ollege, as we typically imagine it, is exciting. It is, perhaps for the first time in our lives, an opportunity to be and become exactly what we dream we can be. We picture it as a plunge into the future. A fresh start. A new adventure. And yet, for those in the midst of their postsecondary education, college can feel less like being propelled forward and more like being pushed in so many directions that you’re ultimately stuck standing in place.

Caught somewhere between the dependence of adolescence and the autonomy of adulthood -- not to mention between classes, study sessions, internships, friendships, relationships, personal growth, passion projects, nostalgia for simpler times, and trying to plan for the future -- the liminality of the college experience can leave you wondering when, if ever, things will improve.

In many ways, life after college is simpler than cramming for midterms and obsessively checking to see if your professors have updated grades, but it comes with its own share of challenges as well. Fear not -- we’re breaking down what to expect after college and how to live your best post-graduate life.

Here’s a sneak peak at what we’ll be covering:

  • Reconciling expectations and reality
  • Pros + cons of life after college
  • Defining and achieving a “better” life
movers unloading boxes as the parents of a college graduate watch, smiling
College graduates face countless culture changes all at once. From launching a career to finding an affordable living situation (cough, moving back home?) -- it’s a lot, and life after graduation might not look the way you thought it would.

Life After College: Expectation vs. Reality

Coming to Terms with the Reality of “The Real World”

College is its own strange reality. For most full-time students, their academic institution shapes virtually every facet of their daily life: where they live, what they eat, who their friends are (shoutout to all the random roomies out there), when they go to class, and what they do for fun. School organizations, campus politics, and networking within your department create something of a collegiate culture bubble… a bubble which pops as soon as you hit graduation.

Leaving college behind, one thing is absolutely certain: life is going to change. It may be dramatic -- much like entering college, we tend to think of graduating as a new beginning, another leap into the great unknown, and for many people it is. But for countless others, graduation might not be their “where my life begins” moment.

The “real world” beyond college campuses looks a little bit different for everyone. With so much changing at once, life after graduation can be hard to plan for, and things may not look the way you thought they would (especially at first).

Plagued by unprecedented economic challenges --  millennials currently face their third “once in a lifetime” recession (not to mention the challenges staring down Gen Z) -- this generation of graduates is struggling to achieve the milestones of maturity that previous generations took for granted.

A few decades ago, a college degree all but guaranteed your material comfort for the rest of your adult life. Today, graduates struggle to land secure jobs with adequate benefits and to cope with increased debt and limited mobility. Financial challenges like these can make it difficult to achieve stability, let alone to set aside enough money for investments or big purchases like homes and weddings.

Adulting = Adapting

As college comes to a close, graduating students must face a variety of choices and challenges that being in school had previously staved off. Where do you live when you can live anywhere you want? What will you do with your time, or to make money? Student debt looks a lot different on paper when you’re a 17-year-old high school student than it does when you actually have to start paying it back.

Maybe you move back in with your parents, land a killer job (or spend months on the job hunt), meet someone great, date around, move across the country, reinvent yourself.

Beyond the grounds of your college campus, the possibilities are endless, but pursuing any of them relies on what is perhaps the most essential skill in all of adult life: adaptability. The willingness to adjust expectations and forge new paths forward. The ability to accept things that are out of your control, and keep going.

a woman reading a newspaper
Are you ready for life after college? Be prepared for the ups and downs, and you’re going to thrive.

Pros + Cons of Life After College

What to Expect When You Leave Academia Behind

If the tumult of graduation has left you feeling bewildered, you’re not alone. There’s good and bad tied up in every stage of life, and life after college is no different. Here’s how to make the best of your post-grad opportunities and deal with some of the biggest challenges adulting has to throw at you.

Con: The Case of the Mysterious, Shrinking Friend Group

Trying to make some new friends? College is a great place to be -- after all, you get thrown in with dozens of new students every time you sign up for a class. Clubs and activities where you can meet peers with similar interests are easy to find. After graduation? Not so much.

On top of having less consistent opportunities to meet new people after graduation, maintaining college friendships is no easy task. No matter how tightly knit your friend group is before graduation, it’s hard to stay close with people as they scatter across the country (or even the globe).

