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I've been applying to software engineering jobs recently. I am a college dropout. I dropped out of college after one semester because I really didn't like the experience. I was able to get a job quickly. That was a few years ago. I lost that job a few weeks ago.

One question that comes up often (not A LOT, but often)is why I don't have a degree. How should I answer this? Usually I say:

"I went to college for a bit, but I didn't enjoy the experience and I didn't want to spent a ton of money and time on something I didn't enjoy. Instead I decided to get into the workforce"

With this answer, I get past HR about 50% of the time. Is this answer optimal?

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    I got asked a lot why I stopped at an associates and didn't go on for a bachelors or a masters, and I usually say that given my past work experience, I didn't think a degree would add that much for me, and that I prefer to spend the time and money elsewhere :) – Rachel Jul 6 '13 at 17:12
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    Gates is a dropout, Zukerberg is a dropout, Dell is a dropout. You're in good company. Don't mess with HR, talk to VCs. – Meredith Poor Jul 6 '13 at 20:24
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    @MeredithPoor - Correlation is not causation. They were all accepted and enrolled in a top university, so we should assume that's a factor as well? – user8365 Jul 8 '13 at 15:08
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    @JeffO - in one respect, I was attempting to inject some humor into the discussion, but the larger truth is that college and programming are often like oil and water. People with a 'developer' mindset just want to get on with it, they don't wait around for 'class to begin', they don't necessarily agree with the instructor's version of reality, and they're sensitive to out of date material. This is my experience with college. I started in 1972, stopped short of a degree, went back in 1989, and finally finished in 1992. – Meredith Poor Jul 8 '13 at 21:29
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    I'm with Meredith on this one. However, I would label it the "Disruptive" mindset. Academia presses people into molds and gives certificates to those who can pass through the mold. All of those mentioned rejected/broke the mold (extend the metaphor as you see fit). They realized the value of their own efforts as being superior the value of the academic instruction. Development is usually about breaking with "The way things have always been done" and creating something new, and hopefully better. – Wesley Long Jul 10 '13 at 1:26
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I'd say that's a pretty good answer - try to be as honest as possible as to why you left and make sure they understand it's not because you found it tough going but because you thought you would learn more by getting industry experience.

The only reason it might really put them off is because it shows that you are a quitter. Saying that, many great software engineers don't have degrees.

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    He is an early quitter, which might actually be good, if emphasized. Much better than to linger in limbo for years before somebody else makes the decision for you. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 8 '13 at 14:38
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen: It is also culture-bound, as at least in the Finnish culture, quitting early means you're not even trying and is viewed very badly. In other cultures, it can be the opposite, too. – Juha Untinen Jul 30 '13 at 8:57
  • It's not quitting, its taking a risk, some companies like risk takers, especially ones who can demonstrate the risk paid off for them. – Rhys Jul 30 '13 at 10:12
  • What I personally do is explain to them that at the time I lacked the maturity to stick it out and get it over with, but that I have since changed this aspect of myself. This shows the capability to self-reflect and learn from your mistakes. – Cronax Apr 3 '15 at 12:15
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I would caution against explaining that you didn't finish because you didn't enjoy it. Jobs, rather by definition are things you won't enjoy. It's one small jump to assume you'll quit your job.

I would emphasize the high cost. Businesses understand high cost. After that, you can maybe spin something about actual employment being better training, or at least better training for you depending on how you actually feel.

  • I enjoy my job very much. Maybe you could reword that point to suggest that there may be certain aspects of a job you won't enjoy and that employers will want to know you won't quit just because things get tough. We all occasionally have to do things we don't want to, but it's a stretch to say that jobs by definition are things we don't enjoy. – jmort253 Jul 6 '13 at 18:54
  • @jmort253 - I agree with your statement. Saying that you simply did not enjoy college is a good answer, its also a great chance, to indicate the positive outcome by not finishing college. Important to explain why the negative is actually a postive thing for the user. – Donald Aug 5 '13 at 14:31
  • Don't agree with the statement Jobs, rather by definition are things you won't enjoy. Really? Sometimes it's hard to find a job you enjoy, but I think it would be foolish not to consider your enjoyment of a job along with other factors like salary. – Brandin Feb 20 '15 at 16:15
  • Last paragraph is golden. I'll try it out at my next interview :D – Radu Murzea Apr 3 '15 at 10:41
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There's a couple of things to this, and I've been in the hiring and firing business for a while (though to tell the truth I am a senior developer now and don't really like the Hiring procedure - I like to cut code :) )

In my opinion, depending on the industry, the lack of a formal qualification could be a good thing or a bad thing. For many, it's an unfortunate catch-22. You can't get a job because you don't have the experience, and you can't get the experience without a job.

(It's worth noting at this point that I am coming at this from an I.T perspective, and other industries may differ).

I was once perplexed at the notion that a programmer with no experience, but who excelled in the interview, could out-play someone with a degree in computer science. Similarly, I was perplexed by the fact that two graduates from the same course, same university, and ultimately the same grade could make me hire one and not the other.

So I put some more thought and consultation in to this. Turns out that someone who went on a computer science degree as an option versus someone who truly loved the work, produced the same grade - but the latter were more hireable.

