‘If I knew then what I know now’: Advice for college graduates

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If you had a time machine, would you travel into the future to see what’s in store for you 10, 20 or 30 years from now? Or would you rather travel back in time, perhaps to right after college graduation, to fix a mistake you made or take another path in life?

As college seniors get ready to graduate, they will be faced with making big decisions about their career, their finances and their personal and professional relationships. So we asked recent graduates, seasoned professionals and hiring managers to get in a virtual time machine and finish the following sentence: “If I knew then what I know now…” What would they have done differently post-graduation? How can their hindsight help the class of 2012 and beyond?

Here’s what they had to say:

I would find the right job fit
“If I only knew how important job ‘fit’ was to one’s strengths, weaknesses, values, likes, dislikes and work style, I might have gone down a different career path. I was misaligned for years in an industry that I had little interest in. It took a company layoff for me to take a step back and realize my true passion was in my current field of college career guidance. Today I tell students, ‘Don’t waste your talents or your precious life.’ I strongly suggest to college graduates to complete an interests assessment and have a good understanding of themselves before they start their career paths.” – Elizabeth Venturini, college career strategist

I would seek out a mentor
“Seek out mentors throughout your career, because guess what? No one knows everything. If you don’t have a mentor in your office, network in your industry until you find one. Building a strong career support system is key to career success — whether you are entry level or a seasoned VP.” — Jennifer Maguire Coughlin, president, Jennifer Maguire Coughlin Public Relations

I would pursue my passions
“Do what you love and trust the rewards will follow. A young friend of mine dropped out of college and decided he’d try music — or, as he put it, jump out of the airplane and hope he could stitch a parachute on the way down. He has, and five years later his music is selling and he has toured the world, getting an education he’d never have had in college. I know that a college education is important to lots of careers, but it should be a career you really want … it is better to major in something you want to learn and will love, whether there is a job in it or not. But if you love it enough, chances are you’ll find or create the job to fill your dreams.” – Walter Meyer, author of “Rounding Third”

I would think long term
“Plan your career with current and future flexibility preferences in mind. Think not only about what you’re doing right now or want to do in the short term, but about your longer-term career path and how your personal choices might affect your future family life. For example, if you want to pursue a career in law but are looking for some flexible options when it comes to work, there are specialties that lend themselves to that … I can say with confidence that an initial focus on integrating the two will result in much smarter long-term choices and comfort.” – Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO, national flexible staffing firm Mom Corps

I would start planning early and use my college career center
“I graduated from the University of Georgia in December 2005 and have been working and not working for the past seven years since graduation. If I only knew [then] what I know now, I would have used my college’s career center much more effectively and begun my job hunt [earlier]. I also would have made the effort to have more internships in my desired field and created a stream of income for myself to offset the challenge of finding a job.” – Eboné Smiley, independent stylist, jewelry company Stella & Dot

I would be more cognizant of college expenses
“I would have been much more diligent in trying to reduce my college expenses. College wasn’t as expensive back then as it is now, but it was still a major financial burden. Rather than trying to minimize expenses before I graduated, I found myself on graduation day with more debt than I should have. I likely qualified for several scholarships and grants, but I never fully investigated the topic. I rarely worked a part-time job or paid internship during school, although I could have fit it into my schedule. I did work hard on my schoolwork, but I could have done more to ease the debt I graduated with.” – Andrew Schrage, co-owner, Money Crashers Personal Finance

I would make every room a classroom
“I would have better understood the value of strategic networking and making every room I enter a classroom. Earlier in our career, it is difficult to understand how every relationship we develop matters. So we may not stay in touch or communicate well with those in our circle of influence. But these relationships can prove quite valuable in our professions as our careers evolve. It’s important to cultivate our relationships — both personal and professional. It’s equally important to understand that every task is meaningful. If you’re an unpaid intern, a work-study student or an entry-level seasonal employee at a retail store, you have ample room to learn and grow from every assignment.

“Filing documents offers the opportunity to learn to be organized and learn about a company or department. Delivering mail offers the opportunity to network. Answering phones offers the opportunity to sharpen your verbal communication skills and, sometimes, ability to troubleshoot customer issues. Every room, every space we enter is a classroom, and later we are often given ‘pop quizzes’ at unexpected times within our career.” – Uva Coles, dean of career management services, Peirce College in Philadelphia

  1. If I had a time machine, I’d pick Princeton instead of Yale. I don’t know how much good that would do now, though, since by now, 2012, both Princetonians and Yalies are having the same difficulties finding jobs if they’re not “connected” “legacies” whose parents own some multi-million dollar business that they were destined to inherit anyway, and the Princeton or Yale degree was just a mere formality…I don’t know if it’s what I majored in or where I went to school that was the problem, maybe it was the places I chose to try to go and look for jobs so I don’t know how much good a time machine would even do. Sometimes I think I’d take the time machine back to 1969 and make sure I was never born in the first place; that might help.

  2. Good article, Debra!  I don’t think many young people realize how much the advice of a caring mentor could impact their life for the better.  Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

  3. I am 43 years old Graduated highschool in 1987.  I remember laying in the sun on our pool deck. Having just graduated when my dad came outside and said you have three weeks to decide what your gonna do as far as going to school. You can sit by the pool and relax everyday but, in that time you better decide what your doing .  My father was a perchasing agent . He wanted me to go to college. I was not college material.  He had been at his job many years.  His job was very stressful.I would hear him  get sick every morning and he was always depressed . I decided I was going to do something I enjoyed doing. I told him I wanted to do hair and work in a hair salon.  He agreed with me.   So  I  have now been working in the same salon all these years. I have no regrets. I do something that I love doing everyday . Let me tell you something.  Seeing my father go through the hell he went through all those years made me realize that no amount of money  can ever replace how happy you are doing your job . I also am now a home health nurse aide and work in a hairsalon.   The economy has changed but, I’d rather make less and be happy.

  4. be glade if your diploma get’s you a pat on the back and someone tell’s you good job you gave it the old college try come back when there are jobs to be had? until then go to nearest dinner show your sheep skin an get a cup of joe on the house!

  5. “Do what you love and trust the rewards will follow.”  NO!!!  The example given is “A young friend of mine dropped out of college and decided he’d try music” and became successful.  Do you know how seldom that kind of success occurs?   It requires tremendous luck or connections.  Those who have a good chance in music practice 4-6 hours per day from age 6-18 to get in a good conservatory.  Too many of them can’t make a living from it.  The same is true of those majoring in the other fine arts, psychology, philosophy, creative writing and other majors where there are far more graduates than jobs.  Find something you love that makes money and then major in it.  If you can love it, math-involved majors are where you should go: the physical sciences, engineering, math, accounting, business administration, etc.  My first piano teacher knew he couldn’t make a living from music so he majored in electrical engineering, found a company that offered a pension with health insurance after 20 years, then went full-time into music knowing he had a financial crutch.  For many musicians and artists, an alternative is going into education – and you still need to be near the top of your class to get a job.  For me, it was chemistry or art.  My father was an artist and I saw how artists struggled: I chose chemistry and NEVER regretted it.  I retired at 56, began studying piano, and am currently in the adult program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.  I’m thinking of adding creative writing or art in the future.  I was envious of very wealthy friends in college who could major in what they loved without worrying about whether they’d ever make money from it.  When I retired I was finally in the same situation and, if family history is a guide, I should have at least 30 years to enjoy doing it because my chemistry career made it doable in retirement.  That works for me!

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