"[The real world] is a big change, more than you can ever imagine when you are sitting in the classroom thinking about the outside world!" – Anonymous business-school grad
The weeks and months leading up to college graduation and the start of a first job can be chaotic and stressful. Trying to complete your college career (without succumbing to too much senioritis), while also juggling the demands of job-hunting, interviewing and the reality of having to find your own way in the working world is no small endeavor.
In our discussions with college seniors and recent graduates, we've learned that many of you encounter a lot of the same challenges. The reality: There are a few tough truths you should come to terms with early if you want to successfully transition from student life, to life as a productive employee. By preparing for them in advance, you have a better chance of more gracefully easing into your transition from college to work.
Here are the eight tough truths to prepare yourself for as graduation day approaches:
1. The real world doesn't operate on college time
Some students are quite adept at planning flexible college schedules that suit their personal preferences, like limiting classes to only late afternoon hours or just a few days of the week. If you're one of these students, you might have a harder time adjusting to work every day, all day, five days a week. And no, you can't hit the snooze button and grab the notes from a friend; show up late one too many times, and you'll find yourself unemployed.
Your new work schedule will also likely put limits on your vacation and free time. In college, it's easy to get used to long weekends away from campus — on top of luxuriously long winter and summer breaks. Unfortunately, generous time off can be hard to come by with employers. You may be lucky to have two weeks of annual paid vacation in your first job. You could even find yourself working over the holidays, as it's not uncommon for long-tenured employees to get the first choice for preferred vacation time.
And then, there's general time management. Managing various group projects, tests and other activities in college may have been challenging, but the stakes are much higher when you're employed. In the workplace, managing your time well is essential to not only strong job performance, but also maintaining work-life balance.
"There is a huge difference in time management when you have to work 40+ hours and try to have a life on the side," one general-business grad says. "I find myself scheduling dinner with people four weeks in advance. College didn't teach me about working 40 hours. College didn't teach me a bedtime … but those are all things you learn with necessity. I think if I had worked during my college career … I would have learned that."
"There is a huge difference in time management when you have to work 40+ hours and try to have a life on the side."
On the other hand, some students worked so many late hours in college that they find that their jobs after college — where homework is not necessarily required — a welcome relief.
"I was very busy in college," says Anne Johnson, a senior corporate relations coordinator for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "So when I started working full-time, without homework and studying, I felt that I had a lot of free time. I tell people that I have had more fun since I graduated college than I did in all four years of college. I have gotten involved in many activities too," she says.
If you were lucky, your college experience may even have helped you learn to manage your time better.
As another recent grad explains, "While I was in school, I was used to managing a full course load while participating in a variety of extracurricular activities. … Someone once told me that being busy is not an excuse for neglecting your personal life because everyone is busy. I have tried to follow this thought, and it seems to work the majority of the time."
2. Professionalism rules the workplace
For many students, college is a rite of passage — a time to explore different interests, be adventurous and even go a little crazy pushing new boundaries. In college, acting unprofessionally might just result in a bad grade or a lecture from an administrator or professor. But in the workplace, unprofessional behavior can get you fired.
Professionalism also extends to dependability and taking initiative.
"There are some things that you just have to figure out or experience on your own. That's called personal accountability," one business-school grad says. "A graduate will never have all the answers, and rightfully so. You should always have the zeal to seek out new knowledge and learn from your mistakes. That is what creates uniqueness and personal character."
In the working world, it's important to demonstrate that you're a reliable team player who people can rely on to do your job. Deadlines are critical, much more so than in college. You might have been able to schmooze your professor into giving you an extension, but you'll find that in most fast-paced business environments, missing deadlines is unacceptable.
3. A job isn't always a personal calling
While it helps to have a solid vision of your preferred career path after graduation, don't panic if your first job doesn't perfectly match your original expectations. Many recent college grads change jobs after their first year in the workforce — the job and career you thought you wanted may not be a fit you once you've a chance to experience it first-hand.
Another common misconception is that your college major dictates the types of jobs for which you can apply. Sure, some specialized fields, such as engineering or nursing, require a specific degree for entry-level positions. But most entry-level positions simply require a college degree and an expressed interest or passion. Focus your job search on the roles that sound most interesting and relevant to you, rather than those that you feel best accommodate your academic degree.
Another common misconception is that your college major dictates the types of jobs for which you can apply.
In fact, statistics show that students graduating from college today will change careers multiple times over the course of their working life, so don't worry if your first job isn't a dream position. But it's never too early to start planning for the future you do want. Keep track of your accomplishments and build up the transferable skills you can apply to bigger, better jobs down the road.
4. College won't prepare you for everything
One of the most common issues we hear from overwhelmed recent grads is that college didn't help them develop the interpersonal and life management skills truly needed to transition from college to career.
