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The Real World: What Entry-level Workers Wish They'd Known When They Graduated

by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.


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  • Note: The Real World Panel was an annual event held in the fall that unites recent college graduates with college juniors and seniors, where the grads share experiences and lessons they wish they had learned prior to graduating.

    For many college students, taking the headlong plunge outside the safe, secure world of college results in a rude awakening to some of the cold, cruel realities of the real-world rat race. We talked to some graduates to see what they wish they had known about the real world when they graduated and what advice they would impart to those about to leave the college womb.

    Do an internship. It's important to perform an internship to "give you a taste of what work is like and to let you experiment with different fields before it counts," one grad observes.

    Start looking for a job as soon as possible. "Don't wait until you graduate," advises Jennifer Grillo, a general business graduate. "If you want to take a break and not work right out of school, continue to send applications in - even if you don't think you're qualified. You could get lucky."

    Be prepared! The real world is very different from college! "I am realizing that college life is a breeze compared to working adult life," observes Jerra Fortner. "There is just a different set of responsibilities entirely!" says Fortner, a finance graduate. Those serious responsibilities can be daunting, Grillo notes: "You make a mistake in college, it's depressing, but you can take the course again. You make a mistake at your job, you may never get another job in that area." Another student points to how exhausting it can be to carry all that responsibility. "When you go home from work after working an 8-10 hour day, you are tired, and you just have to wonder where you got all your energy in college to stay up late and do that last-minute studying," says the finance graduate.

    Among other differences the grads observed between college and the real world:

    • Everything is politics!

    • Gender discrimination is a real occurrence, especially in male-dominated fields like banking and finance.

    • The most stressful part of the job is dealing with negative individuals who want to do everything "like we did it before."

    • Having a company's financial health depend on you is very stressful. "If I make any mistakes, it is very serious," notes one grad. "I have to be extremely cautious with my daily work."

    Learn to project a professional image in every respect, including business etiquette. Know how to dress, dine, and converse in a formal business setting. "Be professional . . . from your dress to your diction," Fortner advises. She observes that "in today's workplace, that counts more than anything. An employer wants to be proud of the way you conduct yourself. You can have all the brains in the world, but if you cannot interact well with other professionals, you will only go so far."

    Look at the big picture when negotiating your salary offer. For example, don't forget about taxes. One recent grad notes: "I am paying about $12,000 of my salary out in taxes, and that changes things quite a bit."

    Take time to think about job offers. "Companies understand that you are looking for a position, and most of them are willing to let you think over their and other offers for a while," says one recent grad.

    Realize that you may have to take the initiative to learn on your own in your first job. "I think a lot of people get overwhelmed when they first get a new job," observes Grillo. "You're not going to be trained in every single thing you do. You'll have to learn as you go," says Grillo, noting that many of her organization's new hires look lost.

    Use what you gained from the entire college experience. "Relating all my classroom and extracurricular experiences to the job and being professional in my conduct" is what Fortner asserts was the most important factor in landing her first job. Fortner says it's important "not to seem like you are fresh out of school as far as manners and common sense are concerned."

    Develop good communications skills, both written and oral techniques. Most employers place a high premium on how well employees express themselves, so use what you learned in school. "While [in] business school, I had many chances to build up confidence by making presentations in front of groups," says Jennifer Split, a 1997 Stetson management graduate, who now works as an employee development specialist for the U.S. Secret Service. "I gained valuable experience that directly relates to my current position," Split continues. "As an employee development specialist, my duties include designing courses and instructing classes. One of my current projects requires that I conduct research into new technology that can be used for training purposes and produce reports related to this area. As a management major, I had to do research for many papers and group assignments. I was also given the opportunity to strengthen my writing and presentation skills."

    Make the most of the teamwork skills you learned through group projects and participating in sports because significant numbers of jobs in the real world are team-based. "All the groups that we were required to work in [in college] were very helpful," notes another grad. "Teamwork skills were stressed from the very beginning with my job at Hewitt Associates," she says. "Even in the interviews, they were always asking, 'Give me an example in a group when . . .' Everything we do at Hewitt is in a team environment, and if you don't learn to speak up, you could mess everyone up. You have to be able to rely on each other. Here at Hewitt; a team member either does his/her share or the whole team suffers. Communication is everything!" Adds Grillo: "Teamwork is essential no matter what area you're in. I just spoke to a supervisor who didn't hire an extremely qualified man due to his 'not being a team player.'"


    Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

    Katharine Hansen, PhD, QuintCareers.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.


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