But we can go a step further here. Companies should not be hiring on qualifications. I've had PhD students unable to comprehend simple facts. I'm after a person who is able to do the job and, more importantly, fit in. It may be uncommon knowledge, but a decent manager would prefer the lesser-skilled guy that fits in over the highly-skilled guy with social issues. Why? Because we can train the lesser-skilled person. We can't take the anti-social out of the other guy, even if he is more qualified.

So to answer your question - make your skills demonstrable. Any decent employer should see you as a good candidate despite the lack of formal qualifications which (at least in my industry) are becoming more and more irrelevant. I'm after talent and FIFO (Fit In, or F-Off).

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Well, when I'm not in an interview, I always answer honestly with, "I woke up one morning and realized I didn't have to pay hippies to read books to me to learn skills."

Now, in an interview, you can't get away with that. Mainly because HR is staffed almost exclusively by low-paid functionaries who are still paying on their student loans.

The dirty little secret in the United States is that most university degrees are pointless. Some engineering disciplines absolutely need them for certifications, as do legal and medical professions. However, most of what you learn as a freshman and sophomore is completely obsolete when you graduate, and most of what you learn beyond that has little to do with what the business world actually needs.

The other side of this equation, though is that you do need to be able to demonstrate to a potential employer that you have skills and that you are employable. Industry certifications fill this niche nicely for IT and software development when you're young. Once you've got 5 years' experience behind you, though, no one is even going to look twice at your degree or your GPA. Also, your ability to work in a team is important. Find a non-profit you can support with your time. If you put about 15 hours a week in, you'll be leading a team within 6 months. That will also look pretty impressive on your resume.

Remember, employers are only looking for results. Your sheepskin on the wall means nothing to them. Your completed task list and ability to work within resource constraints are what really matter. If you want to learn what can be accomplished with limited resources, volunteer at a reputable non-profit for a while. You'll learn some good skills, there.

I am stating that the correct answer to the question is to say, "I didn't feel the time spent acquiring a degree would have been spent better than the time I spent learning on-the-job and acquiring industry-relevant certifications."

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    Regardless of their actual merit, I can speak with certainty that having a degree will get you far more employment offers than not with the same skills. Results don't matter if you can't get hired (for less money than degree'd peers). – Telastyn Jul 6 '13 at 23:58
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    This is a good answer aside from your claim that degrees are worthless in the USA. In many fields a degree is required for consideration. IT is one of the very few fields in which one can get a good well paying job without a bachelor's degree at a minimum. – Jeremy Jul 7 '13 at 3:00
  • @JoeStrazzere - I disagree. I feel I expounded on the merits of industry certifications as a viable and even superior option to a degree, and volunteer work as proof that a person can manage projects and work within resource constraints. This is always a very pseudo-religious debate. Those with degrees feel they are somehow superior to those without. While it has (seldom) been true that degrees in IT open doors, past performance and networking go a heck of a lot further in bringing in opportunities. My opinion only, and the downvotes show some disagree. My paycheck says some agree. – Wesley Long Jul 8 '13 at 5:06
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    @Jeremy - not all degrees are worthless, but (I believe) the majority are. I have a degree in audio engineering. I learned absolutely nothing about software development in college. When I moved into software development, I considered going back to night school for a CS degree, and realized how pointless it is. I learned far more by independent study than I ever would have in a classroom. Marketing, business administration, and a host of other professions have degrees that are worthless. On-the-job experience is far more valuable. We need to bring back apprenticeships and drop degrees. – Wesley Long Jul 8 '13 at 5:11
  • @Telastyn - It has been my experience that on the contractor circuit, no one gives two hoots about your degree. They care only about your last 3 projects, and your references / recommendations from them. – Wesley Long Jul 8 '13 at 5:13
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Yes being honest has its place. But you can't just be honest and leave it on bad terms. Just like the methodology on how to answer the question "Tell me some of your best and worse qualities." Sure, you can go on and on about your best qualities, but when it comes to answering your worse qualities you just don't want to plainly say your worse qualities. You want to explain your worse qualities AND THEN explain how and what you are doing to try and improve on it.

So back to your reasoning on why you didn't complete college. Explain it to them honestly AND THEN explain to them what you have achieved, learned and experienced with the different path that you have taken.

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I am in a similar situation, and my honest answer to this would be:

After finishing my school, I learned enough to start working as a software developer. I always wanted to be a software developer, so instead of studying I decided to work in the software industry. I learned a lot there, so I did not regret this decision.

Note that the school I went to was in Austria where you make your final exam about the age of 20 and has a focus on software development.

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Many others have already given great answers. I definitely agree with being as honest as possible and with phrasing it in a way that shows that your are ambitious, rather than lazy. Also, since you feel like others may see it as a pitfall that you don't have a degree, it may be worthwile to make an effort to shine in other areas. From my understanding, IT/engineering professionals are not known for their great interpersonal/communication skills. This is an area that you can develop within yourself (if you haven't already) and mention in the interview that although you lack the academic background, you've been able to focus on growing your social skills and feel like they allow you to excel in work settings. In addition to highlighting your professional skills, of course. Just a thought...

protected by Community Feb 20 '15 at 14:35

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