What Does A High School Diploma Or Equivalent Mean?

Last Updated on April 9, 2024.

In many ads from employers or job-hiring agencies, you will find the expression “High School Diploma or Equivalent Required.” What does that mean?


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You might see the words “High School or Equivalent ” in job descriptions, as a prerequisite for college admissions, or in scholarship applications.

Well, it means that the applicant must have finished at least high school with a diploma (in the U.S., grade 12), or hold a high school equivalency (HSE) credential.

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Both options are secondary education credentials. In the United States, there are two exams that can lead to a high school equivalency diploma, the GED® and HiSET® exams. The TASC exam is no longer available.

Secondary education refers to a 4-year curriculum in high school, and completion means the student holds a diploma (a graduation certificate) certifying he or she has successfully completed the minimally required coursework.

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But there are more ways to complete secondary education. Students can also complete a high school equivalency certificate or diploma (that depends on the state), which indicates the holder has successfully taken an exam that measures academic proficiency and skills at the level of graduating high school seniors.

The passing criteria on both HSE exams (GED and HiSET) are set at such a level that around forty percent of all high school graduates would not be able to pass the exams on the first try.

GED stands for General Educational Development, and HiSET is simply short for High School Equivalency Test.

For nearly eight decades, the GED exam has been the standard in North America for high school equivalency testing.

Further Your Education

For the majority of Americans in the age range 5-18, school is a major part of their lives. Usually, the traditional path is that they move from elementary school to high school.

After that, they will decide about what’s next, the workforce or college (the GED qualifies you for a college education), and students can choose from so many different routes.

While in high school, however, a growing number of students opt to quit high school prematurely for a number of reasons. They may need to work to help pay the bills; some have started a family, and for others, school just doesn’t seem the best option at the time.

But this doesn’t need to be the end. Students who left high school without a diploma always still have the option to complete their high school-level education.

They can go back at a later stage to earn their state’s high school equivalency (HSE) diploma through the GED or HiSET exam. The GED exam is now available online as well, and for more information about the HiSET-at-Home option, check here.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that over 8.5 million U.S. citizens aged 25 and older have a GED diploma or similar. This is a clear indication that the HSE path is very common in America, wouldn’t you agree?

This also means that the HSE program gives employers access to a much vaster pool of talented job seekers than just high school graduates, though GED graduates may have backgrounds that perhaps did not fit the traditional education model that well.

More and more employers in America think exactly the same way about job applicants with a resume that includes a GED credential instead of a common high school diploma.

The High School Equivalency diploma is, across the nation, recognized and accepted in lieu of a standard high school degree by the vast majority of employers, government agencies, and academic institutions of post-secondary education (learn more about GED score acceptance here).

Can a GED Impact Your Career?

For practically all employers, the distinction between applicants holding a GED and a high school diploma is negligible. Most employers don’t care whether a job applicant holds a high school or GED diploma.

There are, however, professional areas where it does make a difference, and the most noteworthy is the U.S. military. All branches of the U.S. armed forces favor traditional high school graduates over GED graduates.

But apart from that, the key difference is actually between students who completed secondary education (high school or GED) and those who did not. Having completed a secondary education track improves the chances of getting a decently paying job.

High school and GED diploma holders may expect to make at least $9,600 more annually than those who didn’t complete their secondary education. When taking the GED exam, you can take the four modules one at a time, and knowing which GED subtest to take first is key.

So, holding a GED diploma is preferable to not having a high school diploma at all. And again, when it comes to educational qualifications, most employers consider a GED and a high school diploma to be equivalent.

Continue Your Education in College

Earning your GED high school equivalency diploma offers you also the opportunity to continue your education in college or university.

Practically all employers have increased their educational requirements, also for entry-level positions, and more and more positions require applicants to hold at least a college certificate or degree.

Well, your GED is your stepping stone to higher education. Your GED diploma qualifies you for a college education, just like a high school diploma.

If you pass the GED exam with scores in the “GED College-Ready” or “GED College-Ready PLUS Credit” ranges (165-174 and 175-200), you may even qualify for enrolling in credit-bearing college-level coursework without any preconditions such as submitting satisfactory SAT/ACT scores or taking extra remedial classes.

And for employers counts that how you completed high school makes no difference at all. They only care that you went on to get a college degree or successfully attended skills-based training programs.

Equivalent Experience

When employers use phrases like “equivalent experience” in their job postings, they can refer to either professional experience instead of educational requirements or experience on a non-paid basis, including volunteer or intern work experience.

So even if you don’t hold a high school or equivalent diploma, or when you don’t have a college degree or certificate but have sufficient equivalent experience, you still can be considered for a position.

A job announcement, for example, may state that a high school diploma, certification, or some college degree is required, or distinct experience in the related field.

While in many cases, a degree or certificate is preferred, often from a community college, there are positions that ask for a combination of experience and a certificate or degree, or perhaps some extensive professional experience can be considered for a position.

This specifically applies to the military, where candidates with particular professional experience and training are wanted. In the Armed Forces, this is often related to as “desired equivalent experience.”

Your Resume

When you apply for a job, always mention your equivalent experience. It is important to clearly state in a job application, in your resume and cover letter, and during a job interview, exactly what your equivalent experience is all about.

You should put emphasis on those elements of your equivalent experience that relate to the position at hand or the company. This is a great possibility to demonstrate that you’ve got what it takes to be excellent in that position.

Make sure to list your experience close to the job requirements in your resume, if possible, right at the beginning of your resume. This may help to seize the interest of the hiring manager and be an encouragement to read through your entire resume.

Your Cover Letter

The cover letter that accompanies your resume is also a great place to indicate why and how your specific experience makes you an excellent candidate for the job.

And if that works, and you have secured a job interview, you’ve got a real opportunity to personally make your case. So, if you’ve made it so far, be sure to know how to talk about your best hard and soft skills and what it is that makes you the best candidate for the position.

Hard skills relate to teachable proficiencies, for example, computer knowledge, word processing, foreign languages, or a certificate or degree in a certain career area (for example, business administration, management, or accounting).

Soft skills are also referred to as “people skills.” These include capabilities such as written and oral communication, leadership, problem-solving, motivation, flexibility, time management, teamwork, work ethics, or mediation.

When you are really interested in a certain position and think about whether you have perhaps some equivalent experience, don’t screen yourself out. Giving yourself the benefit of the doubt is always good!

The decision to screen you out is up to the employer, but you should give it all you’ve got to demonstrate that you are the best candidate for the position, right? On the other hand, you shouldn’t waste your time on positions that are clearly out of reach or that in no way match your skills.