"So, where did you go to school?"
March 14, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

I work in a start-up company, and I'm being given the opportunity to start networking with high level executives from large organizations in my field. I am excited, as I know that having an extensive personal network will be valuable for my company and myself, however, I have two concerns.

First, I am 21.
Second, I didn't go to college.

I know that I can gain credibility by being knowledgeable about any developments in my field, having a sufficiently impressive title (which I will), and positioning my company and myself as experts in our segment of the industry. However, if someone directly asks me where I went to college, I am not sure how to answer them.

The way I handle this in social situations (by explaining the family issues which prevented me from going to college) is not ideal for business purposes, and certainly not in a conservative industry like mine.

So, after a year of lurking on MetaFilter and AskMeFi, I turn to the wisdom of the hivemind. How do I answer if someone asks me "Where did you go to college?"
posted by areodjarekput to Work & Money (13 answers total)
"I haven't traveled that road yet, but it's on my itinerary"

I think you just need to be honest. Yes, there will be those that see it as a negative, and there will be those that understand that college is not the only measure of a person.
posted by HuronBob at 7:01 PM on March 14, 2012

After you leave college and get a job, nobody gives a shit where you went to college. That of course, doesn't mean nobody will ask, but they are asking conversationally. It's like chatting about the weather. If someone asks you where you went to college, you can confidently say "I didn't, I was recruited to industry" and try to look demure. This makes you look like a GENIUS.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:01 PM on March 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

I know that I can gain credibility by being knowledgeable about any developments in my field, having a sufficiently impressive title (which I will), and positioning my company and myself as experts in our segment of the industry. However, if someone directly asks me where I went to college, I am not sure how to answer them.
You need to be a knowledgeable expert and a really fun person to do business with. Think about how to tell an amusing story about why you didn't go to college, or why you deferred college, or why you dropped out. Make sure it is fun and shows that you are ready to break through artificial barriers to get shit done.

The key thing is that you need to mix expertise, fun, and confidence. College is just one of the things you can do to gain life experience. You need to think about all the other things you did that were more valuable.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:21 PM on March 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

No degree, AND no high-school education here. I have made it for 23 years in the business world (finance, too!), and it has come up exactly one time. Someone asked me if I went to Loyola, and I simply answered, "no" and changed the subject.
posted by brownrd at 7:30 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess this depends on exactly what your field is, but I've found that the question is usually not "Where did you go to college?" but "Where were you before [you joined your current company]?". The expected answers are, in roughly descending order of expectedness: 1) one of the known big companies in the field, 2) another start-up they may or may not have heard of, 3) college, or 4) a completely different field (e.g.: a high school drama teacher or something). If your answer isn't 3), I haven't found that people care that much about which college you went to. But, things may be different in your field. Of course, I hear that there are some places where people not only care about what college you went to but also which prep school (yikes).

Anyways, I think if anyone asks you point-blank, you can brush past the question with something like "Well, right after high school, I went from X to Y to Z and that's how I ended up here.", for appropriate X, Y, and Z. I'm assuming you can fill in X, Y, and Z with things that aren't "sponging off my parents for three years getting baked and playing XBox" or "doing time in the state pen". Because, really, if it's not stuff like that, not going to college between high school and now shouldn't be that big of a deal.
posted by mhum at 7:33 PM on March 14, 2012

If you're really uncomfortable with the question, you could also sign up (and take) a course at one of the online universities, and then when asked, you can quite honestly say Oh, I went to [school that offers online degrees]. You're not saying you finished, just that you attended--which is entirely correct. There are quite a lot of schools that let you do your degree online now, so finding one that offers a degree in your chosen field shouldn't be too difficult.

I agree that not going to college shouldn't be a big deal, but if you're uncomfortable discussing it (and potentially having to explain personal circumstances to "defend" yourself), this might be an alternative.

That said, your best option is probably saying something like "Oh, I didn't--too busy [doing whatever led you to be picked up by this awesome start-up]." Then move away from the subject as quickly as possible. The more confident you sound when you do this, the less likely people are to give you shit for it.
posted by MeghanC at 8:02 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

For twenty years I've been saying "oh, I did some college, but since I started my first company right after high school, it didn't stick." Modify to suit your circumstance ("Been too busy building this company to get to college yet!") and you'll be fine.
posted by anildash at 8:18 PM on March 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW - Steve Jobs didn't finish college until well after founding Apple.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:29 PM on March 14, 2012

The last three startups I worked at had founders without college degrees. It's pretty common in the startup world, actually. You can always point them to last year's big news story about Peter Thiel investing in students/paying them to drop out of college. I think the big thing is to not be defensive about it. There are a lot of paths to success - trying a less conventional one is an asset in some circles.
posted by judith at 9:06 PM on March 14, 2012

Another thing to recognize about that question is, people are feeling around for a point of commonality. When I ask someone that, I'm fishing for "do I know anyone you might know from college?" or "do I know enough about your college to make friendly chitchat?"

So others have good advice about having a positive story about how you went directly into business, but be sure you also fill the social function of the question by offering some other new direction for the friendly not-super-personal conversation to go.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:18 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a technology executive and a buyer for my organization. VCs and board members of start-ups call me because they've got a portfolio company with a product or service that they think solves some problem I have or has a technology I'll find interesting. They'll invite me to lunch or dinner to meet the founders or drag them down to my office. They may resemble networking events, but they are really an opportunity for a start-up to pitch me on whatever they are doing. I'm assuming that this is the sort of situation you are now in, where someone with connections in your industry is arranging these meetings or events for you.

The thing to know is that I (and people like me) don't care about where you went to college or that you are 21. I've got a well worn script of questions I'll be asking you and they are going to be around where your company is at financially, how many customers you've really go, what you think your exit is, where you are going with the product/service, and your competition. For founders and the executive team, I'm mostly interested in whether they've had successful exits before (is the team experienced?) and if you are in a vertical, do you have experience/connections in that vertical predating the start-up. Good luck with your events, but my advice is to go into it understanding that most of the questions and conversation will be about your company, not about you.
posted by kovacs at 4:10 AM on March 15, 2012

nthing the recruited advice, but in case you want personal anecdotes to help bolster your confidence, while at my first job out of college a young person was hired who had intentionally skipped college, got a job in our field right out of high school, now had a few years of experience on me, and between being sharp, hard-working and having a good personality ended up equal to my position at that company and later was recruited to a national company.
posted by forthright at 5:08 AM on March 15, 2012

I just tell people "I went to the school of HARD KNOCKS!" Then explain that "I didn't go to no college."

You sound really status-concerned, and that's understandable. People like to throw around credentials and judge other people! Lord knows. But you and I have had a more interesting life, by following an untraditional path, and it will be nice for you when you can relax and view it is a strength.

Also stop saying "network." :)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:56 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Cover me.   |   How to choose a portfolio (book)? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.