15 Tips Every College Grad Should Know

Originally published on May 23, 2019, and updated on June 11, 2020.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”  Albert Einstein

Congratulations on making it to your special day, Graduates!

As a parent, I have two teens in high school with college aspirations. In my other role, as a professor, I always attend every college graduation for my college students. However, this year was an exception due to the pandemic so ceremonies were not permitted. I truly grieved for all college grads and the missed opportunity of completing college on campus this spring. The alternative, video conferencing of your graduation just doesn’t cut it for you and your family. Hopefully, your schools will be able to arrange a commencement ceremony in the future.

Focus On Your Accomplishment

Graduating from college is a great achievement. I share in the thrill of the completion of an important goal that you worked for and persevered against a plethora of odds that are personal to you. For many students, you may be the first in your family to achieve this wonderful milestone of graduating from college. I remember my own parents’ beaming faces when I crossed over to where they could not go.

Now, I hope you get your chance to hear countless words of guidance and inspiration, some worthy and some worthless, to direct you to your path of success. These mileposts are truly precious. You just may not know it yet.

This advice is not only for my children, my student grads, but also to my younger self in that I wish I had listened to.

#1 Invest In Yourself

No one else will do what is best for you except your family, and they already did their part. Therefore, your future is up to you. Your returns on investment are virtually infinite and long-lasting based on your efforts to develop your personal skills, creativity, and talent.

Pick up new skills whenever the opportunity opens up or simply teach yourself. Learn a new language, coding, machine learning, or how to debate. Go to workshops, take part in online tutorials, and travel where your interests lie.

#2 Hard Skills And Soft Skills Are Important

Eliminate a weakness, whatever it is,  by making it a strength. In college, you may not have enough experience in public speaking, writing, problem-solving, or in advancing your tech skills. You need both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are job-specific and relate to your field. They come from courses you took in college or elsewhere, training or certificate programs.

While employers are looking at skills listed on your resume, they are increasingly focused on your personal attributes. These traits are referred to as soft skills. They refer to communication abilities, creativity, attitude, critical thinking, and decision making.

How successful you can work as part of a team effort matters greatly to your future boss and colleagues. Collaborative skills are harder to assess than your college grade point average.

#3 Find Your Passion

Be conscious about what you like and don’t like. We naturally gravitate to moving in the direction of what we enjoy doing. It will take time to find your predilection, so be patient. There is no set time limit on finding your dream job and it may not necessarily be found your first job.

Stephen Colbert’s words at Northwestern University’s commencement in 2011 are memorable: “If everybody followed their first dream in life, the world would be ruled by cowboys and princesses.”

Don’t stress about it. Take the time to explore what makes you excited to learn more about it.  Seneca, the stoic philosopher said,  “What progress, you ask have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.”

#4 Be Productive At Your Own Speed

Social media may sometimes cause us to think that our friends and colleagues have so much more than us. Online postings often amplify everyone’s accomplishments and may make the rest of us seem like we are being left behind.

Remember Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise And The Hare”? The tortoise, taunted by the hare, challenges the hare to a race. Overly confident, the hare took a nap, while the slow and steady tortoise, moving very slowly, surpasses the hare, and wins the race.

Like the hare, don’t be careless with your time, whether at work or your free time. A slow but steady pace worked just fine for the tortoise.

#5 Adopt A Healthy Lifestyle

Be good to yourself and your body. Eat healthy, exercise daily, see your family and friends, and keep up a positive attitude. It may be harder to do when you first start working. Don’t lose your focus on what matters to you. Of course, you want to make a good impression on your boss and your colleagues. That goal is not mutually exclusive from being healthy.

When you’re in college, you naturally have more flexibility and more time. However, when you work with others, your schedule may be more regimented and demanding. That often means working long hours well into the night and on unpredictable projects will happen. Over time, you will better understand the rhythm of your office and be able to gauge when you are needed to stay late and help your colleagues out. Make sure to take healthy snacks with you to work and learn how to cook easy recipes when you have free time.

It may be easy to justify not going to the gym and eating fast food at first. However, over a relatively short time, those bad habits you swore you wouldn’t do may be reducing your energy level. As such, it is counterproductive to treat yourself badly. Poor health may lead to lightheadedness, absenteeism, and poor decision-making. You may be in your 20s now but you won’t be forever.

#6 Embrace Lifelong Learning

Recently, I overheard a student soon-to-be grad in my class tell another, “I am so tired of learning…I just want to make lots of money!” He spotted me and we shared a giggle, and he said, “Prof, I know what you’re going to say…about that Warren guy.” And I did.

Billionaire Warren Buffett spends 80% of his time reading and famously goes through 500 pages daily of trade publications and stacks of reports. This has been a habit for most of his life. It is not just Warren Buffett who devours reading, but many of the most successful: Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and legions more.

Reading and learning will make you sound interesting to be around. I traveled a lot for my job with salespeople, bankers, and company management. I also enjoyed being able to talk to everyone about new topics or learn something I didn’t know before, and vice-versa. It made long distance trips and time away from home more fun.

