Life After College: How Not to Get Slapped by Reality When You Graduate

Life After College: How Not to Get Slapped by Reality When You Graduate

24 May, 2021

Sometimes you just need to take “Human Evolution” and try to feel excited about the body’s ability to digest milk.

Many students spend their whole lives trying to get into college, only to wake up one day, post-graduation, rubbing their eyes and wondering, “What just happened?”

It's the real world that happened. And it's ridiculous.

How to prepare for life after college.

The most powerful moment of my college experience was when I told my advisor that I didn’t feel like I was developing skills in school. She was blunt—one of the reasons we got along—and broke it down like this: "You don't go to college to develop skills. You go to college to show employers that college was something you experienced." K.

Up to that point, I thought college was the thing that prepared you for life. I was wrong. College is simply an opportunity to prepare. Whether you choose to seize or to ignore that opportunity is what matters.

1. Imagine your dream job, and don’t be afraid to change it.

Most people go to college with no clue what they want to be when they grow up. Still, it helps to have given it a little bit of thought. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Living in New York, I figured I’d be able to do it every night and, obviously, be “a professional” by graduation.

Life pulled me in another direction—as it often does.

Because comedy isn't something you can major in, media was a second-best option. Over time, my love of writing pushed me towards a journalism concentration within my media major. Before I knew it, I fell into publishing and was writing for multiple media outlets before I finished college.

It's only because I had a general idea of what I wanted to do—and was flexible when it came to getting there—that I ended up discovering journalism as a career path. In case you're not great at following along: I knew I loved writing and stand-up, so I looked for majors that would help cultivate those passions, and in the process, I discovered something new. It worked out pretty well.

2. Make the worst courses work for you.

General education requirements can be both good and bad. On one hand, frontloading requirements is a great way to buy time while you figure out what the heck you’re doing in school. If you’re a freshman or sophomore trying to choose a major, figure out what required classes will be interesting and somewhat related to what you eventually want to do. This will help you develop a focus while nourishing your passions.  In other words, you will be taking meaningful courses with purpose, but those courses will appeal to you rather than bore you.

I took “Intro to Cinema” sophomore year, to fulfill whatever “creative expression” means. It was a class I both needed and wanted to take.

I won’t file this next item to “news,” but it’s worth mentioning that heading into college with existing credits is a huge benefit. My high school AP classes knocked out several required college courses. Taking four years of Latin in high school not only allowed me to bypass my college's language requirement, but also created the space to help me get a sociology minor pretty easily.  AP classes help to both fulfill requirements and, by default, open space in your schedule for additional courses or a lighter load.

Even the exceptionally boring ones.

For me, the worst classes started with names like “Arts in NYC” and “Science and Technology in NYC.” They were the type of requirements that overzealous tour guides called “a great experience” on accepted students day.  The title of these course might appeal to some, but the content wasn’t for me.

I was so annoyed by these classes that I essentially ignored them. And while that experience taught me nothing about Arts in NYC, it did teach me that I should have accepted that, as with people, not all classes will be a match to my interests. Sometimes, you just gotta take the “Human Evolution” course and try to feel excited about the body’s ability to digest milk.

3. See school as part of life, not life itself.

By making school a part of your life and not the other way around, you'll be better prepared for life after graduation. I did this by weaving my professional goals into my college life and I’m pleased to report that it worked out well.

I wanted to become a food writer and so I started a blog. The idea was simple: Eat "drunk food" while sober and write about it. I published one post per week on topics like celebrating Valentine's Day at White Castle and aggressively bad $1 pizza.

Eventually, my dad’s coworker passed the blog along to a friend, who happened to be the editor-in-chief at a newspaper and who happened to offer me an internship, which happened to turn into a job as a freelance reporter, which happened to lead to my biggest writing break yet: covering the trial of the international crime kingpin, El Chapo—which wasn't what I set out to do, but, sure.

I was flexible and my GPA was high enough that I could skip class and go to court when necessary. I had frontloaded most of my assignments in the first two years of school, so by then—my junior year—I had a reduced course load.  You can do this too, if you’re up for it, and you advisor can help you figure out the timing and planning.

College is a test-run for time-management skills and learning to prioritize is key. Prepare for the real world by asking yourself questions like, “Can I spend more time at roller derby practice now that most of my classes are devolving into conversations on the Ted Bundy docuseries? Or, should I study for my midterm?”

BTW, that experience came with two very important lessons:

  1. People like initiative. I wouldn't have gotten the writing internship had I not already been writing on my own. In a way, my blog served as pre-graduation proof that I was ready to do what I wanted. Look for opportunities to do the same when it comes to your own endeavors.
  2. Always be ready. I wrote the blog for myself. Most of the readers were friends and family who aren’t “in the business,” and I had zero expectations that El Chapo would come of it. At best, I thought the blog would provide me with a few good clips to send out later. The more prepared you are—whether by sprucing up your resume, building a portfolio, or taking a chance on a call that could be a scam about your social security number expiring OR could be someone offering you a job, who knows?—the better you'll be at taking full advantage of an opportunity.

4. Take courses that give you an edge.

After the internship—and especially after covering the trial—I returned to school with a new perspective. My teachers took a greater interest in me after I told them what I had been up to and I was able to return to “dedicated student” status.

This is among the benefits of jumping into a field while you're still in college. School becomes more focused when you realize which of the skills you’ll use in your career—and which need strengthening or room to grow. After my internship, I knew I needed to get better at pitching ideas and so I took journalism classes to learn how to do that. Find your purpose and your courses will feel worthwhile. When your course feel worthwhile, you are naturally bound to get more out of them.

5. Trust that everything rarely happens at once.

When I was in school, I couldn’t wait to get out and start working on “stuff.” The transition has been tough, but the college hustle set me up for life. I now know what that "stuff" is—and how I can get it done.

As a young person, it's normal to feel like everything builds towards college. It’s ingrained in us from the time we are small. Then, once you’re in college, it feels like everything builds towards life.  But unlike the high school-college transition, there are less supports in place for the college-real life transition.

But, if you keep your eyes open, you'll see how the two coexist. You don’t need to be on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list to understand that what you put in equals what you get out. At least, that’s what my dad always told me. That, and “drink your milk.”

All of this to say—while I don’t have the perfect life advice to offer, I do think my experiences and my analyzing those experiences might be able to help you figure out what to focus on and how to make your college experience a worthwhile-one that prepares you well for your future.

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