It happens almost overnight: You pack up your cap and gown, move to a new city, pay your first utility bill… and get asked on a real date.
So, now what? Dating in the real world is different than it is in college, so you probably have a ton of questions. What’s the new hook-up etiquette? Where can you meet new people? Do people actually use online dating sites?
The new scene can be hard to navigate, so we’ve put together an all-inclusive guide for everything you need to know about dating after college, from one-night stands to long-term relationships. Check out our list of dos and don’ts!
Do date outside of your comfort zone
The real world is a great place to explore different kinds of people and personalities. Instead of ignoring those who don’t fit your mold when you’re out at a bar, say yes to a date with someone who might even be the opposite of what you think you’re looking for.
“I always tell people to be open,” says Marla Martenson, author of Diary of a Beverly Hills Matchmaker. “Try going out with [people] who you don’t think [are] your type… like someone who’s shorter than you.”
You never know what could happen—Martenson says that chemistry isn’t something you can gauge just by looking at someone.
At the very least, you may learn something new about yourself and what you like. You might think you like the funny, life-of-the-party sort of guy, but end up having a great time with someone who’s more on the quiet side.
“Many happily coupled people find themselves with amazing partners in packages different from the vision they held when single,” says Jasbina Ahluwalia, founder and president of matchmaking site Intersections Match.
Don’t be afraid of age differences (but do be conscious of your lifestyle differences)
Other than your cute econ TA (who was totally not an option anyway), you were probably used to dating guys or gals around your age in college. After graduation, however, you’ll meet some people who seem old enough to be your parents, but still want to date you anyway.
The bonus? They’re probably a lot more mature and serious about their lives, futures and careers. This could also mean that your priorities are in different places—are they looking to settle, when you’re looking for a more casual dating relationship?
Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant, also points out that it could also be the opposite situation.
“Why is [he or she] not dating somebody with a similar life experience?” Smith asks. “Is [he or she] very immature? Is [he or she] unable to commit? After dating you for five years will [he or she] trade you in for a younger model?”
While it’s good to have these questions in mind, don’t let them define your relationship—regardless of age, every relationship should be based on love, honesty, loyalty and whatever else your ideals and values are.
Don’t date coworkers (if you can avoid it)
Just like you can get a reputation on a college campus, you can also get one at your job, Smith warns. And when it happens, “it might not be as humorous out in the professional world,” where you’ll have to live with it for the next 30 years instead of just four.
People think they’re good at keeping office relationships discreet, but it’s much harder than they realize, Smith says. Before you know it, “you’ve become the star in the office soap opera,” she says.
And if things don’t work out with your coworker, you will have to see that person every single day at the office, which could be upsetting, embarrassing and distracting.
Of course, you can’t help whom you like—if you do find yourself falling for someone in your office and are determined to make it work, take it very slow, Smith says. You should already know this person very well (Smith recommends one year as a general rule).
Do figure out what you want
Dating can be like interviewing—you want to make a good first impression, but you also want to ask your own questions and make sure that person is a good fit for you so you know when to say yes to a second date and when to say no.
When starting out, Martenson suggests to focus on your deal-breakers first, then go from there. Martenson always knew that she didn’t want children and that she wanted to live in Los Angeles, so she ruled anyone out who wouldn’t jive with her on those points.
It’s important to differentiate between your “must-haves” and your “nice-to-haves,” Ahluwalia says.
“If one of your values is spending quality time with your parents, then a must-have would be his acceptance and appreciation of your desire to spend quality time with your parents. A non-essential nice-to-have may be his being close with his own parents,” Ahluwalia says. “Being as flexible as possible with respect to your nice-to-haves optimizes the chances of finding a guy who meets your must-haves.”
Do get creative
In college, you were surrounded by fellow students. You may have taken for granted that this meant that everyone you met had a few qualities in common with you, like age and education, and perhaps even things like majors, extracurricular activities and more. In the real world, you may have to go out of your way to find potential dates who have interests in common with you.
“I have played in some coed sports leagues, and there are always cute guys,” says Sabrina*, who graduated college a few years ago. She says she has enjoyed meeting people on her soccer team who are also athletic and outgoing.
Going out to bars with your friends is the most obvious way to meet new people, so get out of your comfort zone and make an effort to talk to more people than just the ones you’re out with. You might be surprised how many people are also out to meet others (and not just looking for a one-night stand) if you give them a chance!
Or, if you’re a regular at your local coffee shop, pay attention to the people who are also there frequently; they’re probably from the same area, so getting to know them will instantly open up your network of people in your neighborhood.
Many colleges also offer alumni meet-ups in cities across the nation. Having the same alma mater gives you an instant connection and a great place to start a conversation.
It’s never a good idea to play the stereotypical dating games—and in the real world, it’ll get you even further from where you want to be. Instead, get real about your relationships and keep it straightforward and honest—you could be meeting “The One,” so you don’t want to start the relationship off in the wrong way! Don’t pretend you don’t care when you really do, and definitely don’t wait days before responding to a text, especially if you’re interested in someone. When you revert to these tactics, more likely than not the other person will lose interest, write you off as being immature or not understand what you’re trying to accomplish, period.
Don’t get too drunk
Know what your limits are—there’s no better way to put a damper on a first date than to have your date escort you home… all the way across town (you’re not just heading to the next dorm building on campus anymore!). Additionally, spending time with someone who’s essentially a stranger already comes with its own risks; you don’t want to impair your judgment.
“The dangers you see on campus are the same in the real world,” Smith says. “If you had a terrible day and you want to get rip-roaring drunk, do it with you friends.”
As for a night out with a new date? Even with all safety considerations aside, you should be taking the time to get to know your date and vice versa; you don’t want to be remembered as the one who passed out mid-date.
Do use the Internet
Let’s admit it—we’ve all Facebook-stalked potential suitors. After college, there’s nothing wrong with using the Internet to check out new guys (it is the digital age after all, right?). Of course, there are the traditional dating sites, like Match.com and OkCupid (which is free!). But don’t stop there—apps like Tinder, Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel make it even easier to meet new people.
Tinder is connected to your Facebook account, and the app pulls your name, age and a few photos to create your profile. The app will bring up profiles of people who are close to your current location. Then, you can go through each profile and decide if you want to swipe right, which means you like what you see, or swipe left, rejecting him or her. If the other person also swipes right for you, it’s a match, and you’ll be able to message each other.
Hinge matches you with 15 people a day who are already in your extended social circle, based on your Facebook network: They might be friends or friends of friends. This gives you a more select pool of potential dates, complete with information about where they went to school and where they work.
The premise around Coffee Meets Bagel is that you’re not committing to a serious date, but rather just a casual meet-up for coffee. You’re matched with one person a day, also based on your mutual friends, and you have the chance to “like” or “pass” on that person. If you both like each other, you have the option to chat.
“I got matched with my boyfriend on both Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel,” says Keira*, who graduated in 2012 and lives in New York City. “We’ve been dating for a few months now.”
The hook-up culture of college does not magically end after you graduate. There will still be people who have only sex on their minds who are not looking for long-lasting relationships. Don’t feel like you have to do the same, even if it’s with someone you think you really like. And if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s totally fine—but be sure that you’re being safe and using protection.
If someone is pressuring you to do something you’re not comfortable with, don’t be afraid to stay firm in your answer. You may need to have a serious conversation with your date, and if you’re not being taken seriously or your concerns are being brushed off, it’s time to move on—no matter how much you like this person.
Whether you have a date lined up or not, you’ll be ready to take on dating in the real world. You might just find that meeting people is a lot easier than you think—and a lot more fun than campus-dining-hall dates of years past!
*Names have been changed.