How to deal:

  • Know when to let go. Lifelong friends are amazing, but they’re also very rare. Not everyone in your life is destined to be there forever. As we evolve, we naturally grow towards new people, interests, and experiences and away from others. Your time and energy are finite resources, so it’s important to know what (and who) to focus on and when it’s time to move on.
  • Bloom where you’re planted. Got a new job? Spending some of your post-graduation free time at the library? Want to get back into painting? Wherever your interests take you after graduation, try to build relationships with the people who are already in your orbit, whether that means starting an office happy hour or joining a reading group.
  • Keep in touch with friends and family. It’s definitely harder to maintain relationships with people you don’t see every day, but it’s by no means impossible! Schedule time for monthly Zoom or Facetime chats with the people who are important to you no matter where you all are located, or find other creative ways to keep in touch and show them that you care.

Pro: A Little Stability Goes a Long Way

Moving sucks, especially when you have to do it twice a year for your entire undergraduate career. That’s a lot of packing and unpacking, friends. It’s hard to feel at home when you know everything you own is just going to get thrown back into boxes in a few months, and dealing with a rotating cast of roommates, suitemates, and flatmates is exhausting. It’s no wonder moving too often can wreak havoc on our mental health.

Words of advice:

  • Settle in. After graduation, you have a real opportunity to create a home base for yourself. Whether you’re a homebody or a restless spirit, having your own space to return to at the end of a long day is a good feeling. So enjoy it! Settle in. Spread out. Really make it your own.
  • Build a life. There’s more to “home” than adding personal flair to your living space. Get to know the city you’ve landed in, even if it’s where you grew up. Check out local shops. Explore the food or music scene. Meet new people. Build relationships. Even if you relocate a couple of years down the line, immersing yourself in local life will help you get the most out of where you are right now.

Con: Adult Responsibilities

Calling to make your own dentist appointments is just the beginning. Being responsible for your own household (even if that household is just you) is stressful simply because there’s so much that goes into it, and the cost of screwing up is so high.

It’s not just going to work -- it’s avoiding the temptation to scroll through TikToks until 3am, getting enough sleep, putting on appropriate workplace attire, making sure there’s gas in the tank, dealing with traffic, and navigating office politics, too. Plus rent. Groceries. Car payments. Friendships. Family. Relationships. Self care. Student loans.

Adulting is a full-time job.

How to deal:

  • Get on a schedule. Routine doesn’t have to be boring -- it can also be a way of making sure your responsibilities don’t fall through the cracks and you can still fit the things you care about into your day. Setting a schedule for yourself helps alleviate stress, making adulting a little easier overall.
  • Automate anything you can. As an adult, you have a lot of balls in the air at all times. Automating simple but necessary tasks -- whether that’s bills, appointments, or anything else -- leaves you with a little extra brain space to spend on actually living and enjoying your life.
  • Blow off steam. Our brains are built to process a ton of information, but perhaps not the constant inundation we get from modern life (looking at you, social media and 24-hour news). Everyone needs to decompress sometimes. Whether that means hitting the gym, unplugging, or video chatting with friends, be sure to make some time for yourself.

Pro: Be Your Own Boss

“When you pay the bills, you’ll make the rules.” -- Everyone’s disgruntled parents at some point or another

Having the freedom to make your own choices isn’t always a bad, overwhelming adulting thing. As a newly minted graduate, you also have a lot more control over what your life looks like. In college, you were able to choose what degree to pursue and what classes to take, but as an adult, you get to choose your job, what your home looks like, the car you drive, the color of your hair -- all of the things you’ve dreamed about picking out since you were a kid.

Words of advice:

  • Balance instant and long-term gratification. We’re always warned against the dangers of instant gratification, and there’s a reason for that -- living exclusively in the right now does make it hard to build your future. But that doesn’t mean your eyes always have to be on the prize, either. Life is about balance, and its important to treat yo’self every now and then.
  • You will always be a kid at heart. Just because you graduated college, got a job, turned 25, 30, 50, or 100 doesn’t mean you’re no longer a kid. Let what makes you happy make you happy -- and don’t take things (least of all yourself!) too seriously to have fun.

