15 Things College Grads Wish They Knew Before Getting to the “Real World”

The night of my college graduation, I found myself sobbing to my dad in a parking garage. Despite the tears running down my face, I had been extremely happy all day–graduation was by far one of my favorite college memories. But after I had changed out of my cap & gown, opened all my graduation gifts and put away my diploma, the overwhelming reality hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m not in college anymore & the real world is right around the corner. 

Graduating from college is pretty f*cking terrifying. Yes, it’s extremely happy and exciting, but there is this staggering realization that your life is suddenly a clean slate. Up until this point, you’ve had school to dictate your routine, yet now you’re being thrust into the unknown (literally) and have to make sense of it. And that’s really scary.

My transition from college to “the real world” has been nothing short of an emotional roller coaster of self discovery. I can’t even begin to describe it other than you’ll understand it once you actually do it. But that idea got me thinking–what’s something I wish I knew at graduation that would have made my life a little easier? What advice do I wish someone had told me when I was embarking on this crazy new chapter?

So I started asking my friends. And we started reflecting on our real world experiences and had some great conversations. Such good conversations that I wanted to share it with all you recent college grads out there. You’ll get a mix of everything–the good, the bad, the ugly & the beautiful. It’s just honest advice of what the real world is actually like. Hopefully it’ll dissuade your fears a little bit or maybe it’ll make you more excited for what lies head. Whatever you’re feeling, just try to enjoy the ride. I promise, life doesn’t end after graduation–a lot of new things are just beginning.

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“I wish I knew how expensive trash bags and toilet paper are.  Remember, budgets are important. But on a more serious note, be open to learning and soak up as much information as you can from people who have been in the business. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t just give up when something gets hard.”  –Christie, class of 2014

“It has taken me two years to realize that just as growth was necessary in college, we need to experience different soils to truly test our characters, to grow even further. I realize now that I had to leave college to become an even better version of myself. I also feared that I would lose touch with friends. But that actually hasn’t proven to be true. I have experienced a depth of friendship in my post-grad relationships and have been blessed to recognize which friends have really stepped up these last two years when I needed them, which friends put in the effort, which friends have chosen to open up to me about the most intricate parts of their lives.” –Danielle, class of 2015

“I know you’ve heard this before, but trust me when I say no one–and I mean no one– knows what they’re doing.” –Art*, class of 2015

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“When you start your new job, immediately join your organization’s 401K or 403B retirement plan. It may not be the most glamorous thing to do with your new paycheck when your friends are traveling to Europe and the beach, but your future self will thank you for it!” –Lauren*, class of 2015

We have to remember that we are so young.  We have only begun the great adventure of the rest of our lives. The past sixteen years came with a predetermined timeline, and now suddenly we’re at the steering wheel wondering if the next move is the right move, or if the next job is the right job, or if the relationships we have are with the right people. And because these are some of the first ‘real world’ decisions we are making, we fear the implications of permanency if they are the wrong ones. But that’s when it’s important to remember that we are so young. This idea that we can’t ever change jobs or companies or even careers, or that we can’t live somewhere other than places we already call home, or that the friends we have now will be the only ones we will ever have or ever love is completely ridiculous. Life may no longer be the utopia that it resembled in college, but is certainly not the dismal, soul-sucking void that the ‘real world’ sometimes gets reputed for being.” –Francis, class of 2015

“I wish I knew that I would be coming up on not only the most awesome time of my life, but also the most lonely. But everyone feels lonely at times, and everyone is insecure at their first job, but no one ever talks about it.” –Allison, class of 2015

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“My advice comes in two parts: how to balance looking back and looking forward. First, just know, there is no perfect timeline for how long it will take you to ‘get over’ college. Every time I think about college, I still get a little twinge in my heart. But then I started thinking through the perspective of one of my favorite quotes from Junot Diaz: ‘The half-life of love is forever.’ I loved college. And maybe it’ll always sting a little to not be living in that time. But having days where you miss certain things doesn’t mean that you’re not doing great at ‘adulting’ in your new life too. Be patient with your heart in the transitioning period between college and the rest of your life. Loving your past doesn’t mean not living your present—I promise the two can coexist peacefully. Which brings me to part two: don’t let other people dictate which years are ‘the best years of your life.’ I remember countless family members telling me that college would be ‘the best years of my life.’ But with graduation looming, I kept wondering…if my college years are my best years, then what hellish abyss awaits when I turn my tassel?! Luckily I now recognize that we probably won’t know which years were ‘the best years’ until we reach the ends of our well-lived, well-loved collection of decades. College was beautiful. But I am content to look back on that perfect little parenthesis in my life as just one contender for the title of ‘best years of my life.’ Who knows? Maybe college was just that. Or maybe my best years haven’t even happened yet! ” –Christa, class of 2015