Areas in which new graduates tend to feel most unprepared to navigate:
- The workplace emphasis on teamwork skills
- The importance of dealing with all types of people and personalities
- Personal finance issues and budgeting
- Living on your own — or having to move back with your family
- Balancing work demands with family, friends and personal life
- Job-hunting skills, especially networking, interviewing and salary negotiation
If you have concerns about any of these 'soft' skills, meet with a career professional in your college's career services office for added support and preparation.
5. Finding employment probably won't be easy
If you're like many college graduates, you may have thought that earning a degree would guarantee you an exciting job in the field of your choice right out of the gate. The truth is that job markets are competitive in most fields, regardless of your level of experience. Securing a job offer is very time-consuming and a lot of work — and the process can be stressful and, at times, disappointing.
"One job [opening] can get hundreds of resumes," a business-school grad observes. "I have seen in past jobs when resumes came in, basically it was luck of the draw as to who got called in. So many people had similar skills, my employer literally went by things such as resume appearance or randomly choosing 10 out of 30 similar but great resumes. It's tough!"
As most experienced job seekers know, hunting for job opportunities takes commitment and effort. Use all resources available to you, track down all job leads, and follow up on all leads and interviews. The more quality work you put into your job search, the better your chances will be at landing an opportunity.
College students today also can easily fall prey to the misconception that the internet is the one and only way to find a job. Don't discount good old-fashioned personal networking as an option. Reach out to anyone who might have a lead on a job:
- Family and friends
- Other students
- Alumni (especially recent alumni)
- Former co-workers and bosses
6. Your degree won't get you a job
Having a college degree does not entitle you to a job, and most employers will not be as impressed with your grades or your education as you are. The sooner you make peace with those two truths, the better.
"As a cum laude graduate, I thought I was entitled to a great job right out of college," one marketing grad says. "Well, after two years, with five jobs in three cities, I THINK I've found the job that I was expecting to get after graduation!"
It's certainly true that graduating from a prestigious school or having a high grade-point average can be advantageous, but a wise graduate won't rely on those credentials alone to land a job.
Having a college degree does not entitle you to a job.
Pro tip: Focus less on why employers should be so impressed with your college accomplishments — and more on how you can use your talents and initiative to contribute to the employer's bottom line. That's what matters most to them, so be sure to share with potential employers how you intend to help make their organization better.
7. College grads get entry-level jobs
One of the harshest realities new grads face — especially in rough job markets — is that many of the jobs available for college grads are, in fact, entry-level. These jobs often require long hours, low pay and hard work.
Some recent grads have admitted to turning up their noses at job offers they believed to be below them; perhaps the jobs required helping stock shelves or customer service.
We're not saying you should necessarily take the first job offer you get — or any job offer you get for that matter. Just make sure to be realistic in your expectations. Often, newer employees start at a certain level so they can learn how the business operates — and can just as often later end up on a career track toward faster advancement if they perform well. Do your research about employers and growth opportunities before jumping to conclusions about whether a job has any value.
Of course, be ambitious about moving beyond the entry level, but not at the expense of your current job. As another business-school grad told us, "Former co-workers of mine became so obsessed with finding a better job that they forgot about the responsibilities of their current positions."
8. Salary negotiations may be required
If you're one of the lucky college grads, you'll get more than one job offer. Securing more than one offer gives you the luxury of deciding if one — or any — of the positions are right for you. Be prepared not only to negotiate the salary and the entire compensation package, but also make sure you have a clear sense of what you want before the issue arises.If you were to receive more than one job offer, what criteria would you use to decide which is the best fit? Consider what's most important to you, such as:
- Vacation time
- Company culture
- Travel opportunities
One recent marketing grad we know was trying to decide between two very different job offers. One was a sales position for a well-known company. The offer included a very high salary and bonus system, as well as a company car. The downsides were a lot of time spent on the road, no clear career path and a feeling of unease with the corporate culture.
The other offer was with a marketing communications agency as an account representative. The offer included a salary that was almost half that of the sales role, with no bonuses and no company car. It did include a dynamic work environment, a clear career path and a sense of strong fit with the agency's corporate culture. She was faced with the dilemma of going for the quick money or a longer-term career move. Ultimately, she chose the agency. Which would you choose?
Strive to get the best job offers from the best employers in your chosen field, but remember to temper everything you do with a touch of reality. Getting from college to career is meant to be a journey. Learn what to expect in the job hunt. Take to heart the advice of all the recent college grads that have been in your shoes — you'll be better prepared and more satisfied with the job you land you choose. And get prepped with the materials that demonstrate your value, like a top-notch resume and cover letter. You can easily create both documents by using LiveCareer's Resume Builder and Cover Letter Builder.