How to not go to college

Throughout high school, students are primed and polished to enter into a higher education program, and many don’t consider an alternate route to life after high school. With the influence of a college degree becoming diluted, many college graduates find the world has not been anxiously awaiting their graduation with offer letter in hand.

Instead of blindly enrolling in degree programs, what if we encouraged students should to explore different approaches to advancing their education? There are other ways to gain the skills and experience needed to have a successful career that don’t require a 4-year degree.

Listen to your compass, not your clock.

Take time off to explore your interests, school will always be there. Even if you later decide to go to school, exploring the fields you are interested can save you time (and money!) in the long run. Pursue a business idea, take an internship, move abroad and learn another language — Who knows what opportunities could arise?

Don’t be afraid to take an internship.

My first job with a startup in New York was an internship. After a month I was offered a full-time job with benefits, but without taking a chance on that position I never would have been able to prove that I was a good fit for the position. I went on to explore a number of different positions within the company as we grew from a small, scrappy team sitting around a table in a Chelsea loft to a nationwide business.

That said, work at a startup!

The exposure and experience you gain working on a small team in a cross-functional role is invaluable. Eventually establishing expertise in a specific area is a good idea, but the breadth of experience not only helps you decide where to specialize, but how to better communicate with people in other fields.

You’ll learn more about what working in marketing actually means in a couple weeks at a startup than you will sitting in Marketing 101 — and get paid to do it.

Trade your time.

As the startup I had joined grew I filled various roles, but didn’t find a position that aligned with my interests. When the role I was transitioning into suddenly disappeared as the department restructured, I found myself without a job, seriously rethinking my career goals. When I left my boss gave my some stinging but true advice: “Go learn some new skills.”

Trying to determine my next move, I was considering venturing into social enterprise but had no connections. Networking events can be tedious, and I wanted an authentic way to meet the right people and learn about their work. Through volunteering once a week at social innovation co-working center, I was not only was able to connect with the community but received free work space.

Go learn some new skills.

Going back to school can always be an option, and a very good one! Eventually I came full circle to my old boss’s advice and decided the best way to transition into a new career was to go back to school. Leveraging my prior design experience, I decided to study user experience design and enrolled in a program. After it ended, I build a portfolio and soon found a freelance position with a small digital agency.

Be ready for rejection.

Keep in mind the limitations of not completing a degree if you are interested in career advancement in the corporate world. Mary Alice McCarthy pointed out,

Many [technical programs] lead to good-paying jobs. What they don’t lead to is a bachelor’s degree. And without a B.A., there is only so far you can reasonably expect to rise in this country.

Not everyone values experience, and a degree can make you stand out among pools of applicants. I was over a month into interviewing with a large financial consulting company, only to be ultimately turned down because I didn’t have a 4-year degree. There were other companies that didn’t even bring me in because I didn’t meet that requirement.

$ave it up.

Being adventurous with your education can be financially friendly, but in some situations requires more upfront cash. Start saving in high school, every bit adds up. I’ve never taken out a loan, and financed the majority of expenses from personal savings. Life doesn’t end once you have that first job with a cushy salary — when you want to sail away on that next adventure savings will come in handy.

Whatever experience you are seeking — learning to code at a tech bootcamp, learning a new language in a foreign country, or a well-rounded college education — don’t be afraid to explore what the world has to offer without following common convention. To quote the recruiting tagline of the consulting company that turned me down because I didn’t have a 4-year degree,

“Write your own story.”