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Ask Victoria | What if I Don't Meet the Education Requirement?

A stack of papers with question marks on them.

Dear Victoria,

I have recently read two letters that were written to you. One from a man who has always been low paid and very frustrated and another from a lady who is stuck in administrative roles. I am a combination of the two of them. I am 52 years old and I do not have a college degree. I stayed at home for 10 years to raise my children and that has greatly stunted any potential I had for any career growth. Right now, my husband and I have four children in college so there is no option for me to return to school. I have had a variety of admin roles for the last 12 years since returning to the workforce. While I am employed right now, I am not making very much money. I am blown away when I see jobs posted requiring a 4 year degree and the starting salary is $35,000. What does that make me worth? I see jobs posted for office manager and administrative assistant that pay $40,000 that also require a college degree. How do I get around this? I speak well and write fairly well. Many of my co-workers with bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees use poor grammar when speaking and have very poor writing skills (I constantly correct their writing, but would never do that to them when they are speaking). Most of the jobs in my office that pay well require a degree. I do not qualify for these positions, however I most certainly can do the job and many jobs that require degrees. Is there any hope for me at all in the DC job market?


Hello Sylvie,

Thank you for writing in. One of my intentions for the Ask Victoria column is that readers gain a sense of “I’m not in this alone” while gaining insights from other job seekers’ stories.

While the low figures in the starting salaries for current openings may cause “sticker shock”, know that it is still possible to find a position that will better meet your financial needs. By the same token, when the qualifications listed in the description for that low-paying job appear lofty, it can really cause your confidence in finding viable employment to plummet.

Many job seekers are inclined to take all the qualifications listed in a job description to heart. Women, in particular, are not likely to apply for a job if they don’t meet each and every requirement. An August 2014 Forbes article by Kerry Hannon asks the question, “Are Women too Timid When They Job Search?” and according to the research, the answer would be, “yes”.

In many cases, however, the requirements published in the job description are “wishlist” items. It might also be the case that they were written by a recruiter or HR coordinator, not necessarily the hiring manager, so there may be a discrepancy between the written qualifications and the actual responsibilities of the job. Most reasonable hiring managers know that finding someone with the exact mix of qualifications and experience will be extremely difficult. In fact, some follow the “80/20 rule” when it comes to hiring- if a candidate meets 80% of the qualifications and the remaining 20% are not integral to the job, they will still consider that person for the job.

Now, having these nuggets of information in your back pocket might not be enough to convince you to apply anyway. I understand it will take some time to build up your confidence and convey your skillset assertively. But spend some time reflecting- what are you known for in your office? Recall a time when your supervisor or a coworker said that you “saved the day”. If you were to take a three-week vacation, what would your coworkers be wishing they could ask you so they could do their jobs better? If you’re having trouble coming up with these on your own, ask your coworkers themselves- if they were to describe you in three words, which would they use, and why? Once you’ve compiled a list, ask yourself: aside from your lack of a college degree, what other qualifications are you missing? Use your list in your application to address the qualifications you do have.

My next suggestion would be to do some digging into the “why” behind the education requirement. Is it simply a “wishlist” item, or a way to detract candidates who don’t even meet the bare minimum experience from applying? Perhaps the organizations don’t want college students applying- not because the completed degree is essential to the work, but because they want someone who can be committed to the job rather than having their attention divided between work and school.

Discovering the “why” will require getting into contact with people. Start with your personal network- people with whom you feel comfortable and can speak candidly. Ask about the hiring practices at their organizations, and if a college degree is required, why that might be. If it seems like it’s just standard practice to list this requirement even if it’s not necessary, apply anyway!

See if there are ways you can supplement the education requirement with another credential. Might there be a secretarial course you can take, or would membership in a professional organization such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals or the American Society of Administrative Professionals be helpful? There are many online and in-person courses you can take for free or at low-cost, for almost any skill or job function you can think of. Demonstrating that you are serious about your professional development and continuing education (even if it’s not in the form of an official Bachelor’s degree) may make a difference and help open some doors.

To your success,


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