“For one, I wish I knew how much worse the hangovers are. You’re not as young as you used to be before graduating, and it’s not a slow change; it’s immediate. That’s not my opinion, it’s science.  Secondly, there is no ‘right’ way to be an adult. In my short experience in the real world, I’ve realized no one really has it all figured out (including your parents), and that’s okay. If there were a ‘right’ path to follow, life would be boring. There are no more rubrics, no more syllabi’s, no strict guidelines. The terms of your success and how you define that success is totally up to you. Upon graduation, you will also not know the answers to many everyday questions you’ll face in the real world. But don’t worry, it’s the not knowing that makes life worth living.” –Nate, class of 2015

“It’s totally fine to be afraid of the unknown that comes with graduating, but know that the best feeling in the world is when that fear turns into excitement for all that you have ahead of you.” –Thomas, class of 2016

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“‘We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel [in college]‘ –Marina Keegan. There are times after graduation that you will feel lonely, but these moments will pass. Never forget that. A phone call to a friend can do wonders. And call your Mom!” –Daniel, class of 2015

“You aren’t going to have everything figured out when you graduate but that’s okay–you aren’t supposed to. Ask those around you for support and advice. Everyone has gone through the transition of entering the ‘real world’ so don’t be afraid to admit to others when you’re feeling overwhelmed.” –Katherine, class of 2015

“I wish I knew the real world wasn’t as scary as it seemed. I sincerely thought the world was going to end after May 16, 2015.  I wish I knew that you always end up where you’re supposed to be. At the end of senior year, I remember how boring I thought life was going to be here on out. But that’s where I was wrong. I wish I knew how much fun life was going to be after college. It’s the fear of the unknown that makes it exciting. That’s what keeps pushing me to say yes. I really hope you said yes to senior year. I hope you were heavily hungover at graduation. And I hope you keep saying yes in the future because it’s still fun out here.” –Sam, class of 2015

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“The most valuable thing I’ve learned (and wish I took to heart sooner) was advice my dad gave me, two months after graduation. I had worked my face off for four years and had nothing to show for it but a diploma and nannying job. As I sat on my parents kitchen floor, bawling my eyes out over fear of perpetual unemployment, my dad promised me that things always have a way of working out. As trite as that may sound, I now know how serious that promise was. Four brutal months later, I landed my dream starter job, and for all the good, bad, and downright miserable experiences I’ve had in between, it never ceases to amaze me how life seems to have a way of righting itself. Take a deep breath. All you have been through, worked tirelessly for, and aspired to be, will be worth it.” –Meg, class of 2016

Life doesn’t end when you leave college. It gets harder at first but then life gets so much better.” –Haley, class of 2015

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As for my thoughts? I’ve got three quick ones below:

  1. The worst thing about adulthood are as follows: insurance, taxes, car problems. So what do you do? Make friends with an HR person, use TurboTax & find a good mechanic close to your apartment.
  2. If you’re looking for a little wisdom, I recommend reading The Defining Decade, milk and honey and The Happiness Project. Oh, and pick something you’ve always wanted to read because now you have the time to read it.
  3. And most importantly, ask for help when you need it & BREATHE. You’re doing just fine.

Whether you’re excited to have graduated or are totally unsure about this whole “real world” thing, there’s one thing I know for certain: you’re going to do great things someday. Congrats, grad. Don’t worry, the best is yet to come &.

*Names have been changed. 

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3 thoughts on “15 Things College Grads Wish They Knew Before Getting to the “Real World”

  1. gentlemanwithin says:

    A lot of gems in there. Even tho I graduated what seems like ages ago, it was fun reading thru. The defining decade is such a great read. And yes, the best is yet to come.

    Liked by 1 person

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