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How to be successful in life after college: 11 tips for transitioning from college to career

A smiling young professional poses for a professional headshot at her first job after graduating college.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes 

Commencement signals the end of college and the beginning of the rest of your life. Whether you’re heading into your post-grad life with enthusiasm or uncertainty, there are a few things you should know about navigating the transition from college to career.

Here are my top tips for how to be successful in life after college.

11 tips on how to be successful in life after college

1. Keep building and nurturing your network.

Take a second and think of all the people you met throughout college. Friends, professors, coworkers, classmates, teammates. The list goes on! 

All these people know something about you, your skills and your interests. They also know other people who can connect you with employers looking to hire in your area of expertise.

You can leverage these connections in your job search by: 

  • Asking your program advisor and other staff about local employers they know are hiring.
  • Reaching out to old upperclassmen classmates about job openings at their place of work.
  • Requesting a letter of recommendation from your program advisor and professors.

The bottom line is that everyone knows somebody. Take the time to foster meaningful relationships with these connections you meet along the way, because you just never know how helpful they will be.

2. Establish your personal brand.

With limited experience in the workforce, many graduates struggle to market their personal strengths when interviewing for their first job out of college. Remember you have skills employers want and strengths that make you unique from other candidates.

A personal brand is how you communicate your experience, popularity, knowledge and expertise to potential employers. Building out that brand can help both with attracting potential employers and understanding your own worth in the job market.

Some things to consider when defining your personal brand include: 

  • What key skills do you have?
  • What drew you to your field?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your long-term career goals?
  • Examples of your work (e.g., class projects, internships).

3. Use LinkedIn and job boards in your job search.

The odds are pretty good that at some point in your path to getting that degree, you heard about LinkedIn and job boards. It may sound too good to be true, but every day there are endless employers messaging graduates with event invites, interview requests and new job opportunities.

Speaking as someone who works in recruiting every day, I know companies are looking at these platforms to recruit top talent like you. Utilize resume and job boards like Handshake or Purple Briefcase to share your resume with employers and search for job opportunities.

Take this time to get your LinkedIn up-to-date and connect with individuals you have met along the way. It never hurts to send your request with a personal note either.

4. Don’t be afraid of exploring unfamiliar industries.

As you begin your job search, you may come across opportunities to use your degree at a wide variety of companies. Never close the door to an opportunity to get your feet wet in your field, even if you did not always envision yourself going into a specific industry.

I knew I wanted to work in human resources, but I never considered working in the transportation industry until I came across the Summer Internship Program at Schneider.

Instead of narrowing your search to industries you’re familiar with, look for an organization that gives you the resources you need to perfect your craft and the opportunities you need to advance your career

You can learn the industry jargon on the job, but having the tools you need to succeed can make all the difference as you start your career.

5. Never jump on your first job offer.

After all the group projects and late nights studying, you’ve probably learned a thing or two about what type of environment makes you feel most productive. Before you jump on the first (or highest-paying) job offer, you should consider whether the company culture suits you in this way.

Remember that a job interview goes both ways. For you, it's a valuable opportunity to get a feel for the company's culture.

Here are some good questions to ask yourself when interviewing potential employers: 

  • Does the company value its associates and reward their contributions?
  • Do they have a culture that speaks to your own values?
  • Does the work environment make it easy to get help and feedback?
  • Will you get to do work that feels meaningful to you?
  • Are there any major negatives that might make work unpleasant? (e.g., lengthy commute, long hours, job insecurity)

6. Find a mentor in your field.

Meaningful relationships are an important part of professional and personal life. According to a study by CNBC and SurveyMonkey, about half of workers say they have a mentor at work, and those who do are significantly more likely to be happy with their jobs. 

The best mentors are those who are driven by the urge to help others succeed. When looking for a mentor, look for someone who is experienced in your field and eagerly offers assistance, empathy and guidance in times of need.

7. Never stop investing in your professional development.

Be the proactive person who takes control of their future by continuously setting goals – and meeting them.

You are coming out of the routine of learning, studying and testing. Use that momentum to your advantage. If you plan to pursue a certification in your field, make it a goal to take that next step right out of the gate since you are still in the student mindset.

Nowadays, the job market is constantly changing. Adapting means staying on top of industry trends and learning new skills along the way. Attend webinars and workshops and join young professional organizations.

In the Greater Green Bay Area, Current Young Professionals gives individuals the opportunity to network and develop professional skills in a fun, exciting atmosphere. You can find local organizations just like this one by researching networking opportunities in your area.

8. Start budgeting and building an emergency fund.

Coming up with a financial plan can feel daunting, but building a budget early on can make all the difference when it comes to paying off your student loans and finding financial security  

Fulton Bank recommends following the 50/20/30 rule when planning how to use your take-home pay:  

  • Plan to use 50% for needs (e.g., rent, groceries, transportation).
  • Set aside 20% for savings and paying off debt.
  • Budget 30% for wants (e.g., Netflix, nights out, weekend getaways).

It’s important you stick with your budget but remember that a financial plan is not a fixed blueprint. Your lifestyle and circumstances will continue to change as you start your career, so review your plan every few years and make changes where necessary.

9. Don’t pass on your company’s 401(k) plan.

Saving for retirement probably isn’t at the top of your to-do list when you’re just starting your career, but this is actually the best time to invest in your retirement plan. 

Retirement-plan provider Fidelity recommends contributing 15% of your income to your 401(k) each year. The earlier you get money into your account, the more time it has to grow and compound on itself. That means you’ll have more funds to rely on when you retire someday.

10. Be prepared to face tough decisions and change course if necessary.

Right now, you probably have a clear vision of what your strengths and interests are and how those things will play into your career. As you begin your career journey, you will discover new skills and interests that may lead you down an entirely new path.

According to 80,000 Hours, there’s a “sunk cost bias” that causes many professionals to continue in a career that doesn’t suit them simply because they’ve already invested time. You may have paid a large sum for your degree, but that doesn’t change the fact that you could be happier in a different area of expertise.

Don’t limit yourself to the plans you made years ago. Finding your place in the world takes time, work and bit of risk. Learning how to embrace change instead of running away will put you on the fast track to a fulfilling career.

11. Find the positive even when it seems impossible.

College is known as a time of self-exploration, but your personal journey doesn't end when you walk across the stage. Between the post-grad job search, possible career doubts and learning how to function as a full-fledged adult, there may be times when you feel more uncertain than ever.

In times like these, it's important that you stay positive and remember how far you've come.

Graduating college isn't easy. It takes smarts, adaptability and determination. You had to build and re-build a routine around a class schedule that was constantly changing.

Not only are these feats you can be personally proud of, but they are proof that you have what it takes to roll with the punches.

Find tips for conquering your next job interview

Improve your chances of getting an offer with advice from a recruiter on how to ace your next job interview.
About the author
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Julia is a graduate of St. Norbert College and started at Schneider in 2018 as a Driver Recruiting intern. Currently, she works in HR Compliance. In her free time, Julia loves being with family, volunteering, playing tennis, singing and playing guitar.

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