Con: You’re a Freshman... Again 😒

Being a recent college graduate is kind of like being a freshman in the adult world. The biggest difference is that instead of dealing with people two or three years older than you, you’re dealing with people two or three generations older than you. Both personally and professionally, that always causes a disconnect. At best, this can be annoying; at worst, it can result in generational gatekeeping that makes getting started out a genuinely difficult process.

How to deal:

  • Go all in. Remember freshman year, when everything was exciting? When you joined a million clubs, signed up for too many classes, tried to cram every social event into your calendar? Maybe you were a bit overbooked, but it certainly was a great introduction to college life. Now’s your chance to do it again. Get out there and find the people, places, and things that reflect who you want to be. Experiment. Figure out who you want to be as a bona fide adult, and then become that person.
  • Find a mentor. Whether you’re a beginner at baking, playing Fortnite, or being an adult, finding someone with more experience under their belt is a great way to navigate new and unfamiliar situations. Find someone (or several someones) you can bounce ideas off of, whether that means a parents, professors, friends, forums, or colleagues.
  • Be a mentor. As you get your footing, don’t forget to help graduates coming up after you. Not only is it a good deed, it also helps you continue to grow and understand the ever-shifting landscape of The Real World.

Pro:  Opportunities, Opportunities… and Did We Mention Opportunities?

Yes, there are lots of opportunities tailor-made for college students -- all you have to do is email an advisor or check the bulletin board in the student center to come back with a whole list of them. Finding opportunities after graduation usually requires a bit more legwork, but there plenty, and without classes and homework weighing you down, you take advantage of them like never before.

Whether you’re looking for internships, jobs, a little student debt relief, a shot at true love, or chances to make it big doing something you’re passionate about, opportunities are out there. All you have to do is find them.

Words of Advice:

  • Be savvy. Stay in the loop. Network, set up Google search alerts, always be looking for your next step. Finding the opportunities that will be meaningful in your life takes work, but it is worth it.
  • Don’t let life pass you by. Sometimes you have to take a few opportunities before you land the right one. Many recent grads don’t have obligations that will prevent them from exploring and capitalizing on opportunities that are available to them, so why not go for it?
  • Do know when to work + when to rest. There’s a difference between doing nothing and resting. Don’t burn yourself out trying to take every opportunity that presents itself, but also don’t be afraid to push yourself to try and achieve new things.
two happy recent college graduates
Life after graduation has its pros and cons, but you can make it “better” anytime you choose to.

The Philosophy of Happiness

How to Live the Good Life No Matter Where You Are in Life

Here’s the deal: Go to college, choose a degree. Study your butt off. Get good grades, land some internships, apply for jobs. Graduate. Now, your life can truly begin. Sound familiar?

Graduation is certainly a huge milestone and opens up possibilities you may not have otherwise, but it is not the end all be all of having a happy or successful life. Whether you’re a college student or a recent grad, whether you dropped out, skipped college entirely, or graduated a long time ago, there’s no reason not to strive for the life you want right now.

You can start living your best life whenever you want.

We as humans have debated what it means to live a good life for millennia. If, as a recent graduate, you want to take the academic approach, countless philosophers have postulated theories on the subject. But for the layperson, perhaps the best place to start is simply asking yourself this: what do you need in order to be satisfied?

Answer in a single word if possible. There’s no right or wrong answer, but from that most basic response, you can start to flesh out what it is you want to achieve with your life. And better yet, you can figure out what you can do to reach towards those goals today.

college graduate in a cap, gown, and sunglasses stands at the intersection of two sidewalks on the campus green
After college, life looks very different from life on campus, but there are plenty of opportunities to make life better, no matter what that means to you.

Life after college is many things -- exciting, intimidating. But above all else, it’s yours. No matter what you choose to do with your time after the dorm rooms have been cleared out and graduation gowns tucked away in attics or the backs of closets, do it the best you can. Good luck :)

Nov 13, 2020