In the June 28, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager who has no college degree wonders how crucial a degree is, and asks whether it’s worth stretching the truth on the resume:

In the case of a successful manager, how important is a college degree to a headhunter? I don’t have a degree. With so much emphasis on education nowadays, should I fabricate the truth on my resume or completely eliminate the education section entirely? If I were to stretch the truth and include a degree on my resume, how often at my level of achievement does a search firm investigate?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Hmmm. I’m really worried about you. Just what kind of achievement is it to lie about your credentials? Can a successful manager believe it’s smart to even consider fabricating a degree?

Don’t lie and don’t stretch the truth. There’s an entire background-checking industry ready to expose you. Search firms investigate, but you don’t know how far, and they’re not going to tell you. If you lie about a degree, you will probably get caught. It could cost you an offer. Worse, because some of these background checks take time, the truth might not turn up until after you’ve been hired—then you’ll lose your new job.

If you think it’s bad to get caught by your employer, realize that once the headhunter finds out you lied, your name will be mud all over your industry.

Even white lies on your resume can blow up in your face. People might say, “Aw, everybody does it. Companies expect some inflation in a resume.” What do you want to bet? Your career? Your reputation? Let me remind you: Your integrity is everything. Protect it.

Now for the good news… (This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the free newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)

You will of course encounter headhunters who stick to the party line. If the client says it wants a degree, the headhunter will skip candidates that lack one. This is where the truly good headhunters will surface. They will guide and advise their client, and if it’s possible, they will help the client get past the lack of a degree to get to a good candidate that can do the job well. If you’re dealing with a headhunter who refuses to take you to the next step, it will buy you nothing to argue. Unless you have an inside track to the hiring manager, let it go. Move on to the next opportunity.

I discuss ways to effectively portray your value to a headhunter in How to Work With Headhunters. If you’re changing careers, How Can I Change Careers? teaches how to overcome obstacles—like, “You’ve never done this sort of work before!”

In the end, it’s up to you to have a compelling story to tell about how the employer will benefit from hiring you. The headhunter won’t figure it out for herself. You have to explain it.

If in the final analysis the lack of a degree continues to pose a problem, then get one. With all the good distance-learning schools out there nowadays, you will likely be able to skip some courses by testing out of them. Your experience will count for a lot toward the degree. Check with your state’s department of education for a list of accredited distance schools.

Everyone fudges a bit on their resume. It’s like stealing hotel towels. It’s expected.


Tell me where you think the line is, and whether inflating your college degree information is a step too far. (If you’re a manager, would it bother you?) Everyone does it, right?


  1. I have faced the opposite problem. I was at a bad time in my life when I could not work in my chosen profession. Therefore, I fudged data to make me look less qualified and I left off my advanced degree.

    I have since returned to my profession and happily include my prestigious degree.

  2. I used to get a lot of spam offering advanced degrees for sale based on your “achievments” and a small fee. These offers seem to have dissappeared over the last year. Any one out there bought one of these degrees? If so, did you try to pass if off as a legitimate degree to an employer and did it pass a background check? Just curious.

  3. Don’t lie. If you are dishonest on your resume, why should I think you will be honest in your work (if I was the hiring manager). And as you say, it’s too easy to check.
    Having said that, I’m having the same problem that Roger mentioned – too many degrees. But if I only list my BS, then that’s a lie by omission. If I leave off my education altogether when the job requires a degree, I won’t be considered. Any suggestions?

  4. Kathy:

    My two cents worth… resumes are a brief snapshot, not an all-inclusive document of your entire life experience since puberty. If you don’t want to list a degree on your resume, then don’t list it. I don’t list every single publication I have written, every certification I possess, or every educational experience I have had. If I don’t think it is germane to the position in question, I don’t list it.

    However, if/when you are given a job application to fill out and sign, typically the last step before hiring, I would list all degrees in the education section of the application if it looks like that is called for. I have never heard of someone being fired for understating their accomplishments on a resume, but I have heard of dismissals for falsifying an employement application.

    If ever asked why you didn’t list the degree on your resume, just reply that you didn’t think that information was germane to this particular position.

  5. John:

    A gentleman that I know was very embarrassed by a “degree” from one of these institutions. He had already acheived a fairly senior management position without a degree, based solely on his accomplishements. He was managing a 400-500 person organization.

    A decision he made ticked off one of those 400+ people (go figure) and this person called HR and reported the Director as falsifying his credentials with a degree from a diploma mill.

    The gentleman’s explanation was that his duaghter had recently earned a B.S degree and he had always wanted to achieve that credential as well. He contacted one of these institutions that gave him credit (and a degree) for his “life experience”. Since he had paid good money for that degree he went ahead and turned it in to the personnel department to be added to his file. He already had his current job, and that additional credential did not get him any extra pay or recognition.

    Anyway, this upset employee knew about the “degree” and turned the Director in to HR, and called the media. Since his employer was a goverment entity that was prominent in the community, it was a big deal. The reason that I know they whole explanation regarding the degree is because the Director had to deliver it to the Channel 8 news cameras on his front lawn. He kept his job (barely), but his career is now “capped” for sure.

