An Open Letter to This Year’s College Graduates

If I could go back to a year ago, to the moment right after I walked out of my last final, this is what I would have wanted someone to tell me…

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Girls with graduation caps

Dear Soon-To-Be Graduate, 

This is not an ending. It’s not even really a beginning. In fact, it’s not helpful to think in these terms. Endings make you sad, beginnings make you scared, and graduating from college may make you feel both of these things, but there’s something really important you should remember: 

This is only the next step in your life, the next stage in the progression of existence. 

That matters because beginnings and endings are disruptions, and truthfully, not a whole lot will change right after college. You might get a new job, a new car, new surroundings, but you’re going to be the same person through all of those changes. 

I thought graduating was going to be this huge deal and change who I was and change my outlook on life, but honestly, I didn’t change a whole lot right away. It’s like all those people who ask me on my birthday if I feel any older, and my answer is always, “no, but I feel like I should feel older.”

And let’s talk about the “should” for a second. 

“Should” is a word you should start using sparingly. (Yeah I know, I used ‘should’ in that sentence.) There is no “right” way of doing this whole rest-of-your-life thing. And there’s definitely no race you’re either winning or losing. It’s just one day after another, and no two days — or lives — are the same, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. 

There’s a small window here in the next few years where we have a lot of opportunities to try things, and fail at some things, and make some bad decisions, and make some really good decisions. But be wary that that phase doesn’t go on forever, because like it or not, the choices we make now — yes, even today — are going to shape the people we are a year, and ten years, and twenty years from now. And it’s going to go differently for every one of us.

Don’t panic! 

Most choices you’ll make on a daily basis aren’t hugely overwhelming and course-of-history-changing. Most of them are little choices like drinking more water, saving a little money, getting enough sleep, and exercising. 

If you’re really worried about the bigger choices (career! marriage! children!), I’d highly recommend reading The Defining Decade by Amy Jay. The book does a really good job of going through some of the major areas where our twenties define the rest of our lives, and how you can start making smart choices even today to make your twenties matter. 

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

For smaller everyday choices and help on the finer details of how to be a grown-up (laundry! breakfast! car maintenance!), I’d recommend the book Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown. However you feel about the term “adulting,” (Brown is credited with coining the term) the book offers actual, practical advice about how to do everything from saving money and cooking your own food to setting boundaries with your parents and impressing your boss. 

Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown

And let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment, shall we? “Adulting” isn’t a cutesy term anymore, it’s actually our entire life now. Once you leave college, the concept of adulting becomes synonymous with just existing. (But getting a little advice on the best ways to do that couldn’t hurt, right?)

I’d like to back up for a second, because everything I’ve said so far is, well, kind of terrifying. Even my own wake-up calls about the responsibilities I face on a daily basis are overwhelming, and as someone who is about to finish college (!!) I’m sure all you want to do is rejoice in the possibilities of the future. 

I support that. 

So here are some things to look forward to about adulthood: 

1. Getting your first big-kid job. 

Not as a barista, or a retail associate at your ex-fave department store (because let’s face it, once you’ve worked there it’s less fun), but a proper career job. Nothing makes you feel more adult than telling people you’ve just met that you’re not a student, actually, you work at a marketing firm (or a newspaper, or an insurance agency or bank, or…) in town now, and you think it’s really rewarding work with a lot of opportunities for growth. 

2. Paying bills. 

Yeah, you heard me right. True, having to pay bills instead of spending all your money on hilarious mugs from the internet is the kind of tragedy Shakespeare could have written, but there’s something really (REALLY) satisfying in knowing that you’re an active participant in your life. It gives you a sense of ownership over everything in your life. You’re paying for your car, paying off your education, and actually accomplishing something for your life

3. Work life. 

Kind of similar to the first one, I guess, but a little less braggy. I have really loved having a job. I love going to work every day with the same people, getting stuff done, accomplishing tasks, then getting to go home, eat food, and Netflix out for the rest of the night, wake up and repeat. Some people won’t like the semi-repetitive nature of the 9-to-5 grind, and that’s fine! Find a schedule or career you really enjoy. Your schedule is another area where you can take ownership of your life, and it feels great. 

4. The victories. 

Paying off the semi-junky-but-ever-so-trusty car you drove in college. Getting a raise. Talking to strangers successfully. Finding great clothes on clearance. Saying ‘No’ to that pair of shoes because you really want to pay off your credit card. Becoming a regular at a coffee shop that’s not the one on campus. Enjoy the little things

5. Seeing how you change. 

I know, I said you wouldn’t really change a whole lot, and that is true. I am pretty different from who I was a year ago, but that’s because a whole year has passed. Not a lot changed in those first few months, and not a lot in the next three months after that, but over the course of a year, through a whole lot of very little changes, I can say that I have changed since graduating. It just wasn’t obvious or drastic while it was happening. (Here are some more things that change as you get older, from a CF writer who has been out of college longer.)

And it’s kind of fun to see the ways that I am changing. I am actually interested in wearing pink now (a big deal if you’ve known me for any part of the last 22 years), I go every day to a coffee shop I used to scorn, and I drink grapefruit juice now. 

I’ve jokingly told people that the last few months have been my attempt at declaring war on my previous self. It’s terrifying sometimes but I’m loving discovering the new person I’m becoming. 

Want a second opinion?

Graduating college can lead to some life changes, big and small, that are both terrifying and exciting, and before I send you off to decorate your cap (find our favorite graduation cap ideas here) and frame your diploma, I have two more pieces of advice from some of my dearest friends about their experiences as a post-grad. 

My friend Madi said that the biggest thing she’s realized since graduating is that life doesn’t pan out exactly how you planned it would – and it’s totally okay when that happens. She had goals like having a salary and moving out of her parents’ house, and those just haven’t happened for her, yet. However, things are still good, just a different kind of good than she had expected. 

So when and if your plans for the future don’t pan out right away, don’t lose heart! Different doesn’t always mean bad, and you literally have the rest of your life to get to where you want to be, and even have where you want to be change a few times. 

On the subject of changing a few times, my friend Mandy said she wished she’d been told to apply for and try everything. As early post-grads, we’re starting to take serious steps in our careers, and there are a lot of possibilities. 

As Mandy articulated, 

“Nothing is above or beneath you and this is one of the few times in your whole life you can do literally anything. You can go wherever you want and be whoever you want.” 

I can attest to the value of this advice from personal experience. I got the job I have now despite feeling completely unqualified, but I sucked up my fear (and impostor syndrome) and applied anyway. And it turns out I was more qualified than I realized I was, and I would never have known if I hadn’t applied. 

Obviously it won’t turn out perfectly every time, which is why Mandy added, 

“You’ll get a lot of rejections, but you’ll know what’s out there.” 

Before I leave you…

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this letter, from remembering that this isn’t an ending or a beginning, but the next phase where things get a lot harder and a lot easier in a lot of different ways. We are “real” adults now, with lots of potential if we don’t sell ourselves short, and plenty of opportunities for our lives to turn out nothing like we’d imagined.

Here are two last bits of advice. The first is, remember that every adult, including your parents, has done this transition before, and they probably have plenty of good advice. Mindy Kaling says you should 

“Listen to no one except the two smartest and kindest adults you know, and that doesn’t always mean your parents.” 

My second bit of advice comes from Star Wars (duh). In the midst of changes and decisions, big and small, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by fear or start to lose hope in the concept of a future you’ll enjoy. So I’ll leave you with these words from our Princess and General, Leia. 

“Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” 

So good luck graduate,


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