A High Schooler’s Guide to Breaking Into Corporate America
Sí se puede.
Two years ago, I landed a corporate job in San Francisco with only a high school degree.
Since then, I myself have interviewed hundreds of candidates and I’ve seen a vast array of resumes, portfolios, and unconventional backgrounds.
Here’s what I can tell you about applying without a college degree:
1. There are companies that want you. You just have to find them.
Not every company likes cutting through red tape. Usually, larger companies (300+ employees) have more rigid hiring policies and are less likely to bend the rules. However, some smaller companies can afford to invest in their employees on a more personal level.
Finding those companies should be the most time consuming part of the application process. Look through employee LinkedIn profiles and executive Twitter accounts. Do their employees have a history of major career changes? Do their executives foster meaningful connections with their employees? Does anyone at the company come from an unconventional background, like a technical bootcamp or apprenticeship?
2. Don’t go through the front door.
Instead of submitting your resume through online job application sites like LinkedIn and Indeed, reach out proactively. Send personalized emails to executives and hiring managers explaining why you like their company and why they should take a chance on you.
Be prepared to send multiple follow ups. You probably won’t get a response the first time around, but that’s to your advantage; sending proactive emails, instead of applying through job sites, demonstrates tenacity and highlights your communication skills.
Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, either. Is there anything about their product that could be improved? Do you think the company is missing out on any opportunities? Employers usually appreciate feedback and like to see that you’ve done your research.
3. Don’t look at job postings.
If a job has been posted, it’s off the table. College graduates and professionals with previous work experience are already competing for it; your goal is to provide a unique value proposition before everyone else shows up.
Do you have any skills that a company might need? Can you translate their website? Can you automate any of their systems? Do they need an office manager or an executive assistant? Could you be their social media manager or their copyrighter? Are any of their employees about to retire, and could you be their understudy in the meantime?
Before you reach out to a company, define the problem you want to solve for them. Create the role before it exists.
4. Include a portfolio.
Unfortunately, employers still view a college degree as a reflection of your competence and merit. In reality, most people learn relevant skills on the job and a degree is little more than a cheap insurance policy. However, the stigma against college opt-outs is still widely held.
For this reason, you should have a work portfolio to demonstrate concrete examples of your merit. This portfolio could include school assignments or GitHub pages or passion projects or letters of recommendation. Keep it concise and highlight skills that would be most relevant to your role.
5. Be either hyper specific or hyper vague in your resume.
If you collected X amount of signatures for X campaign, be specific. If you won X award for X reasons or built X mechanism to improve X metric by X percent, be specific.
If you “lead process improvement efforts to create standard procedures and increase customer satisfaction”, be vague. If you “demonstrated leadership in multiple business initiatives” or “provided support for cross-functional teams to maximize productivity” be vague.
A good resume has a mix of both specificity and vagueness, but be specific wherever possible.
6. Be prepared to make sacrifices
Realize that employers are assuming a greater risk by hiring you over an “accredited” candidate. One way you can give them more confidence is by having skin in the game yourself; offering to start as an unpaid intern, for example, shifts the risk to you. Worst case scenario, you’ll have corporate work experience to add to your resume even if they don’t hire you.
Additionally, your value proposition without a high school degree is that you are cheap. You’ll likely be paid less than coworkers with a degree at first. However, you won’t have any student debt to pay off and you’ll have four years to bridge the pay gap (if not surpass it).
At the end of the day, there’s no singular path to starting your corporate career. I myself didn’t follow half these rules and still turned out okay (although I wonder how much time and heartache I would have saved myself if I had…).
It might be easy for you to land your first corporate job. Or it might take years of rejection, as it did for me.
Why not find out?