Graduate in cap and gown raising their fist in celebration, standing in front of tall buildings, symbolizing success and achievement post-college.

Graduating from college is a moment you’ve been looking forward to for years. It’s a major milestone to be proud of and an exciting time as you imagine what lies ahead. 

However, the early days after college can also bring some unexpected emotions, like uncertainty, anxiety, disappointment, and even despair. It can feel like your life has been turned upside down, and it’s completely normal to feel a little (or a lot of) discomfort. 

The good news is that preparation can go a long way toward easing the transition into life after college. It can help you get acclimated to your first real-world job and settle a little more seamlessly into your new routine. 

The importance of preparing for life after college

College is great at preparing students for the technical aspects of professional life, teaching them hard skills to apply for a job, and helping them build their resumes. However, all the lectures, exams, and extracurricular activities need to do more to set you up for the major transition that happens once college is in your rear-view mirror. 

When you graduate college, you’re on top of the world, both emotionally and in terms of seniority among the rest of the student body. When you start your first full-time job out of school, though, it can feel like getting knocked back down to the bottom. This can be frustrating, especially if you are used to excelling in your classes. 

It’s normal to grieve the old version of your life. Anything new is uncomfortable at first, and post-college life comes with a lot of newness. Remember, change means that progress is occurring. Taking time to prepare for the upcoming shift in your daily activities and social life can help ensure that progress is taking you in a positive rather than a negative direction. 

Tips to be successful after college

For the majority of new grads, a job will take up 40+ hours of your week. However, work is far from the only part of your life. So, we’ve divided these tips to be successful after college into two sections: professional and personal. 

Post-college tips for your professional life

Take time to explore your options

Though you’re probably eager to earn a regular paycheck, you don’t necessarily have to jump to accept the first job you’re offered. If it seems great, by all means, go for it! However, if your first offer isn’t quite what you had hoped for, it’s okay to hold out for a better opportunity. Consider working a part-time or temporary position while you continue to search for a job that feels right for you. 

Related: Career Clusters to Help You Choose the Right Path

Get clear on expectations

One of the biggest reasons the transition to a full-time job can be so difficult is the lack of structure in both the tasks you’re expected to perform and how you spend your time. Sometimes, there aren’t clear instructions for how to accomplish your work, and in some cases, there aren’t even consequences for doing a bad job. It’s easy to feel like you’re just floating along, directionless.

To ensure you meet expectations and stay motivated, It’s important to have something clear to work toward. Have a conversation with your manager early on about what success looks like. How soon should you reach full productivity–that is, being fully trained and able to complete every aspect of your job? What performance goals are you expected to hit? 

Not only will having a clear set of goals give direction to your work, but it’ll also help you assess your growth. As you hit different performance goals, keep a list of your achievements. This way, when the time comes that you want a raise or promotion, it’ll be easy to make the case for why you deserve one. 

Build your network

It sounds so cliche, but your network really does have a major bearing on your career progression, and building it takes effort. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Get to know your coworkers and form meaningful relationships with them
  • Seek out a mentor who can give you feedback and advice
  • Join young professionals’ groups in your local area to meet people beyond your workplace
  • Attend events for alumni from your college
  • Stay in touch with professors, TAs, and advisors 
  • Engage with thought leaders in your industry on LinkedIn

This is another area where it can be helpful to set some goals. For example, make it a point to attend one networking event per quarter or have coffee with a coworker once a week. 

Related: How to Network

Look for ways to add value

Unfortunately, trends like ‘quiet quitting’ have popularized the idea of doing the bare minimum at your job. While such behavior might help you feel like you’re “sticking it to the man,” it won’t do much to benefit you professionally. 

The best way to advance in your career (and to attain job security) is to make yourself indispensable to your employer. You can do this by seeking to add value beyond your assigned tasks. Things like stepping up to take the lead on a team assignment, jumping in to help a coworker meet an urgent deadline, or coming up with a new, more efficient way of doing things show your employer that you’re there to do more than collect a paycheck and that you’re actually invested in advancement.  

Embrace failure

If you were a high-achieving student, you might be used to acing every test and receiving ample praise. But the truth is, the working world operates differently than the academic one, and sometimes you’ll miss the mark. Whether it’s falling short of expectations on an assignment or saying something foolish in a meeting, you will make mistakes, and that’s normal. In fact, every mistake is an opportunity to learn. Try to go easy on yourself and remember that everyone–even the CEO at the top of the company–has been in your shoes at one point. 

