Graduating is a weird experience. Everything is a sprint: finishing (or starting) papers, studying for exams, and fitting in goodbyes with friends. It’s all over in a whirlwind and then you’re just left standing there, wondering what’s next.
So, what do you do after college, exactly? That’s just what we’re here to cover.
Move home to center yourself
First, it’s usually wise to move back home with your parents to put yourself in a calm, familiar environment. Continuing to live on your own means paying for all of your rent and utilities alone—quite possibly without a job to fund that lifestyle and without roommates to cut down the cost of living.
And guess what? It could take you 7.4 months to find your first job. Many grads just can’t find a job after college for legitimate reasons, so you need a place to regroup and formulate a plan.
Don’t pile up your debts any further than necessary. Move back home where rent is free (or cheap). Your home could provide a strong support network too, which is important when you haven’t had a chance to develop a professional network yet.
A lot of people fall into the retail trap where they find a survival job, usually paying minimum wage, and then never having the time or energy to apply elsewhere because that job consumes their daylight hours. Everyone takes survival jobs, but you may not need one as badly if you move home first.
That’s why living at home after college makes a lot of sense, emotionally and financially.
Pro Tip: Don’t underestimate the power of a support network. I found my first job through a friend who tipped me off about the opportunity., even though he was applying too (the place was hiring multiple writers).
Sort out finances after graduation
That brings us to our next point: money. Building your career is the most reliable way to earn money, but you need a strategy to stay afloat until you find a job.
Most money earned from an average entry-level salary after college goes toward the cost of living. If (like most graduates) you don’t have a job yet, then you can’t really afford to live independently yet.
That’s okay—almost everyone goes through this phase. It’s part and parcel of the transition out of college.
Use these tactics to cut down your cost of living:
- Live rent-free at home, if possible.
- Rent a cheap place with roommates if you can’t move back home.
- Try sharing a vehicle if possible.
- If you need to buy a car, don’t go for the cheapest on the market—they need a ton of expensive repairs.
- Outline the costs needed to pay for career necessities, like a professional headshot and a professional outfit for interviews.
There’s also any student debt you need to pay down. With the average student debt after college can range from $25,000 – $40,000 USD, you may have even more reason to keep your costs low for the foreseeable future.
This data comes directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 Consumer Expenditure report for Americans under the age of 2, but unfortunately it doesn’t contain figures for student loan figures.
Find cheap living arrangements
Paying for a residence is the single biggest cost in anyone’s budget by a long stretch. If you can cut down that cost or even cut it out entirely then you’ll be miles ahead of many others on a financial level.
Here’s how to do that:
- Move home if possible..
- Hunt for roommate listings on Kijiji or other local classifieds.
- Find a place and put out free ads yourself in local classifieds.
- Hunt for a place near transit hubs to avoid needing a car.
- Look for places in the cheap end of town if it’s not too far from stores and bus stops.
Looking in local papers and classifieds are usually the best way to go, but you might also save some time by finding cheap rentals on sites like Zumper (or Dwelly, in Canada).
Create a student loan repayment plan
There’s no silver bullet to pay off your student debt, but it’s not complicated, either: pay off as much as you can as fast as you can. Do not just pay the minimum amount if you’re in a position to do so.
This is a chart showing how my savings out of college reached $40,000 by my fifth year after graduation compared to those who just make minimum payments.
See the difference? You can pay down your principal loan amount twice as fast if you pay it back aggressively. That’s a simple illustration (using real-life data) to show that you can free yourself from debt if you’re disciplined with your money.
This is essentially an exercise in creating a savings plan. The savings go toward paying off your debt and reducing the effects of compound interest on your debt. The best part is that once you’ve paid down your debt, you now have a ready-made savings strategy that you can put toward investments, property, or even just nice things for yourself.
Of course, you need a paying job to make that work, which brings us to the next point.
Prepare for your first career moves
Some degrees are designed for specific jobs, and some aren’t. Engineers, social workers, and nurses know what they’re going to be doing after college—but many of us are just scooted out the door and left asking, “what should I do after college?”
Don’t fret if you earned a humanities degree and don’t know what you want to do yet. That comes with a mix of trial, error, and reflection. It’s totally natural because most disciplines aren’t about following a specific career path.
I created a 7-step roadmap on how to get a job for recent graduates, but before following it you should think about the industries in which you want to work.
Get some outside perspective on the kind of work that would be a good fit for you:
- What are your strengths and skills?
- What are your weakest skills?
- What drives you internally?
- What do you hate doing?
Answering those questions will narrow the focus for your first job search. That’s something most people skip, but it’s incredibly important for a few reasons:
- People in your network won’t know how to help you if you’re pursuing “any kind of job.”
- Your connections might not feel comfortable recommending you to their peers if you’re desperate (but unqualified for) anything.
- Hiring managers may interpret your job search as disingenuous if you have no vision, purpose, or direction.
Make a list of the top 4-5 industries in which you’d like to work. Then you’ll be ready to learn how to find a job after college.
Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the entire process.
Update your resume and LinkedIn profile
With your direction calibrated, it’s time to update your resume and LinkedIn profile. You’ll revisit these a few times throughout the process as you gain new work experience, so don’t stress over making them perfect. However, they are some of the most important things in your job-searching toolbox.
You’ll find hundreds of articles about “secrets” to writing the perfect resume, but most of them lack substance.
Here’s the key: quantify your experience.
That’s it. That’s what matters most. A nice resume design can help, but no amount of design will save a poorly written, bland resume from the rejection pile. That’s what a resume should look like after college.
How do you “quantify” your experience? Great question. Here are the answers:
- Frame everything with a number. “Taught students” isn’t as impressive as “Taught 120 students over three semesters.”
- Make your successes measurable. Instead of “Wrote content for the company website,” I’d include “Produced 200 pages of content for the website, totalling 170,000 words.”
- Connect your work to the business’ success. Instead of “Managed various clients,” I’d say “Managed client relationships worth $370,000 in annual revenue.”
It’s a huge difference, right?
Putting a number on your experience allows the hiring manager to assess your performance, and it shows that you’re attuned to the business itself. That alone should put you a head above other job seekers.
You’ll be halfway finished creating an all-star LinkedIn profile with this strategy, too (read our guide on completing the rest of it!).
Use your school’s career services
What do you do after college without a network or experience? Getting professional advice is usually one of the best places to start. Every post-secondary institution has a career services department that you can use.
In fact, my girlfriend’s father heads up Career Services at a small liberal arts university, and he says exactly what you’d expect: not nearly enough students take advantage of them. Most people don’t realize the importance of career counselling for students.
A career counsellor can help you in plenty of ways, including the nitty-gritty stuff like this:
- Formatting your resume.
- Connecting with recruiters.
- Finding the best networking opportunities.
- Finding employers who take on recent graduates.
- Finding internships after college (if you can’t find other avenues for experience).
- Interviewing tips.
Give it a try before you leave campus forever. Counsellors usually have some solid advice to give, even if it’s just how to get started on the fundamentals of your job search.
Start building real work experience
Building real work experience is the hurdle that most recent graduates struggle to clear, and for good reason. They can’t get experience without jobs, and they can’t get jobs without experience.
Don’t even get me started on entry-level job postings that ask for “1-3 years of experience.” Barf.
It sucks, but that’s the harsh reality of the job market these days. There’s a way to improve your odds of employment drastically, though: you can find real work experience.
Sounds crazy, right? I just talked about the catch-22 surrounding work and experience, but there is a way around it.
The answer is to create your own work experience, then use that to beef up your resume, LinkedIn profile, and to build a portfolio out of it (and maybe even a portfolio website, if you really want the best jobs after college).
You can do that by proposing limited work projects to organizations that need the help yet lack the resources to hire a more established professional (even if they just haven’t had the time).
Check out these organizations in your area for this exercise:
- Local non-profits and charity organizations
- Heritage preservation associations
- Consultants and sole proprietors
- Law firms
- Local newspapers or news sites
Make networking part of your weekly routine
Networking is a key part of advancing your career, which makes it all the more difficult and frustrating when people tell that to you right after graduating college—because recent grads don’t have networks yet.
I know I sure didn’t.
Networking is kind of like planting a tree: the best time to start was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is now.
So how do you start to build your network?
- Start with 20 people in your circle of friends and family.
- Ask your career counsellor about companies that hire new grads.
- Find networking events in your city (virtual ones especially).
- Introduce yourself to incubators.
- Connect with business improvement associations (BIAs).
- Get in touch with campus innovation centers.
- Talk to recruiters. Seriously.
- Go to job fairs and speak with recruiters, even if you don’t hand them your resume.
Most importantly of all: do something thoughtful, helpful, or informative for your network. Successful networking comes down to two things:
- Helping people generously.
- Exercising patience for the goodwill to circle back to you.
Networking is a long game, and the earliest results may not come back to you for 3-4 months, if not longer—so don’t do it in fits and spurts. Side aside some time and energy to network consistently alongside your other career-building efforts.
What should you do after college, though?
Everything in this article is about following a process to set you up for success in whatever you choose to do.
I’m not going to say “just travel” after graduating because it’s obtuse. Most grads don’t even have the money to rent a decent apartment, let alone travelling around the world.
So… after college, what next?
Here are some quick ideas to get your thoughts flowing:
- Teaching English abroad
- Earning a professional certification
- Building a portfolio website
- Starting a freelance business
- Volunteering with a local non-profit
- Find an internship
- Start a small business with a friend you trust and see where it goes.
Quick ideas aren’t usually the best ones, though. It pays to formulate a working career strategy to get yourself hired and on a salary sooner than later.
At the end of the day, remember to pick a direction and then follow this process methodically. Network actively to increase the number of people who know about you and your budding talents. You’ll find your big break sooner than you think.
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