Q: I’m interviewing for a new job I’m really excited about, but I’m worried for one big reason—I never finished my college degree. On my resume, I list the university I attended for three years, but I don’t actually have a diploma. Should I say something ahead of time? Or keep quiet and hope for the best? I don’t want to be perceived as a liar.
A: This kind of situation happens more often than you might think, and I’ve seen it play out a number of different ways. In one case, the person—who had 20 years’ experience in her field—disclosed her lack of a degree at the offer stage, and the company withdrew the offer. In another instance, the candidate didn’t say anything ahead of time about not graduating, and he was confronted when the background check revealed that he did not have a degree. The company emphasized how important it was that he be forthcoming with them in the future, but they still offered him the job. Whatever the outcome may be, the concern about being perceived as a liar is a valid one—this is the crucial factor in deciding how to broach the topic.
How you list you college attendance on the resume or applications sets the stage for either a clear presentation or confusion. If you don’t have a degree, don’t list one. You would think this would be clear, but the press has discovered many people who do not have the degree they declare, and background checks will reveal this. Better to list the college, and say “Completed coursework in…” and list the course starting with those that focus on your areas of expertise or list a general area like business management . Include the number of years you were there.
If your lack of degree doesn’t come up in the initial interview, disclose the information when you gauge a serious interest on behalf of the organization. Do not screen yourself out too soon, especially if you have the experience to be successful on the job. After you know you want the job, and you know they want you, broach the subject directly and emphasize your desire to be forthcoming: “There’s one point that might be of concern to you, and I want to be up front about it. I attended Strong University and completed three years of coursework but didn’t finish my degree. I wish I had, but it didn’t happen. I hope that isn’t an obstacle to moving forward.” Of course, if you are working on finishing the degree, say that. Do not let them find out from another source, like the background check.
How much detail you actually provide in this conversation depends on the specific circumstances of why you didn’t finish. Perhaps you were caring for a sick family member, were sick yourself, or could no longer afford tuition. If you are comfortable sharing that information, it will provide context to your potential employer. If the reason is more sensitive—a disciplinary issue, for example—decide what level of detail you are willing to provide compared to your desire for the job. Be careful in your explanation, as the employer will likely form an opinion about you based on your reason for not completing the degree.
Some industries and roles see degrees as vital and non negotiable. Other roles and organizations will consider years of experience and some college education as acceptable. Between the options of disclosing your lack of a degree and a potential employer thinking of you as dishonest or deceitful, the latter is much worse. Withstanding an uncomfortable conversation but being able to speak to the circumstances of your education is always better than being thought untrustworthy.