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Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future

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Last May I published a The Huffington Post blog, "Suggestions for Seniors Graduating from College," that received quite a bit of attention. Indeed, I have been asked to give talks on the subject. After thinking further and getting suggestions from students, colleagues and readers, I have added some new suggestions and done some fine-tuning.

My primary credential is that I have been a Cornell English professor for 45 years and have held some visiting professorships at various public universities in three other states. I have also written several other HuffPost blogs on related subjects, including "Fourteen Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen" as well as "What to Do with a B.A. in English?," "Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?" and "Nineteen Suggestions for College Sophomores."

I am going to divide my suggestions into two categories, although, as will be seen, they overlap.

I. Future Plans

1) The time to begin thinking about what you will be doing after graduation -- whether it be graduate school, law school, medical school, etc. or entering the work world -- is well before graduation, that is, when you are you are a freshman or perhaps a sophomore. For graduate programs, you need know what the expected requirements are. To be sure you may change direction, but choosing your courses, major, campus and off campus activities, summer work, including internships, and even where and whether to study abroad during your junior year are all part of this process. This does not mean everything you do must be directed to your future plans, but it does mean you should not be an ostrich -- burying your head in the sand -- about the future.

2) Your first choice for employment should usually be position where the employer is thinking about where you will be in few years not how much money you will bring in immediately. Usually, the best positions are those in which you have a chance to learn and grow and not those where you are used simply to sell something without getting much training. In the latter case you are an interchangeable cog and are probably not in the employer's long-range plans. When you are offered a position, learn as much as you can about the culture of the employer, including whether employees stay and advance and are well treated.

3) Summer internships -- whether paid or not -- are a way to get to know an organization and the organization gets to know you. Thus internships are often a bridge to employment with the organization.

4) Cast your eye widely when applying for positions. Sometimes organizations will find applicants that are at a slightly oblique angle to their posted job specifications more interesting than those who are more obvious candidates and invite such applicants for interviews.

5) In a first interview -- and indeed through the hiring process if you are just out of college -- the prospective employer is mostly in charge, but once you are offered a position, you can be pro-active in asking questions and perhaps contact other employees. Of course later on when you have acquired skills and stature and you are shopping for a new position while holding a good one, you can be more aggressive in the early stages of the hiring process.

6) Learn as much as possible about the company interviewing you. Prepare for interviews in advance by anticipating questions. It is a good idea to write down questions and answers so that you are not responding with "you know"s and "umm"s. Recording your answers so you can listen to yourself is a good idea. Practicing with a friend is also helpful.

7) Interviews are the chance to show why you are the person for the position, and you need make sure by the end of an interview that you have given the interviewer the information that makes you special. If the company is hiring four people, finishing fifth is not good enough

8) The kindergarten criterion "works well with others" is at least as important after graduation as before. Self-presentation in terms of speaking well, showing your initiative, convincing an employer or a selection board that you have much to offer, and, yes, having an appropriate appearance is most important in interviews. But self-presentation is also important on a day-to-day basis and you will be judged on it. Respect diversity in the work place, and seek diversity among friends.

9) Once you take a position or enroll in a graduate program, you have chosen a path. Give it your full effort and every chance to work by making a full commitment. There will be plenty of time to change direction, and it is fine to do so if you decide after giving a situation a real chance that you have made the wrong choice.

Be aware that staying the course is considered by many a virtue, and flitting from one path to another every six months is not an advertisement for your persistence or stability when applying to graduate programs or seeking employment.

II. Life After College:

1) Learning has many dimensions. Understanding how your new environment functions in terms of its expectations and culture sometimes requires more imagination, flexibility, maturity and judgment than working through a course syllabus. This is true particularly but not exclusively in employment situations.

2) If you are in graduate school, you are both a pre-professional and a beginner/freshman, but isn't this true in a new employment position? If are working in a new position or in graduate school you need to ask yourself what you have learned that day that applies to your work and what else you have learned.

3) Whether in medical school, graduate school, or law school, or beginning a new career, time management is crucial. Keep a chart of how you are using your time, including recreational time. EMC -- Every Minute Counts -- will serve you well. No matter how much you enjoy your work, do not become your work. Be sure you do not become a workaholic without any life outside work/school.

4) Remember that time is not money; time is time and it is what you have on this earth. Every day do something that is fun and relaxing. Busy people are more likely to be happy people. In contrast to college where the activities were there for the taking like a smorgasbord, you may have to take the initiative to find groups -- athletic, fitness, drama, music, cooking, learning new skills, etc. -- that interest you.

5) Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Be sure to get enough exercise and sleep. Eat healthily. If you have emotional issues, seek help. Substance abuse, including alcohol, is as much if not more a possible distraction and danger in your post-college life.

6) Be a part of a supportive community of friends and family. Isolation and loneliness are not your friends. Keeping in touch with college friends, or if you are employed in a big city, living with friends is a good way to bridge your journey from college into a new world. Your community may come from an alumni association, a religious group, a volunteering commitment, an outdoor or nature group, a choir or orchestra, a book group or any combination of these and others that I have left out.

7) Use in work and graduate school the academic, practical, and interpersonal skills you have learned in college through classes and activities in which you have participated. Interpersonal skills help networking -- and this is helpful in opening doors -- but don't spend your life worrying about making connections. If you are involved in activities, networking will come.

8) Speaking articulately, writing lucidly and precisely, reading carefully and thoughtfully, and thinking critically will serve you well.

9) Understand that everyone has not had the same experiences as you and be open to learning from others. Balancing listening and speaking is an art form that needs to be learned. If you tend to be a talker, sometimes it is necessary to call a time-out on yourself and consciously not speak for a while.

10) Develop new skills and interests -- both in your professional and non-work life -- even if you have limited time to cultivate them. Open the door to new experiences such as travel. If you are living in a city or visit one, try art museums, opera, ballet, and other cultural experiences that you may not have given much of chance.

11) Be bold and take reasonable risks. Have a dream, but be sure it has roots in reality.

Let me conclude with two suggestions that I have borrowed almost verbatim from my aforementioned "Suggestions for Freshmen."

12) Remember the three R's: Resilience (falling down and getting up are one motion.); Resourcefulness (use your skills and intelligence.); and Resolve (pursue goals with determination and persistence.).

13) Laugh a lot and continue to develop your sense of humor. When things are not going well or you make mistakes, remember you usually can't fix the past. But you can start where you are.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which recently appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media for The Huffington Post. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/ danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes