15 Things I Wish I Knew Before College Graduation

Kimberly Rotter

Kimberly Rotter | Student

Apr 29, 2014

Sixteen years of secondary and college education is history. Finished. Adios. Goodbye. Whew, it’s over. Time to exhale.

Bravo. What a genuine triumph. The world and the rest of your life now impatiently wait to be tackled. After the celebrations have quieted down, stow the sheepskin, return the mortarboard and gown to the rental agency and get set to launch. It is time.

In a moment.

Slow down long enough to absorb a few pointers. In exchange for whopping fees, college hopes to arm you with literacy and specialized skills. But there is a bit more to this thing called real life. Quite a bit more, actually.

Remember the adage, “The devil hides among the details.” In the final countdown college should – but doesn’t – include a mandatory course in How to Defuse Unexploded Financial Bombs 101 or Killer Traps that Await the Unwary Graduate 102.1 with the accompanying lab, How to Be True to Yourself 102.2.

No, college makes no overt attempt to map the road ahead, not even up to the first sharp curve. The Senior, flushed with success, is simply allowed to drift unobserved out the door following the buzz of commencement.

Life ahead is a minefield to navigate. A minefield layered with insolvency, devastated credit, bankruptcy and the withering psychological stresses that come with them. Now is the time to snap out of dreamy naiveté when it comes to harsh realities. They matter. Consequences are inevitable. Your first student loan payment comes due in six months (if not sooner).

Some new graduates will be wise enough to seek out a focused layer of directory assistance that is very nearly on par in importance with the rules brought down by Moses from the Mount. Others will learn the hard way over time. The following chief highlights of take-away lessons, often learned at considerable (and entirely avoidable) personal grief and pain, were shared by some of my favorite scholars and visionaries, professionals whose work clearly demonstrates that each is sharply dialed in to at least one critical facet of life in today’s American society. A few are mine. None are mine alone.

Be earnest

1. Live right-sized. With experience comes understanding. Maturity brings the wisdom of lessons learned and mistakes recognized and corrected (provided, of course, that we have enough humility spiced with a sense of humor to look at ourselves objectively). By contrast, the defensive personality is doomed to blunder from one calamity to the next cursing bad luck or other people, but never looking inward. An iota of humble self-perception can save a world of pain.

Remember the Introduction to Shakespeare course in your Sophomore year where Cassius said, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Take it to heart.

“Get your foot in the door and then kick ass. Even if you take a job at a level you think is too low, make sure you excel at it…no one gets promoted by sucking at the job they *have*.” Elisa Camahort Page, Co-Founder and COO, BlogHer

2. Invest in yourself. Humility doesn’t mean lack of ambition. On the contrary, statistics imply that you’ll define your earnings ceiling by the time you’re 39 if you’re female, 48 if you’re male. So the ladies have roughly 16 years to blaze a trail to the corner office. Men have a bit longer. Few workers make giant vertical financial leaps in the 15-20 years before retirement. Humility and ambition must therefore walk hand in hand.

Push. Reach. Negotiate. Healthy ambition takes many forms, but one is investment in yourself. Early on, make it your passion to find your passion. Attach yourself (appropriately) to the people you want to emulate and who share your vision. Find a mentor whom you respect. Do the research to choose wisely, but don’t be afraid to spend money. You just got a college education that cost how much? So why be afraid to hire a coach or mentor now or to pay for a workshop? If we could all figure things out on our own, there would be no mid-life crises.

“Spend money to learn about yourself. Saving is good, but you have sixty more years to save. Figuring out who you are will impact the trajectory of the rest of your life. If you figure yourself out fast, you’ll do a good job picking a spouse and a career. If you take forever to learn about yourself because you’re too scared to spend money and take risks then you are likely to have to start all over again with a spouse and career several times before you get it right.” Penelope Trunk, Career Advisor and Entrepreneur

3. Take chances. Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure paves the path to self awareness. There is no other way to know what you love or the things at which you’ll excel. Nothing worth having is easy.

“Learn to take risks and fail! Failure is critical not just for building confidence but for mastery and success as well.” Claire Shipman, New York Times bestselling author and Senior National Correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America

4 . Tell the truth. In your job interviews, at home, at work and in public. You don’t have to answer every question, whether from your date, your mother or your boss but a lie carries consequences vastly out of proportion to any benefit.

“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Author

Approach finances wisely

5. Live beneath your means. This is a favorite nugget of anyone who knows anything about money.  Regularly stashing away a portion of your income will give you an emergency fund, a travel fund, a home fund, an anything fund. If you feel like you are denying yourself when you put money away, know that you are just giving it to yourself on a different day, and then some. On the flip side, spending everything you’ve got will leave you high and dry when the time comes that you need the money.  And that time will come.

“With great accomplishments (e.g., graduating college) comes great responsibility. You must master basic accounting and budgeting skills to survive and flourish — fearing numbers and lacking the basic math skills that these concepts demand is a recipe for financial disaster. Prepare yourself to soar and succeed with these basic skills and your college degree.” Francine Lipman, William S. Boyd Professor of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

“I wish I’d known that it would be good practice to always live on 80% of my net paycheck.  If you just begin by spending no more than 80% of your paycheck — put 20% into savings, by direct deposit if possible — then emergencies, splurges, and children will never make you break a financial sweat.” Martha L. Olney, Adjunct Professor of Economics, University of California

“Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy freedom. Even as you start to earn money, and then hopefully more money, don’t over-extend yourself. Build that nest egg, even at the age of 25…so if you ever want or NEED to walk away from a situation, you’ll have the freedom to do so.” Elisa Camahort Page, Co-Founder and COO, BlogHer

6. Debt will drag you down. When it comes to student loans or any other debt, know what has been borrowed down to the last cent. Understand the terms and penalties of repayment. You can’t run. Student loans are virtually impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.  Manage them.

Student loan repayment options are far more flexible than they were in the past. In the unfortunate event of stubborn, intractable financial combat, federal student loans do provide for some genuine relief. Options include Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Pay-As-You-Earn (PAYE). Both plans limit monthly payment amounts to a fixed percentage of income. Under both plans, once you make a certain number of payments, any remaining loan balance is forgiven.

7. Take free money. Student loans can be forgiven in whole or in part. Take every opportunity to reduce or cancel your loans through public service.

Save on interest charges if your lender offers a discount – often as much as a quarter of a percent – for signing up for automatic payments. This simple agreement to do nothing above and beyond paying your bill could save you hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of dollars over the life of a student loan, auto loan or mortgage.

Financial freebies come in the form of company 401(k) matches, too. If you’re eligible for one, it means your company will put money into your retirement account up to a certain percentage, but only if you do first.

“Pay yourself first – start saving for retirement immediately.  Most employers match some percent of your contributions. Get it. It’s free money. If you get an annual raise, put half into increased retirement contributions. I never met anyone who thought they saved too much for retirement.” Peter Nigro, Ph.D., Sarkisian Chair in Financial Services and Associate Professor of Finance, Bryant University

Job benefits aren’t exactly freebies, but they mustn’t be overlooked just because they don’t show up directly in your bank account. 401(k) matching, paid time off, tuition reimbursement (yes, you might want or need to go back to school), insurance and other benefits cost real money and have a dollar value.

“Look at the benefits – not just the salary – when deciding whether to take a job.” Martha Hamilton, former retirement planning expert for AARP and the Washington Post

8. Compound interest is the single most significant element of retirement planning to wrap your brain around. Whatever the amount, big or small, set aside 10 percent of your income in a retirement fund. Begin the saving habit with the first paycheck.  Time is on your side. Exponentially. Years are more golden than the dollars saved.

9. Your credit score is the key that will unlock financial advantages. Know what your credit score is and how it got there. Protect it and you will be repaid in broader financing opportunities and lower financing costs. Don’t make foolish mistakes that take years to correct and cost you dearly in dollars and lost opportunities. Take responsibility for your credit now.

