10 Tips for Transitioning from College to Real Life

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  1. Create a perfect resume. By perfect I mean absolutely zero spelling or grammatical errors. Print a draft out and have someone else read it. Mark it up on paper and then edit on your computer. Repeat this process multiple times. Make sure to tell something interesting about yourself, I include an “Activities & Interests” section at the bottom. Bullet point your duties and accomplishments in each role rather than writing them out paragraph style. By no means should your resume exceed one page. Make a nice, clean layout that is easy to read.
  2. Don’t waste away your graduation money. Collect some cash gifts? Awesome! Before you spend it all on alcohol and Chipotle, take a second to think what else you can do with all of that cash flow. Can you pay off any high-interest debt you’re carrying? How about opening and funding a Roth IRA? Pull out 10% now to treat yourself and take the other 90% to do something that is actually more valuable and can help life some weight off of your shoulders. If you’re going to totally disregard the aforementioned advice, I ask of you this: at least spend the money on an experience, not stuff!
  3. Send thank-you notes. This goes for all of those who write you recommendation letters, give you graduation gifts, and especially for employers who you interview with. For interviews, usually a thank-you e-mail within 24 hours will suffice. For gifts and favors you receive (at any point in life) you should send a simple hand written thank you. Buy some custom fun stationary that makes you excited to write. Thank-you notes are 100% noticed and appreciated.
  4. Interview prep. Take the time to prepare for an interview. In fact, treat an interview like a final exam and really study for it. Be ready with at least one page full of questions to ask (as specific as possible). Know what the company does and even have one or two suggestions ready, but only give if solicited. Know what your interviewer’s position is. Be ready for the possibility of an assignment which you may be asked to complete overnight or in person. (Trust me, it has happened to me multiple times and I totally blew it once.) Have your outfit cleaned, ironed, and ready to go a few days beforehand. Have a ton of fresh copies of your resume printed out, never expect the interviewer to have one with them. Most importantly just practice answering questions out loud and I promise you’ll feel so much more confident during the real interview. Learn something from each one. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback if you receive a rejection.
  5. Negotiate. I know you may be scared to when you just need a job no matter what, but it cannot hurt to ask. (While that’s not a guarantee, you will likely know if it’s one of those situations where you’ve received a firm final offer.) Demand what you deserve. Come to the table with backup support of what you can do for the company and what your specific skills are. Men seem to be better at this naturally, which is great! But ladies, speak up! Write down your “speech” first, stand tall, and get what you deserve! Use sites like Glassdoor to research salary ranges for your role. Have someone coach you and prep with you. Losing out on money you deserve now can set you back for your entire career.
  6. Don’t leave money on the table. Contribute to any employer sponsored plan at least enough to get the employer match! On day one sign up for your employer sponsored plan, a.k.a 401(k), 403(b), TSP, etc. Don’t say you’ll do it later because guess what? A year will go by within the blink of an eye and you’ll just end up a whole year behind. Start off where you can but again, at least elect enough to get the employer match! Then use the rule of 1%. Every year (if not more often) increase your contributions by 1%. You will hardly notice the difference and it will be well worth it if done every year. In addition, I’d take this so far as to say take those vacation days you’ve earned! Don’t leave those PTO days on the table. A healthy work-life balance is so important.
  7. Figure out a budget. Ok you’ve landed a job offer and know what your salary will be. Now time to calculate your lifestyle. This can get complicated if you already have debt from student loans or credit cards so working with a professional to set up a plan is worth it. It may seem like you can’t do anything on an entry level salary, but that does not have to be true. The goal is to continue to increase your earnings while limiting lifestyle inflation. By doing this you can pay off debt, invest money that will work while you sleep, and even potentially retire early. I use a simple budget. I auto save first, then I pay my fixed expenses and bills, and finally I am free to spend the remaining down to $0. So many people try to do it in reverse, which to me is completely nonsensical and will lead to damaging your credit, financial life, and causing you a ton of stress. Can you actually afford the lifestyle you are living? If not make a change and actually start to grow your wealth. Don’t try to keep up with or try to impress other people. Often times those who seem to have it all are just people with “big hats and no cattle.” (See: The Millionaire Next Door)
  8. Contribute to Roth retirement accounts. Some may disagree and you can analyze and debate Roth vs. Traditional to death. While no-one knows the future, I’m going to bet that taxes will be higher in 40 years than they are now. I am also willing to bet that my accounts will have high earnings 40 years from now. A Roth IRA or 401(k) invests your money after tax today. Meaning you won’t get any tax savings in the current year. Bummer right? Not entirely. There’s a potentially huge upside in that when you start to withdraw from these accounts in 40+ years you will not pay any taxes. That means all of the money you earn in a Roth account will be growing and compounding over the years and end up being completely tax free earnings. Pretty great right? The alternative to Roth is to invest in Traditional plans where the money is contributed before tax and your taxes are lower today (in the year you contribute). The downside is that all that growth in the 40 years will not be tax free. When you start to withdraw you will owe taxes. You will most likely be in a higher tax bracket later in life than you are right now, which is another reason to just pay the taxes now. This all may sound a bit complicated and granted this is only a short explanation here, but I highly recommend electing Roth retirement plans if you are in your 20’s.
  9. Make specific goals. You don’t have to decide them all on the morning after graduation or on your first day at work, but come up with a few short term and long term goals when starting your adult life. Continue to revise them over time and don’t be afraid of change. Maybe you set an ambitious goal of retiring at 40. It’s completely doable and possible the earlier you set the goal. Or maybe you set the goal of paying off your student loan debt in three years. That’s great! With a specific goal you can take specific steps. I find this the only way to accomplish something. Ask people who know more than you and always continue to learn and adjust accordingly.
  10. Take it easy. If you are lucky enough to attend college I hope you enjoy it, explore, and branch out. I also strongly encourage you to learn practical things. Learn how to build a website, master Microsoft Office Suite, and intern at multiple companies. I never went into the field I studied, but I found a better path for me. It doesn’t always matter so much. Try different routes until you are happy, but give your best no matter what. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s all a journey. Move to different cities and try new things. Your 20’s are likely your last time you can put yourself at number one priority. Take care of yourself by having fun while laying a great foundation for your life. Make sure your older self will thank you one day. Relax, be smart, and be kind!

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