For many college students, graduation begins a harsh reality that school has not prepared them for.
That's perhaps not as true for professions where a degree qualifies you for a specific job. If you come out of college a teacher, an engineer, or something else of that ilk, you may be spared some of this misery. For people with liberal arts degrees, or other less job-linked degrees, the transition can be difficult.
Certainly, in the 20-plus years since I sat in a college classroom, some schools have gotten better about real-world preparation. Many, however, continue to focus on academics without helping students focus much on what happens next. Whether you are graduating this year or still have some time to go before earning your degree, this is the advice I wish someone had shared with me during and immediately after college.
Try to gain real skills
In many cases, college teaches you a lot of things that have absolutely zero real world applications. Even if you study something specific, like journalism or marketing, it's very important to gain skills that go beyond classroom application. Very few people who make hiring decisions are impressed by in-class work -- they want to see that you can actually apply what you learned in a job.
While still in school, find ways to gain plausible experience. Even if you handle marketing for an on-campus concert or do sales for the school radio station, those are real things you can talk about during interviews and put on your resume. Get internships in your field during or after college where even if you mostly make coffee and do grunt work, you can experience what work actually looks like.
College is not all that important
It's important to pass your classes and graduate, but unless you plan on going to graduate school, having a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) won't have much impact on your future. Again, that's not true for fields linked to jobs. In those cases, recruiters for your first position may well use your GPA, but after that first job, it will be your work performance -- not your grades -- that matters.
I'm not saying to blow off class or not care about your grades. What I wish I had been told though is that seizing opportunity and experiencing everything you can mean more than studying more (though I mostly figured this one out myself). Go to on-campus lectures, be involved in student life, intern, travel, and take advantage of the full college experience, not just the academic one.
Be willing to move
During my freshman year, I passed up the chance to go on a cross-country trip with now-well-known historian Douglas Brinkley. That journey later became a book, and it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity that I was a fool to pass up. At the time, I wish someone had sat me down and tried to make me see what I was giving up in order to maintain my comfortable life on campus.
The same lesson would have been useful post-college where I did not pursue an opportunity that would have allowed me to travel the country all-expenses paid (and with a nice stipend at the end). At roughly the same time, I also chose to not pursue a two-year training program in another city that would have been invaluable in kick-starting my career.
It's easy to get comfortable where you are (in college and after), but try not to let that influence your decisions. Once you have obligations like a spouse or a child, moving and travel become much harder. While you have the freedom, seize the opportunity.
Life is about relationships
The old saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know" might be the most important piece of advice that rarely gets shared with college students. If you're not lucky enough to have a well-connected family, it's important to use college and the time after college to make connections. Don't be shy in asking for help getting your career off the ground, as the worst someone can say is no.
Internships can build contacts, so can taking advantage of on-campus recruiting events. It's also OK to lean on personal relationships -- a friend of a family friend or a relative's former co-workers -- as long as you are polite and not too demanding.
Most people like to be heroes. They may not be willing to do too much work on your behalf, but if something comes up, they will gladly offer your name. Sometimes the difference between a warm introduction made by an acquaintance and a cold call is enough to land you the job.
And, even after you score your first post-college success, it's important to maintain your connections. Be organized, keep in touch, and be ready to return the favor if you can ever help someone in your network.