Ask questions

You won’t look silly asking how to file an expense report as a 23-year-old recent graduate. You may, however, look a little silly asking that same question as a 33-year-old seasoned professional. So, now is the time to ask questions if you don’t understand an aspect of your job. On the flip side, if it’s something you can easily Google, be proactive and try to figure it out on your own before enlisting help. 

Never stop learning

Many recent grads struggle with the feeling of being “stuck.” Even though the future is stretched out endlessly in front of you, it can feel hard to see the next best step to further your career. One surefire way to overcome your stuck-ness is to seek out opportunities for continuous learning. From online webinars and bootcamps to a full-on additional degree, there are endless ways to expand your knowledge continuously. This also helps maintain your engagement in your field. As a bonus, many companies offer funding for employees’ continued development. Ask HR to learn what programs are available where you work. 

Don’t be afraid to pivot

Having second thoughts about the field you went to school for is common but also scary. Give it time; it takes most people between three months and a year to feel comfortable in a new job. But if you’ve given it a fair shot and still feel like you’re on the wrong career path, don’t be afraid to change that path. Whether it’s going back to school, cross-training in a different department, or applying for jobs in a completely different industry, many avenues are available to put you on a path you feel more aligned with. 

Related: Top Strategies for a Seamless Transition from College to Career

Post-college tips for your personal life

Start saving

If there’s one piece of advice on this list that your future self will thank you for more than any other, it’s this one. The age at which you start to build a nest egg makes a massive difference in how much you’ll ultimately end up with. 

Consider this: let’s say you’re 25 and commit to contributing $250 a month to an investment account. Assuming your investment achieves an 8% annual return (which is a very realistic assumption), you would accumulate $878,570 by the age of 65–and that’s without ever increasing the amount you put in each month. If you upped your contribution each time you got a raise, you could easily become a multimillionaire by 65.

What about if you waited until you were 35 to start this monthly investment? Believe it or not, the same plan would leave you with just $375,073 at the age of 65–less than half the money as if you started a decade earlier. Starting to save at an early age, even if it’s just a few dollars here and there, can dramatically impact your finances for the rest of your life. 

First, make sure you’re taking advantage of any employer match your company offers as part of its retirement benefits. This is free money, completely separate from your salary that some companies give employees when they save toward retirement. Next, work on building up an emergency fund. This is money you can access easily, like in a savings account, to cover unexpected expenses like a car repair or a shattered phone screen. Finally, save toward short-term goals, like a summer vacation, and long-term goals, like the down payment on a house. 

Explore your interests

When you’re in college, opportunities to participate in activities are everywhere: fliers hung on dorm walls, student groups handing out free pizza, and pickup frisbee games happening seemingly all hours of the day. After college, you’ll need to work a little harder to find and participate in things you’re interested in. 

While hobbies might not be your first priority after a long day at work, research has shown they have immense benefits for our mental health. So, it’s worthwhile to dedicate time each week to doing something you enjoy that’s unrelated to work. You will engage your brain in new and healthy ways, meet new people, and expand your social circle. 

Make friends outside of work

You may have heard the saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. There’s science to back it up; we become like the people we surround ourselves with. The great thing about post-college life is that you have full control of who you spend your free time with. By seeking out people with common interests, challenging your thinking, or serving as a source of inspiration, you’ll build a personal network that will enrich your life and be there for you during challenging times. 

Don’t spend too much time scrolling

It’s called “doom scrolling” for a reason. Spending too much time on social media has been linked with increased anxiety, depression, stress, and fatigue. Much of what’s posted on platforms like Instagram and TikTok is exaggerated or outright fabricated to create content, but that doesn’t stop its ability to make us feel like we’re not measuring up. Limit your time spent scrolling. Your mind, mood, and wallet will thank you. 

Embrace ‘no’

The real world is full of people who want things from you, whether it’s your time, money, or energy. Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to give those things. Other times, it’s not. These things are not in endless supply, so protecting them is important. Learn to exercise your right to say no and do so regularly. 

You don’t have to have it all figured out right out of college. In fact, most people feel like they’re still figuring it out many years after graduating. The beauty is that you have your entire career to find the right vocation ahead of you. Embrace the uncertainty, try new things, turn to those around you for support, and remember that you have all the tools you need to achieve your goals. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn