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College Degree Vs Self-Taught Can You Get an Online Job Without a College Degree?

Koralee is a retired legal assistant/paralegal turned online writer and author who works part-time as a virtual legal assistant.

What is Your Opinion?

An Analysis: Formal Vs Non-Formal Education

In my article, Work From Home Freelancing: Qualities You Need to be Freelance Copywriter I talk a little about whether or not you need a formal education to be a copywriter.

In that Hub, I have a poll that asks How important do you think a Bachelor of Arts Degree is for a freelance copywriter – the results at the time of writing this article were split 50/50.

It’s obvious if you read my article, that I don’t think you need a BA to be a freelance online copywriter (or any kind of writer), or online marketer. But what about other online careers such as programming.

So I did some investigating for people who want to start their own online service business. But are worried that since they taught themselves and don't have a college degree, it will stop them from getting clients and succeeding.

To do that I researched the hiring practices of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Formal Vs Self-Taught Learning

We are going to look at:

  • Two opinions on self-teaching
  • What Google, Facebook and Microsoft look for in would-be employees.
  • Are programming degrees useless? - One woman's opinion
  • Summary of what clients you should target based on the hiring practices of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
  • A look at a memo David Ogilvie wrote in the 1980s about the necessity of a college degree.
  • The top 5 entrepreneurs without a college degree, and what we can learn from them.
  • The take away - What you can do if you don't have a college degree, but are gifted with a self-taught talent.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not debating whether a college degree is a waste of time or money, but a discussion about if you need one to succeed in the digital marketplace.

What Self-Teaching has Done for me

I’m not against higher education. But I don’t think you have to have a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, communications or marketing to have an online business providing a digital service to clients

Provided that you thoroughly teach yourself (and apply what you learn), are talented at writing, and are mentally driven to succeed.

Essentially, if you're a writer: I believe that your written body of work has to provide value and do the job it's supposed to do.

Many times in my life I have had to teach myself something, and I'm sure you have too. For example, to write my life insurance exam to get my license, the course was self-taught. There was no instructor or tutor so I had to study hard to learn all the concepts (and some involved math, which I struggle with), to pass the exam.

The day after the exam, the life insurance agency I was going to work for got a call from the British Columbia licensing office saying that I got the highest score on my exam – My point isn't that I should get a hero cookie, it’s that you can teach yourself anything if you’re passionate about learning it. And I obviously learned what I needed to on my own.

The Self-Motivated Learner Gets More Than College Students

Bill Gates is Pro Self-Teaching Over College

In this brief video, Bill Gates makes two strong points about formal education and teaching yourself on the internet:

  1. A self-motivated learner gets more knowledge than a college student.
  2. Technology can bring down the cost of education from $200,000 to $2,000.

Self Educated Learners Often Come up Short

Bill Gates thinks that when people teach themselves, they learn more. Basically because they are more curious.

But, in an article on Scott H Young's blog, he takes a different perspective.

"It’s because I’ve noticed many of the university-hating self-taught are the kind of people who read a couple self-help books per year and believe that’s basically the same as getting a degree. Then they get angry at the bureaucratic system that won’t let them get their ideal career. Sigh."

Although he is talking mostly about topics such as biology and people who are pro self-teaching and anti-university,he makes some interesting general points.

To summarize, he talks about the following issues with teaching yourself:

  • Go too broad, and don't look deep enough at topics, and/or sub-topics
  • Don't follow a curriculum, so the self-learner needs to map out one early on
  • Discipline is required more-so than when you attend university
  • Don't just learn, apply the principles right away
  • Finding the time to self-study

Attributes for the Self-Taught Learner

As a self-taught online writer, and copywriter, I think the following skills not only help you to teach yourself anything, they're also incredibly useful attributes for freelancing and starting your own service business:

  • Natural talent
  • Attitude
  • Transferable skills from a different job – My years as a Paralegal easily transferred to online writing.
  • Reading comprehension
  • Love for continual learning
  • Putting knowledge into action and not procrastinating.

But, now we will take a look at Google’s opinion on hiring employees.

Google's Position on College Degrees

Google could care less about college degrees!