“Protect your credit. You’ll likely relocate soon after graduation, leaving behind your former college residence (in many cases an apartment shared with other students). Don’t forget about the final utility bills. If a bill doesn’t find you, it could go unpaid and end up in collections. Collections show up on your credit report for seven years and can make it more difficult to lease your next residence, finance a car, open a credit card or even get a job where pre-employment screening takes place. Don’t make that mistake. Just because the bill doesn’t find you doesn’t mean you’re not liable for the payment.” John Ulzheimer, Credit Expert

Be appropriate

10.  You are not anonymous. Scrub your Facebook and Twitter accounts of anything remotely asinine, tasteless, politically loaded and all things that reflect poorly (or even controversially) on your adult identity. Words you have written, snapshots and videos you have posted all become grist for the online mill, accessible to prospective employers, supervisors, subordinates and co-workers alike privacy settings notwithstanding.

“Clean up all your social media profiles from college as you start applying for jobs!” Michael Fertik, CEO and Founder of Reputation.com

Behave appropriately in real life situations as well as the digital environment. Unless you plan to live way, way off the grid (and would you be reading this if that were the case?) financial institutions, insurance companies, divorce lawyers, identity thieves, debt collectors and the U.S. government may be taking notes. People can and do remember.

11. People judge. Excise “like,” “dude,” and “you know” and the bridges “um,” “er,” and “uh” from your oral communications. Look people in the eye. Offer a firm handshake. Keep a level gaze on the face of the person you are speaking with. Unless you are an I.T. genius destined for quick riches, no neck tattoos, however artistic. Clean up and wear professional attire to job interviews. What you look like shouldn’t matter but it does. There is genuine truth in the worn, old cliché, “You only get one shot at making a first impression.”

“The success you enjoy in your career will be significantly defined by how well you present (or sell) yourself to both your superiors and contemporaries.  While effective communication skills depend on being practiced and knowledgeable about your area of expertise and responsibility, being “smart” is generally not enough.  Effective leaders are also confident, effective public speakers, and are able to work with and lead teams.  In a nutshell, you have to be able to “sell” yourself.” Daniel J. Borgia, Ph.D., Associate Dean, College of Business & Economics, University of Idaho

12. Network. Network. Network. Do it as a routine. You never know who will end up helping you get a foot in the door. In fact, jobs (particularly good ones) are far more likely to come from a connection than a job application. Know as many people as you can. Create a profile on LinkedIn (and any preferred niche social media networks for your profession). Connect with and get recommendations from people at every place you work. Connect with people you meet – even the one who passed you over for the job. Don’t opt out of system emails. Congratulate people on their work anniversaries and job changes. Your circle will quickly become nationwide, even global, as the people with whom you cross paths move on along their own paths in life.

“Think about who knows your work (non-profits, internships, students already working, etc) and about who they might know.” Konstantin Guericke, Co-Founder, LinkedIn

Live life

13. An artist’s life is often unrewarding. Those headed for the arts will have it tough. From the start you will encounter rejection and failure. You need to be thick-skinned. Accept that not every inspiration will survive or that anyone at all will share your vision. As author Neil Gaiman eloquently put it, creating, whether visual, performing, literary or otherwise, is like stuffing messages in bottles at the water’s edge and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles, open it and like what they read and put something in a new bottle that the current will return, intact, to you: appreciation, a commission, fame, money, love. Accept that you will send out a hundred (maybe a thousand) bottles for each bottle that comes back.

“For every success, you’ll get 50 rejections. It’s all about perseverance. Everyone you know will tell you it’s impossible and try to talk you out of it. You’ve got to be very headstrong and determined to make it work.” Matt Devine, Sculptor

14. Reinvent yourself. Then reinvent yourself again. Second and third and more renewals are an American birthright. We are unique in that regard. It’s OK to start again with something new.

“I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to have my entire life figured out when I was 22. Perhaps one’s 20s are always tumultuous, but I’d like to believe they would have been a tad less tumultuous if I hadn’t started them with the expectation that I should have ‘it’ all figured out by now.” Martha L. Olney, Adjunct Professor of Economics, University of California

15. The end will come much too soon for many of us. Life is not an endlessly receding future. Consider this portion of the last commencement speech by the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, Inc. In a moving speech, he told his audience of Stanford graduates, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Follow your bliss.

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