There’s nothing like getting smacked in the face by the heavy hand of reality as soon as you stuff your cap and gown into the back of your closet. This I learned upon moving to a new city a month after graduation, needing to quickly find a job while figuring out what being “in the real world” actually meant. I know I’m not the only person who left college with a very good education and knowledge of my major, but very little practical knowledge about navigating adult life on my own.
Because I’ve yet to hear of an “Adulting 101” class being offered at any college or university, here are the things I wish I had taken the time to learn on my own while I was in college and how I am making up for lost time now.
Writing a résumé and cover letter
I was aware of the fact that I was supposed to be “building up my résumé” during those four years by participating in extracurricular activities or internships that “looked good” on my resume after college (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but that was about all I knew.
I’m embarrassed to admit how many templates I downloaded and family members I called as I struggled to create my résumé to apply for my first “real job.” Had I been a bit more organized in college, I would probably have kept a working résumé starting freshman year. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been wracking my brain to remember which semester I did that outreach project and exactly what my duties were for that work-study job.
Though you can use the Internet to aid you in learning how to write a résumé and a cover letter, spare yourself some of my pain and keep a working draft, whether you’re in college or post-college. Also, ask for help in crafting it, whether from a professional or your roommate or your mom. Your résumé is a pretty big deal—it merits a couple proofreads and edits.
The word “networking” used to leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. For some reason, I thought networking involved putting on a facade to meet people solely for their usefulness to you. I initially avoided any social events marketed as a “networking opportunity” for this reason. But, as I’ve discovered, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
Networking is just a gathering of people to meet each other, form relationships, and seek new opportunities. I eventually overcame my misconceptions about networking and started seeking out networking events. I sometimes had to shove myself out the door, but I never regretted going. I also joined the online world of networking through LinkedIn (which, in fact, landed me my first job out of college).
If you’re new to networking, start! Put yourself out there. Even though I am not currently looking for a job, I still occasionally attend different networking events. First, because it is always a smart idea to continue making connections and fostering relationships, and you never know what the future holds. Second, because networking doesn’t have to be just about professional relationships. My husband and I have made many wonderful friends while networking. We always need more friends in our “network,” right?
Refinancing student loans
Like the majority of Americans today, I left college with a diploma in one hand and a very heavy student loan in the other. According to student loan debt statistics for the graduating class of 2018, 69 percent of them took out college loans, graduating with an average debt of almost $30,000.
I had a year “grace period” where my loans did not accrue interest, and I tried to pay off as much as I could within that year, but very few people are fortunate enough to start their careers in high-paying jobs, and I was no exception. Fast forward a few years later (to a conversation with a friend who had refinanced her loans), and it eventually dawned on my husband and me how much money we could have saved if only we had refinanced our student loans ourselves. We finally looked into it and asked questions at our bank, and after some assessment and calculations we realized that it was no longer worth it for us to refinance our loans, as we were only a couple years away from finishing our loan payments.
While I generally refrain from entertaining “if only” thoughts, I still can’t help but wonder how much extra money we would have in our account if only we had asked questions, researched, and asked an accountant for help refinancing our loans directly after graduation. If it’s not too late for you, start asking yourself questions to assess if refinancing your loans would be a smart financial decision for you.
Starting a retirement plan
I’ve known that saving for retirement is important ever since I was child and my dad explained to me how my grandparents were able to just “sit around and read all day.” (That view of retirement was—and still is—my idea of heaven.) I knew that I should start saving as soon as I got my first job—and I also discovered in college that many jobs make it pretty simple by offering 401(k) plans and matching contributions to optimize savings.
But while my first job did offer an option to enroll in a retirement plan, no one offered me any assistance in figuring out how to enroll. Embarrassed and confused, I called my dad, who gave me a brief overview of the different kinds of retirement savings accounts and encouraged me to do my own research and put away some money every month.
I learned that it is generally a smart idea to be more “risky” with investments when you are young and to gradually scale back your risks and play it safer as you get older and more secure in your career. While I still have so much to learn and more decisions to make concerning my plans for retirement, I know that you are truly never too young to start thinking about retirement and researching what is best for you.
Filing yearly taxes
I think I subconsciously convinced myself that my dad was going to do my taxes for me for the rest of my life, no questions asked. And while he did help me that first tax season after college, he then gave me fair warning that I needed to start learning how to do my own taxes. I was getting married that year, and I knew we really needed to get our tax act together by then. But we didn’t.
Instead, my husband and I spent a few grueling years dreading tax season and the unavoidable barrage of marital fights it would bring. We used an online tax filing service and input our combined information to the best of our knowledge (which was never easy, considering the multiple part-time jobs I worked). And yet, each year brought with it more “filing delinquency” notices, more frustrating errors, and more tears (well, from me anyway).
Finally, this year, we decided to spend a little money to hire a tax accountant to do our taxes for us. It was invaluable to us to have a fight-free month of March, but the real reason we decided to outsource our taxes was to learn how to do them properly. Our accountant walked us through the big steps of filing our taxes, offering invaluable advice. Now we feel ready to tackle our taxes on our own next year. If you, too, missed the boat on taxes in college and are struggling, I highly recommend finding a trusted and helpful accountant or advisor to help you—at least for that first year.
I could add quite a few more items to this list of things I wish I’d understood or started learning before graduating college: budgeting, understanding credit, negotiating a salary, and selecting insurance plans, to name a few. But bemoaning my ignorance in retrospect will do absolutely nothing to make me more skilled. Now nearing the end of my twenties, I’m still making plenty of mistakes, but I can only continue to push myself to learn and seek help when needed. If you’re in the same boat, take heart—becoming a “responsible adult” isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be.