The journey to Silicon Valley doesn’t have to be through a university.
Considering that I dropped out of high school at the age of 17 and my first job was as a part-time shoe salesman, one would be surprised to find out that I started social media for Winn-Dixie, one of the largest grocery chains in the U.S., ran digital marketing for Save-A-Lot food stores, and currently lead social media globally for BMC Software.
Despite the aforementioned opportunities and over 10 years of experience, throughout my career, I have been turned down for dozens of social media roles because I did not meet the education prerequisite.
Which is why, when I was hired by LinkedIn on March 16, 2015, it wasn’t just any other opportunity but it was my dream job come true.
While I was out of work towards the beginning of 2015, I happened to be visiting San Francisco, interviewing for a job across the Bay in Oakland, when on my Uber pool ride back to the city a young lady entered the vehicle. Unknowingly, she worked for LinkedIn as a recruiter which I later came to find out after engaging in brief conversation, during which I let her know that I was in town interviewing for a job.
That single Uber ride of fate quickly turned into a series of phone and in-person interviews which led to my eventual hiring at the company within a matter of weeks.
I was lucky. During the interview process, I was never asked one time where I went to school.
Below are 5 strategies for those like me who don’t have a college degree yet have the same aspiration or greater as someone who does.
1. Build a Professional Brand
Your LinkedIn profile is your professional brand and where recruiters or hiring managers will go to learn about your experience, not your resume. Google yourself and you will see that your LinkedIn profile is likely one of the first few links that comes up in search results which is why it’s vital that your profile be optimized for success which includes having a professional headshot as a profile photo, a short summary which clearly articulates who you are, and examples of your prior work history including actionable results.
However, don’t sleep on other social networks, today employers are turning to Twitter, Facebook, and even Snapchat as part of the vetting process. Ironically, as I was going through the interview process at LinkedIn they were able to see that I was active on the platform–an important detail which I oversold throughout the process.
2. Have Recommendations and References
Within your LinkedIn profile, you should have multiple references from every previous employer including colleagues and managers whom you’ve reported to. A telling sign to hiring managers about what type of employee you are is whether or not someone can vouch for you.
Most employers require up to 5 references which they will personally call if they decide to move forward in the hiring process with you so make it easy by having those references send you an official letter of recommendation in addition to writing one on LinkedIn. Don’t forget to ask vendor partners and anyone that can speak to your professional work history for references too.
3. Sell Your Experience and History of Success
What will set you apart from other candidates isn’t where you went to school but rather what you’ve done throughout your career. Go into interviews prepared to talk about your career growth to this point including how you’ve gone from an entry-level role to mid-level management or above and spotlight results that you’ve driven along the way. Employers are often compelled by candidates that come to the table with examples and/or can openly “speak about a time in which they…”
4. Have a Good Answer to the Degree Question
If you’re like me and you don’t have a college degree, the question of “Where did you go to school?” can be daunting and kill the momentum in any interview. Especially when they add in the “I don’t see it on your resume” line. The best way to overcome this objection is by being both honest and optimistic.
Instead of saying “I don’t have one” which instantly changes the interviewer’s perception of you, lead in with “I’m open to going back to school, however up until this point my focus has been centered on gaining tangible, work-related experience”.
While this doesn’t directly answer the question in a “yes” or “no” manner it does open up the dialogue further as you’re letting your potential employer know that at your age you are still open to pursuing a degree. Keep in mind that anyone can go to college at any time, many adults pursue MBA’s well into their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
5. Don’t Forget to Sell Your Personal Story
A degree might help one check a box, but it won’t guarantee anyone a job so the playing field is more even than one might think. Keep in mind that employers aren’t looking for just any candidate but rather the one that can adapt to company culture, drive results, and stand out above the competition. Which is why your story matters. Throughout the interview process, be sure to share your career story whenever you’re asked “Tell me about yourself?” and mix in the personal aspects about yourself such as where you’re from and what your hobbies. Despite not having a college degree, throughout my career I’ve been able to win over the interviewer almost every time by just being myself – a proud professional.
This article originally appeared on Inc.com and may not be repurposed without consent.