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Claiming college degree on résumé could backfire

DEAR J.T. & DALE: I ended up leaving college the second semester of my senior year for personal reasons, and never graduated; I’m literally just a few credits shy. So I put on résumés that I have my degree. My friend told me that’s lying and said I could get in trouble if I’m hired under the idea that I have a degree. Is this true? – Roland

Dale: Oh yes, it’s true – instant firing offense, most places. Why? They figure if you’d lie on your application, you’re, well … sorry … a liar. And, because you’d lie about something so concrete and so readily checkable, they’d also question your judgment.

J.T.: I’m not sure what your friend meant by “get in trouble,” and while I’ve never heard of it becoming a legal matter, I do agree that if your employer ever finds out, it is grounds for immediate termination, especially if the degree was a requirement for the job. I would seriously consider finding out what it would take to get your final few credits so that you can get your degree. But if that is not an option, I would list the total number of credits and add that you are only a couple of credits shy of earning the degree. This will bring some questions from employers, but some might be willing to pay for the final coursework so that you can get the degree. Otherwise, I would remove it from the résumé altogether so that you do not get caught in a lie.

Dale: Let’s back up. Why is having a degree such a common requirement, even when the job has no direct connection to college coursework? The degree is rarely about knowledge, or even IQ. What it is about is self-discipline and the ability to complete a task, to endure years of bureaucracy to meet a goal. It’s basically one bureaucracy stamping you as being ready to enter another. (Which sounds cynical, but isn’t. I love colleges. My father was a college professor, and so were two uncles.) I tell you all of that to get to this suggestion: Instead of listing credits, simply list the years that you went to the college, along with your major. Most people will assume you got the degree, but you did not list one. This will give them the reassurance that you are college-educated without having to misrepresent your background. And hey, J.T.’s right – go ahead and finish up those credits. With all the online courses now available, it should be doable.

Dear J.T. & Dale: I love decorating my friends’ apartments. I’m good at design. But I don’t have a degree in it. Do you think I could get a job with an interior design firm? – Annabel

Dale: I love how you’re thinking, Annabel. A lot of people in your situation would start by checking on degree programs instead of figuring out how to get a job in the field. As for the former, a warning: I have a colleague who paid for his daughter to get a degree at a prestigious design school, and then, within a year after graduating and working in the field, she decided she hated working with clients she found spoiled and fickle. So she went back to school and became a teacher.

J.T.: So, can you just jump in? The only way to find out is to try. I would make a list of top design firms in your area and see if you can set up informational interviews with as many designers as possible. Buy them coffee and ask them questions about the industry, job, and what it would take to get into it. I’m sure they can offer some insights and possibly some outside-the-box ways to establish yourself. They’ll also give you a reality check about the work. While you enjoy doing it for fun, you may learn that it isn’t as joyful as a profession. However, you at least will get a sense of whether you want to pursue it, and if so, you might just end up with your first design job.

Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional development specialist and the founder of the consulting firm jtodonnell. Dale Dauten resolves employment and other business disputes as a mediator with Please visit them at, where you can send questions via email, or write to them in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY 10019.