Learn Something New And Valuable

Know what you don’t know and become your own school. Develop expertise and deepen your knowledge in something valuable like improving race relations. In recent weeks, our country has awoken to racial injustice and disparity. Disparities have existed for a long time. While some progress has been made, wide gaps exist for people of color. Peaceable protests have spread across the country, amplifying calls for action. People are interested in improving our country as reflected in this week’s New York Times Best Seller lists which provide a plethora of views on solutions to racial despair.

Embrace lifelong learning which has lots of benefits and no downside.

Charlie Munger, Vice-Chair of Berkshire Hathaway (and close friend and partner of Warren Buffett) says and it’s one of my favorite quotes: “I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s better than they do.”

#7 Take Time To Reflect

Look around you and be more engaged with the people surrounding you. Any downtime we may have is usually taken up by our smartphones. Although smartphones connect us with people, places, and things at lightning speed, it may also be disrupting our productivity, hurting our memory, and making us less sociable with those in front of us.

Our phones are disrupting us from being in the present moment. Put down your phones and take time to simply reflect and be curious. Not all of our notifications are worth a look at our phone. We all are looking too much at the tops of people’s heads at the dinner table at home, in the restaurant, at work, in the classroom.

I understand the difficulties of being phone-free for even a few hours. Recognize when you are mindlessly checking emails or texts that could be better spent reading brain food posts on like Farnum Street. I always feel a tad smarter after i inhale their wisdom. Speak to someone new or simply take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the world.

#8 Cultivate Social Skills and Networking

If you are fortunate you will enjoy healthy longevity and meet people from all walks of life. In school and when we have free time, we spend time with the people we most enjoy. As you begin your first job after college you will be connecting with throngs of new people at many different levels.

Always be ready to make a good first impression. It may matter greatly who you are being introduced to. Be respectful, a good listener and ready to learn. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything you are being told. Know that you are the “newbie” in the circle and being quietly assessed.

Nurture the people in your growing network as an important asset that may pay future dividends. At some point in your career, you may want to reach out to that person you met at a conference. If you don’t already have a Linkedin account, create one and update it regularly.

I am connected with many former students on social media, and enjoy watching their careers grow and encourage them to stay in touch.

#9 Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

This is the beginning of your professional life. You don’t know what to anticipate in your new environment. Expect to make mistakes and learn from them. If you haven’t already done this on your interview for the job, read their annual report and any articles to understand the company. Competence is what you are aiming for when you first get started in your new job.

Congratulations on getting your first job. It is often hard to find an opportunity during a weak or recessionary economy. When you first take your job, investigate your company benefits package.

Related Post: A Guide For College Grads On Your Company Benefits Plan

#10 Paying Your Dues

Initially, you are likely not getting the “cool” assignments. You may be doing a lot of the grunt work or doing something you believe is beneath you. Everyone goes through this feeling.

Remain enthusiastic as your co-workers and boss may be wanting to see how you handle the easy work before they give you more tasks. Be a team player. Collegiality and respect matter. Don’t be that person that no one wants in their group or a specific project.

Volunteer to help others so long as you as fully completed all your work. When I hired associates to work with me I often had “eager beavers” wanting to do everything everyone else was doing, leaving behind the work that they were asked to do or do a quick and shabby job. Don’t be that person.

#11 Seek Opportunities To Learn New Skills At Work

As you get deeper into the swing of your job, complete tasks on or ahead of schedule, become a sponge. Learn as much as possible and partake in any company-sponsored training offered to you. Challenge yourself with the most difficult tasks.

I heard a great story from a now successful executive at a major newspaper firm, who migrated from an entry-level job, by completing her work efficiently, then helped others, picking various skills making herself invaluable. She is now an executive running operations of a major communications firm.

#12 Be A Self Starter

When you are new to your job and the work environment, there are others you may be able to go to ask questions. While you can inquire of your peers and boss, make sure you first take the initiative to learn on your own first and research the issue. A motivated person is someone who can begin a job or a project without having to be encouraged or having “their handheld.”

#13 Social Media Habits And Emails

As soon as you begin your search for a job in your career, review your online presence. Make sure it is ready for “primetime.”  More than 90% of employers will search your social media profile, looking for red flags before they arrange an interview with you.  Separately, so will your landlord and others. Assume everything you have posted can be publicly seen or shared. That’s legal and not an invasion of your privacy.

Once you are working, you may be writing and answering a lot of emails. Make sure your emails are well written, free of obvious spelling and grammatical errors. There is no such thing as a private message. Never denigrate anyone in an email. If you have something negative to say then a one-to-one meeting is always better. Oh, and leave out any slang.

#14 Take Risks

As you build your confidence, take risks. Failure may be the result but it is always worth trying. As Oprah Winfrey said at Harvard University, “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Among the most inspiring quotes made at a commencement speech was Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005, only six years before he passed away: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

#15 Be Happy

There have been a number of studies that have shown college grads are happier in life than high school grads. Going to college improves your quality of life, you can earn more, you may have greater access to health care and your marriages may be better. At any age, background, or income status, education is desirable.

You have a long life in front of you! Make use of what you are learning, skills you are building, people are meeting.

If you haven’t taken a personal finance course, here’s a graduation present for you, worthwhile at any age:

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What has most inspired you in your life? One of the most common questions asked when interviewed for a job is this: “what is the biggest risk you have taken in your life?”  Please share any of your thoughts related to how you will build your skills in your career?




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