018 Job Preparedness Indicator, my nonprofit organization, the Career Advisory Board, asked 500 U.S.-based hiring managers to share their thoughts on nontraditional job candidates. We defined nontraditional college students and graduates as meeting any of the following criteria:

  • Started attending college more than one year after graduating high school
  • Attended/attending college as a part-time student
  • Had/have children and/or other dependents other than their spouse while attending college
  • Worked/work at a full-time job while attending college
  • Did not receive a standard high school diploma and instead earned a GED or high school certificate of completion

Since the Career Advisory Board is supported by DeVry University, a for-profit institution that attracts many students from nontraditional backgrounds, DeVry certainly has a stake in the trends my team set out to analyze. Still, half of our respondents said their organizations are hiring more nontraditional students and graduates than they used to: 50% said they “recognize valid, alternative education paths besides the typical college journey”; 34% “desire more diversity in our workforce”; and 32% feel “nontraditional students and graduates have a stronger work ethic.”

And refreshingly, fully 70% of hiring professionals agreed with the following statement: “If a candidate has the right skills for an open position, it doesn’t matter what type or format of education was used to get them.”

These attitudes are reverberating throughout the talent space. A recent LinkedIn survey of some 9,000 recruiters and hiring managers likewise picked up on intensifying efforts to shake up the traditional recruitment process to find more diverse, qualified candidates without elite credentials. And artificial intelligence is playing an ever-wider role in efforts like those. At the same time, tech leaders like Airbnb and Pinterest are expanding apprenticeship programs to hire smart, non-traditional engineers first, then train them on the job. One tech company Fast Company spoke to last year has even started intentionally hiring people with no relevant experience, as long as they possess the right skills and qualities instead.

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Getting Back To The Action, Not The Setting

But these evolving attitudes won’t matter if you don’t change your approach as a job seeker in order to capitalize on them. Desperately talking up every impressive-sounding credential on your resume is going to pay diminishing returns in the years ahead. So whether or not you’re a nontraditional student or grad, it’s time to start pushing your skills to the forefront. These are a few ways to do that:

Focus on on-the-job wins. Let’s say you’re applying to a job as a marketing data analyst. In the past, perhaps you led with the fact that you earned high honors studying computer science at a top university. Today you may have better luck mentioning how you mastered analytics skills by selecting and implementing new software at a previous employer, then used the mined data to tell a story about the best path forward.

Speak directly to the job description. You have to know the target position inside and out in order to show how experience directly relates to the job in question. Be prepared to tell your interviewers exactly how you have solved similar challenges–with excellent results. Then, instead of trying to prove why you’re like every “prestigious” cookie-cutter graduate who walks through the door, explain how the organization will benefit by having an employee with your special combination of determination, resilience, and resourcefulness.

Get specific. Rather than trusting that a kid who got a few lucky breaks can hack it in an often chaotic business climate, employers told our researchers that they’re after candidates who “have developed niche skill sets or unique experiences that differentiate them from the market,” “have internal drive and good time management,” “have demonstrated a track record of stable work history, including promotions and cross-functional experiences,” and who are “willing to learn the business and work in whatever capacity the company needs them.”

Arguably, these are all things that hiring managers have sought out since time immemorial–they just used fancy pedigrees as a shorthand for these attributes. As that begins to change, more opportunity is opening up to more job seekers, no matter where they went to school or last worked. All that’s left to do is seize it.


Alexandra Levit is a business futurist and best-selling author who has consulted for the Obama administration as well as Fortune 500 companies including American Express, Deloitte, Microsoft, PepsiCo, and Whirlpool.

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