Survival Tips: From College to the Real World


Summer is prime time for recent graduates to start new jobs and internships in the real world. Most college students may believe they’re ready for this transition, but employers think there is still a gap according to recent research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Upcoming graduates are inundated with information on interviewing, writing resumes and finishing senior courses, but hear far less on how to adapt to a very different working world.

These survival tips may not make your company orientation:

  1. You are a fish in a completely different pond. Forget your old college norms. You are joining a completely new culture and environment not unlike visiting a foreign country. Find friendly “guides” (ideally more than one) willing to share common expectations and norms. Listen and observe. Plus, adapt your social media and phone habits. You have a brand new normal!
  2. Understand your boss. Think of your boss as a unique critical customer. Ask for preferences rather than assume. Understand specifically what she expects and how she prefers to communicate with you on your work. Is a weekly status report better than a quick in person conversation? What are your most important priorities in the next 3 months? Does he want to know all of the details or just the headlines? You need to know, and you won’t without asking.
  3. Contribute. That’s why you are there. I often hear new grads say, “But, I’m always the youngest person in the room” or “I don’t know enough to speak up.” That’s ok. Bring your fresh perspective and experiences rather than get stuck because of what you don’t know. Keep learning and ask ‘What can I do?’. Discover your unique way to contribute.
  4. Do more than is expected. Get there early. Turn work in before the last minute. Contribute the extra analysis as long as it doesn’t distract from other priorities. Turn an idea into action. Your first impression will create your reputation and set important habits you’ll carry with you.
  5. Ask for feedback on your terms. Don’t rely on your company’s performance process. Asking for feedback regularly communicates that you want to learn, continue to get better and that you care. After the first month or six weeks ask your boss how you are doing. Informally request feedback on your work as a natural part of the conversation. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.
  6. You can’t get by on 4 hours of sleep anymore. In college you could stay up until 3:00AM, sleep for a few hours, make your classes and then recharge before the evening activities. In most college classes your highest hurdle was listening as a spectator one hour at a time. At work, you are responsible for participating and contributing for a full day and you’ll need enough sleep to do this well. Your old college sleep schedule will eventually catch up with you and affect your performance.
  7. You can work with a guy that looks like your Dad. In college you choose who you spend time with and most are a lot like you. Now, you’ll likely work in a more diverse team in terms of age, experience and background. You may have nothing in common outside of work. Find some connection. Ask questions, learn from them, and help each other get work done. Strong respectful working relationships can be the difference maker in your success and enjoyment of work.
  8. Never talk about co-workers behind their backs. Ever. There will be frustrations, stories and times when you think “are you kidding me?”. Expect it and keep it to yourself. Don’t assume coworkers will keep your comments confidential. You can unintentionally make someone else’s problem yours by becoming part of the story. Share coworker frustrations to your non-work friends unless it affects your ability to do your job.
  9. Don’t take everything personally. The workplace can feel pretty transactional after college since the main priority is on getting work done. Others may appear to challenge your work, ask too many questions or forget the thank you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. Learn to feel good when you know you did well rather than depend on others for acknowledgement.  
  10. It won’t be perfect. The first job – or internship – can feel monumentally important with high expectations as the perfect career starting point. But, it won’t be. Any job will have frustrating days and work that is hard to do. Every company is different so don’t draw too many conclusions from just one job/boss/company. Also, it’s your first job – not your entire career. Think of it as a starting point to learn and develop your skills. Give it a little time.
  11. Make time for your friends. College has built in social time and access to friends 24/7. It all doesn’t have to end when you graduate. Be intentional about making time for fun and relationships outside of work. You’ll enjoy work – and life – more when fun and friends are an essential ingredient in your schedule.

Good luck on your new adventure. Find the part of work that you love and how to make your unique contribution. There are adjustments in any new phase of life. You are just putting the first piece in the puzzle. It’s the beginning.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults. She can be reached on Twitter @pattibjohnson