    This incident triggered a background check of HR records throughout the organization, and a couple of other people that I used to have to address as “Dr.” are now just plain old “Mr.”

    I think the background checkers all know who these diploma mills are. I beleive that are at the minimum a waste of money, and possibly a cause of significant embarrassment.

  6. @Kevin – Thanks. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And as they are typically asking for a BS in general, or a BS in a technical field, my other degrees are not germane to the position.

  7. Don’t lie. Think of it this way. Job hunting is a two way street. The hiring company is looking for a particular person. You are looking for something, a company and hiring manager who is focused on finding someone who can do the job, and appreciates your experience and value. The company you are looking for places more value on the abilty to do the job and add value than a degree. Nice, but not necessary. If it’s the other way round you’re not likely going to be happy there. The truth is a tool you use to shortlist the opportunities.
    If a recruiter or the shop he/she works for believes degreeed-ness is next to godliness you won’t hear from them anyway. In some cases a recruiter or a headhunter knows their clients which may include anality on academics to the point where there’s no bend. They may not personally agree, but know where their client’s draw the line. This may be unique to a hiring manager inside the company or embedded in the company’s culture. Some battles you can’t win.
    I believe the same approach applies to withholding information on degrees. Lies even by omission may catch up with you and hurt your credibilty. Again you’re looking for a home that values your experience/value and respects your academic achievement. If they don’t, do you want to work there?
    Here’s a short example: We were very interested in a junior engineer. He was honest to the point of noting he didn’t have a degree. But he implied he was pursuing it, noting attendence at a local university with a projected graduation. When digging deeper it turned out that he’d not yet started his program and there was no way his projection was accurate. He’d have hit a home run if he stuck absolutely to the truth.

  8. @Don
    Hence my problem. My PhD seemed like a good idea at the time but has turned into an albatross. People seem to think I have too much experience or will be too expensive, or that I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
    I thought I had found a home, a company that appreciated my academic qualifications, but they laid me off last August. At this point I can no long afford the luxury of looking for a “home”, I just need a job. Desperately.
    But I am a terrible liar. My husband teases me about being ‘little miss rule follower’.
    So here I am. Stuck.

  9. Kevin’s comment to Kathy is spot on. Your resume should be a collection of accurate and salient information that makes a case for your suitability for the position you hope to be offered–you can omit with a clear conscience anything that does not help make that case, whether it’s an unimpressive long-ago job or an advanced degree that makes you appear overqualified.

    The ethical line is drawn when you are explicitly asked about things you might rather not reveal. Under those circumstances you’ll likely only do more damage if you don’t tell the truth.

  10. Kathy, you are customizing your resume for each job, aren’t you? If you’re doing that, you’re emphasizing relevant experience and leaving out anything not relevant to that job. Do that consistently and you’ll be able to explain it with a straight face if anyone asks you about it later.

    And as several people have recommended here, fill in the job application with scrupulous accuracy since that’s the one that can get you into serious trouble if they later find anything false in it.

  11. For the original question, the last thing you should do is lie about having a degree you don’t have. That is very easily checked and completely unambiguous so you will be (correctly) branded a liar when you are found out.

  12. I’ll surrender on the Phd point. If you believe the info hurts, truncate to what helps. leave it off and try that. We always drill to find out what’s false but don’t recall any instances of pressing “do you have more education?”. Along similar lines, people may or may not show all inhouse training they receive. So it can be selective.
    the hi tech world I lived in was a mixed bag between degreed vs non degreed, BS vs MS. And another interesting corporate/HR behavior where as the company “matured” HR tossed in a minimum requirement for a degree when prior the only thing that counted was a hiring manager’s call on job ability. that is for professional jobs you HAD to have a degree. All thinking stopped.
    But when it came to Phd’s you were at the mercy of a hiring manager. Some viewed it as a plus, and other’s were turned off by it, invoke BS (Bulls..t, MS, Mores..t, Phd, Piled higher and deeper. I think I recollect correctly that the Phds I came across acquired them as employees, mostly for personal satisfaction as it really didn’t cut any ice as to perceived value and hence $

  13. Part of the problem is that employers are looking for a twenty-something with a BS, a MBA, and a Navy Cross with Gold Star (but not two!) to come to work for half pay in their “mentoring” program.

    I tend to agree with the assessment that if you work in business for a certain time (5 years? 6 years?) you know as much as if you had just graduated a four-year college. It is too bad there is no accredited university of which I am aware that agrees with this position, and grants degrees solely based on work experience.

  14. @Kathy If you are adventerous and not afraid to move far from home, you might consider the Middle East. Here in the UAE an advanced degree is highly prized both in business and in academia which has many jobs as new schools are opening every year.

    The lifesyle is very relaxed and compensation allows for a comfortable upper-middle class existence (including a live-in maid if you so desire).

  15. All,

    Interesting conversation/topics.

