How Recent Grads Can Avoid The Most Common Entry-Level Mistakes

Be timely, communicative, and focused.
05/24/2017 11:06 pm ET Updated May 26, 2017

Okay, new graduates — how are you feeling? Nice and calm, right?

The months just after college graduation can be unexpectedly stressful. You’ve worked hard for four years, maybe more, to pursue a professional field, but finally getting your hands on that degree is no guarantee of “the dream.” Proving yourself, showing your worth during the early stages of your career, can be just as trying as college itself.

Whether you’ve already landed your first full-time position or you’re still in the job search process, it’s smart to know where most post-grads tend to fall short. You’ll stand out from a sea of fellow entry-level colleagues by avoiding their most common mistakes.

Be timely, communicative, and focused — even when nobody’s watching.

In college, slacking off can easily go unpunished. Nobody is regulating your activity, which means if you wait until 11:58 to submit a midnight assignment, you can then happily drift off to sleep.

That’s not really the case in the workplace. One of the biggest entry-level errors is “checking out”: Opting to ignore emails, projects, or assignments until it feels like they have to get done. Procrastinating on emails is probably the biggest sin. You should assume that when somebody contacts you, it’s urgent enough to warrant a response as soon as you have a free minute.

Deadline-based assignments can also prove problematic as college grads are often accustomed to waiting until the last minute. You should always strive to complete tasks as quickly as possible. That means that if a supervisor says, “Have this done by the end of the week,” your goal should be to complete it well before Friday at 5 PM, especially if you don’t have much else on your plate.

Make the most of your time at the bottom of the totem pole.

CEOs aren’t made in a day. The skills you pick up and fine-tune in an entry-level position will continue to serve you well as you work your way up the ladder. But many recent grads, eager to conquer the corporate world, are resistant to embrace the not-so-glamorous responsibilities of an entry-level position.

It’s possible, especially during your first few months, that you’ll be asked to complete tasks well below your skill level. Your supervisors know that your capabilities extend way beyond scanning receipt forms or stocking the office fridge with soy milk. But by perfectly and enthusiastically completing those small, sometimes menial-seeming tasks, you prove that you’re willing to put in the grunt work. That matters — a lot.

At my non-profit, 1,000 Dreams Fund, we provide scholarship grants to girls who demonstrate major potential in their desired fields. But that financial kick-start is no guarantee of success. It’s all about relentless drive, and that motivation should shine through even — especially — at the earliest stage of your career.

Lean in when the time is right, but don’t lean too far too soon.

We all know the stereotype that millennials are “entitled.” And according to many employers, that label isn’t so off base. A common mistake among entry-level employees is a know-it-all attitude — a resistance to training, supervision, or criticism, and a pattern of doing things their way instead of the way they’re told.

No matter how many internships, co-ops or even prior full-time jobs you’ve held, nobody walks into a new role and knows exactly how to do everything. When you immediately expect a seat at the table, you only look foolish. It takes time to prove you deserve and are prepared for that seat.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg popularized the term “leaning in,” or making yourself heard and seen at a table of leaders. There will be lean-in moments when you have a shining opportunity to show your stuff. If you have a great idea or want to launch a brand-new project, speak up! But before you do, make sure you’ve done your research first. Don’t just talk for the sake of talking — you need to have something to say, and a reason for saying it.

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