Google could care less about college degrees!

Google Doesn’t Care About College Degrees

This is what Laszlo Bock, the man in charge of hiring at Google (which has 100 new hires a week) had to say in an interview with Adam Bryant of the New York Times.

Summary of Google’s Stance on College Degrees:

For the ultra-scanners reading this article I will begin with a summary of how important Google thinks a college degree is for their staff.

Google's head of HR points out that a college degree does not represent one's ability to do a job. The only thing the world cares about is what you do with what you know, and it doesn't matter where or how you got your education - is how he looks at it.

What's most important is skills, such as the ability to learn and solve problems, leadership, curiosity, humility (acknowledge when someone else has a better idea), responsibility, and innovation.

Expertise is very low on Google's list because someone with the above attributes and no content knowledge, can perform their job just as good, as an "expert." If not better, because they come up with new solutions.

Laszlo Bock - What Google Cares About for new Hires

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

When asked to elaborate, Mr. Bock made an interesting point about formal education:

“One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

I would also like to point out that he wanted to clarify that having good grades doesn’t hurt your chances:

“Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.”

Top 5 Attributes Google Looks for in Their Employees


Five Attributes Google Looks for in Employees

In an article written by Thomas Mr. Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times titled How to get a job at Google, he expands on the interview with Mr. Bock - there are five attributes Google wants in their employees:

1. Coding Ability

If it’s a technical role (and half of the jobs at Google are obviously technical) they assess the applicants coding ability. But for all staff they look for the following attributes:

2. Cognitive ability

“For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

3. Leadership

“is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

4. Intellectual Humility and Ownership

“It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what we can do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Brock.”

5. Expertise

“The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ ” Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.”

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

— Laszlo Bock: Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google Inc.

Jobs and Careers at Facebook - Degree Required?

At the time of writing this article, I couldn't find a specific article written on behalf of Facebook with their opinion either way. But, when I did a Google search for jobs at Facebook, it's obvious to me that Facebook considers "degrees" a necessity for job seekers.

If you're curious about jobs at Facebook, here's a list of the highest paying jobs at Facebook, compiled and written by Karyne Levy and Matt Lynley for the Business Insider website.

A Degree in Programming is Hogwash?

Esther Schindler has a very strong opinion in her post Do you REALLY Need a College Degree to get a Programming Job?

"There's plenty of articles about the shortage of skilled IT workers, and the difficulty experienced by companies in finding qualified software developers. The whining would be far more credible if the Want Ads didn't have a silly, arbitrary qualification: a college degree."

Esther's article makes another interesting point that partially goes along with Google's point of view that the best programmers are those who like to do programming (attitude). But makes a point that college kids are in it for the money,

"As one correspondent, John M, explained eloquently, "The drop-dead killer programmers you want on your team, as likely as not, were not CompSci or Software Engineering majors. They're doing programming because they like to do programming. They're intrinsically interested in communicating with the machine, and what they can get the machine to do. The college kids you interview are in Comp Sci or Software Engineering because they think they'll earn big bucks."

Marketing Jobs at Facebook

I couldn't find any "writing" positions in my Facebook search, so I looked into what they want for marketing and related positions.

When I searched Project Manager - I found a Media Manager (Global Business Marketing) position open, and below is a description of this position's responsibilities:


  • Develop media plans that will meet the business objectives of our marketing campaigns
  • Manage media budgets and the delivery of media against targets
  • Proactively monitor and optimize media for ad campaigns
  • Collaborate with measurement team to ensure all campaigns are measurable
  • Manage media needs from Preferred Marketing Developers when relevant
  • Be an innovative thought leader in developing creative media solutions to improve campaign performance, especially abroad in less developed digital environments
  • Liaison with ads product marketing and client sales and media teams to participate in beta tests of ad products and develop new solutions to media constraints

The following are the Facebook's requirements for the position:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Minimum 3 years professional experience in analytics or media at a web technology company, media agency, or brand company
  • Outstanding analytical skills
  • Proven success building media plans and using analytics and measurement to inform optimal media solutions
  • Deep knowledge about Facebook’s marketing platform
  • Sharp eye for detail and proven project management skills
  • Comfort with ambiguity and with working in a fast-paced, always-on, start-up environment

As you will note, the first requirement is a Bachelor's degree (in anything apparently).

