A Survivor's Guide for Soon-to-Be College Graduates

05/11/2015 08:02 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

The term "graduation" typically means that you graduate "from" something. As we enter the college graduation season, however, it is wise to take a moment to discuss what graduation will mean for transitioning seniors -- especially young adults -- both leading up to graduation day and in the months that follow.

Graduation comes with well-earned accolades -- and maybe some cards and gifts. It is a seminal moment. In many settings, a college graduation is a defining celebration for families and friends. As a graduating senior, you have earned their praise and good wishes. You should live in and enjoy the moment.

Yet graduation also implies that you graduate "to" something. And this is where things can get a little murky at times.

Even before you graduate, it's time to look beyond the college gates. You need to think about how to prepare for your exit from the security of the college safety net to begin a life where the work cycle will often be different from how you lived as an undergraduate.

For some of you, notably in professional occupations like engineering, nursing, and management, for example, the job offer may come before your graduation. You may also have interned or worked summers in the offices of your future employer. You already know your first professional move. Some of you who continue on to additional graduate and professional training look beyond your undergraduate years toward increasing specialization. You also know where you will land next.

For the rest of you, it may not be so easy.

What are the first steps to think about?

  • Get a job. Start somewhere. You will hold many jobs in your life. It's important to take that first step toward employment quickly. Hopefully, you can build toward a career but with a job comes an ability to pay the bills.
  • Don't put things off. Do whatever you can before you graduate to improve your chances. Relax if it takes you a few months to land your first job. Most college graduates find gainful employment within the first six months of graduation.
  • Don't assume that your first job qualifies you to be the CEO of wherever you land. The best employers reward talent over time served but you need to balance talent with experience. You are where you are in the pecking order. Learn what you can, work hard, behave ethically, and keep your eyes open for your next logical placement, whether within your company, your employment field, or elsewhere.
  • Remember that it's important to get your ducks in order before you graduate. Pay the parking tickets and the late library charges, and set up the repayment schedule for any loans that you might have. Thank the professors and staff who helped you.
  • Start with the assumption that you will need three references and line them up before you walk across the stage. Be certain that your references know you well. Make sure that they offer insight about you and do no damage.
  • Get past the background noise from pundits on unemployed graduates who are flipping hamburgers at fast food chains. There are some out there; hamburger joint employment often pays their bills while they search for something better. But if you graduate in the humanities, or more generally from a college that values the liberal arts, recognize that you apply for work with enormous advantages over those more narrowly trained. It's likely that you write well, communicate more intelligently, apply math skills, and work in a collaborative setting better than most of your peers. As you enter the workforce for your first "full-time" job, your liberal arts training is the "secret sauce" that separates you from the pack. Embrace it if you earned it.
  • Visit your college's career counseling center. Career counselors can help you refine how you present yourself. Even weak counseling centers should be able to paint a landscape of what's available and match you to alumni and parents who connect you to employment opportunities. Use every advantage they provide to you.
  • Evaluate your academic program. If the market is weak in some professional disciplines, for example, how can you translate your degree into a complementary field where the prospects for employment look better?
  • Figure out where you want to live. Are you headed home? Does your likely new job take you to an urban area? Are you seeking a change of pace, a different climate, or a next adventure? Shape your search to where you hope to locate next. Get some training from the career office on how to find an apartment, meet your bills, handle credit, save money, and establish a loan repayment schedule.

Remember that your first job is a step toward a productive career but does not define the journey. It's important to start along the pathway. It is not essential to know where the road is taking you. The evolution of the global workforce will shape your future in the end. Be fearless and practical but always imagine the possible. But most important -- remember one of the most significant take-aways from your college years -- it's your life. Finally, it's time to go and live it.