Strive for skills, not a degree

June 10, 2010 1:12 pm

A college degree is just a piece of paper to me. I worked hard and spent a lot of money on mine. But, it’s not what got me a job. Thousands of people who are without a job right now have that piece of paper…some are just more expensive or earned in different fields.

In order to be a marketable job candidate once you graduate, I believe you need to spend hours outside of the classroom to develop your real-world skills.

You need to make yourself stand out amongst thousands of potential job seekers. Leave your suggestions on standing out in the comments section. Here are my tips:

  • Workplace experience. Whether you volunteer, intern or freelance, you need experience with depth and breadth. This means extensive experience in one area is great, but you also should consider gaining experience in several different areas. The more time you spend working in the real world before you graduate, the better off you will be.
  • A strong network. I always found it annoying when people told me that I needed to “network” more. But, I’ve discovered that networking is definitely more about building professional relationships and getting to know people, not shaking hands and reading name tags at luncheon events.
  • Personality. Bosses hire people who they think they will like working with. I’ve known people who look perfect on paper…but they have the personality of a housefly. Don’t be afraid to be a real person.
  • Professionalism. You will be immediately judged on how you present yourself. I know flip flops have no affect on your skills, but it does put off an impression.
  • Confidence, not cockiness. Sure, you might know your stuff and its good to know it. But, you don’t want to come off as too cocky.
  • Know the strategy, not just the tool. Your clients won’t care that Twitter is cool. They need to know the strategy behind the tools and the potential ROI before they commit to it.
  • Demonstrate initiative. Do things just because you want to improve your skills. Go to conferences, watch webinars, write a blog and read books related to your career.

You don’t necessarily need a degree to get a job. You need skills. That piece of paper means nothing after you graduate if you don’t strive to make yourself better than the rest.

What would you suggest? What areas could entry-level employees improve upon?


  1. Solid advice. Along the lines of moving beyond the resume, I would suggest spending time creating content. This can be a blog, video, or whatever you feel comfortable doing. The point is to have content that people/recruiters can use to get to know you. Also get a Google profile.

  2. Rachel,
    This is great advice, not just for PR, but for any student or young professional.

    Students should go beyond simply earning a degree while in college, and take advantage of the community they are part of. Universities provide endless opportunities to gain real experience, develop skills, and network. Additionally, businesses in their community want to utilize the skills offered by university students, so they should connect to business professionals long before graduation.

    I think the number one lesson is, a degree will be worthless if you wait until graduation to start networking and gaining experience.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . said: [...]

  4. Thanks for the comment, Dave. Your tip also is great!!

  5. Angela,

    Thank you. I completely agree. Universities have many areas to get involved in. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Really helpful tips Rachel. I wish only if I had these guidelines when I was still in University. I came to learn about it the hard-way that is during job hunting after graduation. Experience with networking and personality during the interview is the key to landing a job on your next interview.

  7. Rachel, you are 100% correct. I have to say that most of what I actually use day to day I did not learn in the classroom. I learned it at internships and I learned it by seeking out knowledge in blogs, in news, books, mentors, etc. My diploma made the parents proud, though…even though they still think I do advertising. ;)

  8. Hi Rachel,

    This post definitely hit home. I agree with you 100% when you say that a college degree is just a piece of paper. Even though most employer’s want you to possess a degree in a particular field before considering you for employment, it is only a piece of paper. A person could hold a degree in English but also have the worst written communication skills on Earth!

    I believe that people should heavily utilize social media practices (among other efforts) when seeking to secure a job/career. The most successful businesses use it to market their products and brands. Why not use it to market yourself? Job seekers should create blogs, join social networking sites if they haven’t done so, or even upload videos of why they would be a success at the company they’re trying to become a part of.

    Let’s take me for example, I have a background in Music (Bachelor’s in Performance and Master’s in Music Education). I’ve been teaching privately here in Dallas, but I want to do more. I have a huge passion for social media. I’ve been working with social for about 4-5 years and I feel that my social media skills are pretty good. Recently, I’ve been doing some informal marketing work. And I REALLY enjoyed it. I’m currently seeking job opportunities where I would be able to utilize my social media skills professionally (Entry Level Social Media Marketing Specialist/Social Media Coordinator/etc.). But as you know, most hiring managers look at my resume and wonder if a musician/music educator has what it takes to uphold a Social Media Coordinator or other related position.

    I make it my priority to inform potential employers of the skills and intrinsic qualities that serious music study has allowed me to develop in my cover letter. All qualities I feel would allow me to succeed in any career. I have a question for you. What advice would you give someone from a background other than Marketing or PR seeking to secure an entry level position in social media marketing? Thanks Rachel!!


  9. Alan,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve met people with degrees in PR and journalism who couldn’t write if their life depended on it!! I’m glad you have recognized this as well.

    That’s really interesting that you have a degree related to music, but you are interested in social media. Good luck pursuing your interests. It would work well to work for a music-related company as a social media specialist.

  10. Hi Rachel,

    I would agree, to a certain point. I think too many college students don’t get involved in “real life” projects in school – it’s just bookwork. When I graduated from business school in 2009, I felt like I was ready to go out into the real world and make things happen.

    Fast forward one year. I moved to Arizona, and have had the opportunity to get to know several recent graduates out here. Most of them attended a large university (the largest in Arizona), and I can certainly tell there is a difference when it comes to “street smarts”.

    It all depends on where you go to school, and I firmly believe mine taught me the skills needed to succeed in life; however I would add that I’m one of the fortunate ones! Street smarts and skills are very important!

  11. Hello Rachel I was referred to your blog by one of Michael White’ posts,

    There is no doubt that a graduate needs much more than a degree to gain the competitive edge necessary to compete in the work force. Alan’s comment presents an even bigger challenge. How do you land a job in social media marketing when you don’t have the appropriate degree ?

    I’m not sure if you are still on the job hunt, but if you are here is my advice. Why not volunteer to create and implement a social media marketing plan for some non – profits ? This will give you the opportunity to

    - gain additional social media experience

    - network

    - build you work portfolio

    - have a large impact (Once you have shown the organization the significant impact you are making they may offer you a paid position / promotion. )

    – work for the common good

    Be sure to measure the impact that your strategies have on the non profit you are working for. You can use these results on your next job search.

    Many non profits are seeking social media specialists. Try a google search and see what you can find !


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Rachel M. Esterline works in public relations and marketing communications. Her blog, ExPRessions, contains her musings about PR, marketing, career and professional development, Gen Y issues, personal branding and more. Rachel also does freelance consulting and writing. She is originally from Genesee, Mich., and will graduate from Central Michigan University in May 2010.