When I did an additional Google search for a marketing position at Facebook, I found this Client Solutions Manager for Facebook’s Global Marketing Solutions.


  • Media Planning, Strategy & Measurement, and Optimization
  • Outlines measurement solutions and appropriate campaign structures based upon key KPI’s. Manages and consults on complex advertising solutions and integrations. Manages revenue delivery and budget spend, including daily optimization and providing real time targeting recommendations.
  • Platform & Product Expert
  • -Articulate and update clients on FB product and developments. Responsible for educating clients and agencies on best practices. Drives product innovation based upon client needs. Build and manage relationships with key clients and agency partners (media, creative, PMD, etc.).
  • Project Management
  • -Manage complex work streams to optimize marketing objectives for clients. Manage Analytics and dashboards to advise clients (e.g. daily client facing data/insights reporting, understanding performance across hundreds of accounts used by client, setting up pipelines to pull conversion and impression data, etc.) Cross-functional collaboration of all projects
  • Relationship Management
  • Oversee delivery and revenue recognition for the businesses/accounts you are assigned to. Identify up-sell opportunities across your accounts and partner with the Client Partners to drive incremental revenue

The educational requirements for this position:

  • BA/BS degree preferred BS in Engineering, Math, Computer Science, Physics, Stats, Economics or business but with a focus on analytics.
  • 3+ years’ experience working directly with marketing, media and/or consulting companies and demonstrated leadership experience required.

Do you Need a College Degree to Work at Microsoft?

College degrees are somewhat important to Microsoft.

College degrees are somewhat important to Microsoft.

Marketing Positions at Microsoft

Do you need a college degree for a marketing position with Microsoft?

Yes, you do. But when I did a Google search for marketing jobs at Microsoft I noticed a huge difference in the priority sequence of what they're looking for in the position.

If you look at what Microsoft is looking for (below) in priority sequence, then compare it to Facebook's job description. It's obvious that Microsoft cares a lot more about an applicant's skills, attributes, and experience to get the job done - a degree is not listed until closer to the middle.

While Facebook's main requirement is a college degree.

Position Requirements for a Product Marketing Manager:

  • Exceptional passion for marketing and unique drive for customer empathy.
  • Strong drive for results, execution oriented and outcome driven.
  • Partner focused collaboration - excel in the ability to work with internal stakeholders in marketing, engineering, business development and monetization. This is the critical piece of the role.
  • Analytically & strategically focused - ability to drive analysis and draw strategic conclusions for key investment and business decisions
  • Experience in driving complex, broad cross-functional engagements and discussions
  • Adept at resolving issues amidst ambiguity and complexity
  • Tenacity and an unwavering drive toward action & results in fast-paced and fluid culture
  • Excellent communication, presentation, and organization skills
  • Proven track record. BA/BS required. MBA or equivalent experience a plus.
  • Self-driven and self-motivated amidst a fast-changing environment with strong analytical abilities to drive with confidence
  • Proven track record of impact & influence cross-organizations
  • Solid organization, leadership, team-building and negotiation capabilities
  • Smart. Intellectually curious. Culturally plugged in. Problem solver. Great storyteller and writer. Loves demos. Confidence to speak up for consumer across marketing and engineering.

Google, Facebook and Microsoft Summary

Below is a summary of what we discovered about Google, Facebook, and Microsoft's hiring practices:

  • Google: Doesn't care about college degrees, because they are more interested in an applicant's cognitive ability, leadership, expertise, intellectual humility and ownership. And if they're hiring for a technical position they assess their coding abilities.
  • Facebook: Puts a heavy emphasis on college degrees for their employees.
  • Microsoft: Puts a lot of weight on other skills and attributes, but also prefers a college degree.

Although these are massive companies, their opinions are different enough to give you a scope of what you'll face dealing with other companies.

My Advice based on the above based on the research: If you don't have a college degree, but are skilled at something, focus on clients who think like Google, if you have some college and experience, find clients who think like Microsoft, and avoid trying to get clients who think like Facebook.