    Degree and/or qualification inflation is a big no-no in my book. I would rather know that I didn’t get a job fair and square than the alternative mess that would ensue.

    On the omission topic brought up, advanced education/qualifications may not be need to be highlighted for a specific job. Also, your resume/cover letter does not need to be your complete life story, but rather the specific accomplishments demonstrating the value you can bring to the table. So, it’s not lying by omission, because one could argue it is not valid to the job at hand. However, it directly asked about your education, you should obviously be as truthful as possible.

  16. @Dave: Thanks for pointing out that a resume is not a certification of your complete educational and work history. It’s a description of credentials that show you’re suited to a job.

    Give me the most detailed, complete resume, then give me half an hour to interview you, and I’ll prove you left something material off the resume.

    The issue of lying by omission – there’s the ethical part of it and there’s the legal part of it. The two are not always one and the same. What to be careful about is what you sign as a certification, like the employment application. Read the certification carefully. Don’t lie. But if there’s information you don’t want to disclose — just don’t disclose it, but don’t sign the certification, either. You’re not required to sign anything you don’t want to. But once you sign, you live by the terms you agreed to.

  17. Nick, thanks for another interesting topic. I’m in the same boat as Kathy re wondering when if ever it is alright to leave off info from my résumé (such as an advanced degree).

    Re whether you should say you have a degree when you don’t have one, I say no, never. Several years ago there was a big hullaballoo about the director of admissions at MIT. She claimed that she had a Bachelor’s degree, and years and years later, MIT found out that she didn’t have her degree. She was fired for lying about it, despite having worked there for years and, presumably, despite having done a good job.

    What I am seeing in my job search is a double-edged sword re degrees. Many jobs don’t actually require a degree, but employers, if they have 2 people who are equally qualified in every way but one has a degree and the other doesn’t, they’ll hire the person with the degree, even if the job doesn’t require a degree.

    No wonder job seekers are so confused! There are jobs out there that high school grads could do, and there are some jobs out there that require a college degree or a higher degree (master’s or doctorate). What it means is that people will go to college even if college really isn’t right for them, just so they can be considered for employment. I wish employers were more honest. And having a college degree doesn’t guarantee that the person will work out. A healthy work ethic and a willingness to learn goes a long way.

  18. Nick:

    I have to note two things:

    1. In my office we tried to hire someone, but it turned out that they had fudged a degree. The degree was meaningless, made no difference on whether or not we would have hired them. The lie was a deal breaker at a level no one at the office could control.

    2. I had a friend who had some certifications that were important, but no degree. He sent out less than twenty resumes after I typed up the cover letters and the resume and made him sign them. He got more than thirty job offers back. Of course not everyone is authorized to tinker with source code from a major vendor, but not one person who tried to hire him cared about his degree, if any.

    Many times I’ve seen resumes that omit degrees. Who cares where you went to high school? Or what your undergraduate degree was if anything? Many times a graduate degree makes you seem overqualified or not serious about real work. I had a friend who left his PhD off his resume and suddenly got job offers.

    If you drop the degrees altogether from a resume, which is only going to be a page or two at the most (it is not a vitae, after all) and can focus on actual skills and abilities that solve problems, that tends to get attention.

    I know a trouble shooter for EDS. I don’t know anyone who has asked about his degree for twenty years. I don’t even know if he has a degree (and I spent an hour with him tonight [when I originally wrote this comment]). However, his last five years of projects he has bailed out and fixed gets everyone’s attention.

    Anyway, my two bits from my end of the trenches.

  19. a lot of spam offering advanced degrees for sale based on your “achievments” and a small fee. These offers seem to have dissappeared over the last year. Any one out there bought one of these degrees?

    I saw the same thing with easy to get EDS degrees (the equivilent of PhDs for educators) — six week summer program doctorates. I only knew one person who got one, and who later had to deal with it blowing up on them when the “Dr.” part of their credentials got challenged.

    At least it made the newspaper happy.

  20. Thanks to all for your comments and advice. As my degrees are generally not related to the job, it makes more sense to leave them off – other than perhaps mentioning a BS or MS as required, without telling my major.
    @Roger – not sure I’m brave enough for UAE, though I have considered teaching English in Japan. My mother-in-law is Japanese, and with recent events, my geology degrees might actually be useful. :)

  21. (Sorry for the late comments)

    @Nick – Yes, I agree, when the cards are down for any legal document, you cannot lie or omit anything. I don’t think I’m advocating that, however, for resume purposes, it can be fine to omit things that one deems not relavent. Sorry I wasn’t clear. ;-)

    One other thing I thought of. Degrees/Certs can be another stick to beat applicants with, just like salary history. From my experience:

    1. You have a Master’s or PhD, why are you applying to this job? (akin to you’re paid too much for us, you’re overqualified, etc.)

    2. You’re college work/advanced degree does not count as real world work (akin to paid to little)

    3. Degrees/Certs still don’t tell us whose actually going to be able to do the job – even though there may be a stronger chance that a degreed person may be able to do it better. But there are always exceptions. I know a HS dropout who runs a successful software start-up.