If you're a writer without a college degree, keep reading to see who else didn't go to college, but were very successful in their chosen careers.

Advertising Mogul David Ogilvy Didn't Have a College Degree

At 38-years old David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, didn't know anything about marketing, and had never written a thing, but he became the most famous copywriter in the world.

I love the following memo he wrote to one of his partners in 1981 where he described himself. I especially love the moral of his story!

"Will Any Agency Hire This Man?

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college.
He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer.
He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy.
He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year.

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world.

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring."

Apparently, Google took his advice.

Other Game Changers Without a College Degree

Four of the most interesting people who changed the world without a college degree, listed in the Top 10 College Dropouts on Time Magazine included the following 4:

  1. Bill Gates
  2. Steve Jobs
  3. Mark Zuckerburg
  4. Frank Lloyd Wright - World renowned architect

They may seem larger than life, and cloning their success may seem impossible, but success doesn't have to be measured on such a grand scale.

Not even trying to reach success is worse. So the solution may simply be to emulate personal characteristics they all share.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

You don't have to have a college degree to be successful, you just have to stay hungry!

You don't have to have a college degree to be successful, you just have to stay hungry!

Character Traits of Entrepreneurs

The most famous entrepreneurs share a lot of the same characteristics, some of which are listed below:

  • Stay hungry -They're always looking for the next best thing. We saw this with Steve Jobs, and also with Mark Zuckerburg. He's a billionaire, but is Mr. Zuckerburg sitting on some beach, spending his money? No! He's always working on something else, or trying to make Facebook better.
  • Know what what you want - Bill Gates clearly saw the personal computer in his mind before he co-created it.
  • Be enthusiastic and take initiative - They don't take little steps, they go for the gusto
  • Be Courageous - If they don't know something they need to know in order to achieve their goals, they find out. They don't let fear of the unknown stop them.
  • Take Calculated Risks - If they see a chance, they take it. But with their eyes wide open, not closed.
  • Follow your gut - Think of Apple and how Steve Jobs homed in on creating products that consumers didn't know they needed or wanted - he followed his intuition and was bang on.
  • They all think Can't is not a word.

College Degree vs Self-taught - What's Your Opinion?

Conclusion : The Take Away Formal Education vs. Self-Taught

I think the main thing we can take away from my research is that we have choices when it comes to having a formal education or self-teaching.


If you're going to teach yourself something so you can apply for jobs with companies, or start your own online service business, learn your stuff and practice.

  • Don't just touch on the basics, but drill down and learn everything you can.
  • Read books and search online for information.
  • Figure out your starting point and go from A to B, not A to Z.
  • Buckle down and study hard, there is no one testing you.

Become the exceptional person Google's HR manager, Mr. Brock, talks about.

Self-Taught Job Seekers

All businesses hiring employees for online digital positions such as writing, marketing, and programming will take one of the three stances on formal education that we talked about here:

  • Google - Not important
  • Facebook - Very important
  • Microsoft - Important, but equivalents considered, and skills/attributes weigh in heavily.

Remember that just because Google and Microsoft aren't anal about formal education, they still want employees to have the ability to get the job done.

To see what else they look for in employees, go back and review the job descriptions.

Self-Taught Would Be Entrepreneurs

If you don't have a degree in your field of interest, don't let that stop you. Start your own online service business. Just look for clients who are innovative and imaginative, not old school.

Study the life of your favorite entrepreneur, or various entrepreneurs to see how they became exceptional at what they do so you can learn from them.

Review and take on their character traits. Some you will already have, and some may take time to master.

Questions, Comments, Something to Add?

Please share your opinion, and experiences with what was discussed in this article.

If you know someone who could use this information, be a good friend and share it.


Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 08, 2015:

To me it's not a yes or no question. It depends on what you want to do, how you learn best, and whether the teaching for said vocation is primarily done through formal education or apprenticeship.

Dianna Mendez on October 04, 2014:

You have certainly made a great argument for and against formal education. I find education opens doors of opportunity otherwise closed. However, it is not always necessary to become successful in some career choices.