5 Ways to Successfully Transition From Surviving College to Surviving the 'Real World'

Graduating from college is one of the most exciting things you may do before you officially join the “real world.” You’ve checked off every item on your senior bucket list, you’ve made the grades, and now it’s time to finally be on your own. 

But what does it really mean to go from being in school to not being there? How should you navigate life now that you don’t have someone dictating what you need to do to reach the next step or grade level? 

I’ve struggled a little with that transition, and I think others have too, so I’ve created a list of five things you need to do in order to make structuring your life after college a little easier.

  1. 1. Narrow down your short- and long-term goals

    Thoughtful woman writing in notebook at home

    One of the most important things about navigating life after college is deciding what you want out of your life now. Do you want a fancy 9-to-5 job where you make a ton of money or is that not your thing? Does it need to be interesting or do you just want stability? There’s nothing wrong with any answer, but you have a lot to think about when it comes to your life now that you’ve walked off of campus and into the “real world” (even if that “real world” still feels an awful lot like college did, just with more challenges and stress and less time with friends). 

    My biggest challenge after I graduated is one that I still struggle with today: pinpointing what my long-term goals are. My short-term goals are simple: survive each day, have enough money to pay my bills and help my family, and keep in touch with my friends. 

    However, I don’t have any long-term goals that I’m committed to. I have a ton of interests that I’m admittedly scared to pursue professionally because I don’t want to get burnt out or have to move far from my family. 

    “What I found the most difficult when leaving the school environment was not only leaving behind structure, but discovering new goals to work towards,” Brian Turner, Chief Technology Officer at ConvertBinary, says. “Before you sit down and work out a detailed schedule for your day to day life after graduation, really examine short-term and long-term goals, then build your schedule and routine around facilitating those goals.” 

    Write your goals somewhere you’re going to see them every day. It'll help remind you of what you’re working towards and what you need to do to get there! I also recommend making your short-term goals bite-size. Let those goals be the stepping stones to the larger, long-term goals. 

    And, when you’re examining your goals and potentially scheduling your daily life around them, remember that your life goals and plans may very quickly change or not be feasible right away. You may find a new passion or realize that you need to work a part-time job, or even a job you don’t like that much, before you’re able to line up your lifestyle with your goals. Just remember that your life is going to look different than everyone else’s.

  2. 2. Accept the things that are out of your control and learn to focus on what you can

    Kristen Bryant-Thinking In A Lala College Sweatshirt

    I’ve always been told that I need to accept the things I cannot change. I need to let in and let out the frustrations of my life that I not immediate control over. I can’t control what my friends do without me, what the world looks like, or what the people in power choose to do on our behalf. However, I can control what we do with our friends, how we choose to help the world we live in, and the people we put into power.

    When I graduated college, I felt like I was going from having a little control over my life back to almost none at all. In college, I got to pick my major, classes, extracurriculars, and when and what I ate. Now that I’ve graduated, life looks a little different. I still have a say, but ultimately a lot of what happens around me isn’t up to me. Though I have a fantastic relationship with my mom, it’s still up to her when I go places and do things since I don’t have my own car. If I want to change what I’m eating, I have to keep in mind what the other people in my house eat because it’s a small house and we have one full-time income. 

    We all want immediate success when it comes to our professional lives. Most of us are willing to work for it, but it’s still frustrating when we hit obstacles and can’t hit our goals in the timeline we wanted to. Everyone hits challenges and has circumstances that are out of our control. Some of these circumstances may involve the ways that we work best, the material a job requires, or even our own mental health. 

    Megan Griffith, a mental wellness coach for Healing Unscripted, gave me some advice to share that I think fits in so many aspects of life after graduation. “Work with your brain, not against it,” Griffith says. “If you’re constantly fighting yourself, you are going to struggle so much more than you need to.” 

    She continues to say that we all handle situations and tasks differently and that's totally fine.

    “The truth is, everyone works differently, and you may not be able to work the same way as someone else, and that’s okay,” Griffith says. Just because you can’t do something the same as someone else can doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It’s possible that you have a friend or peer who got the job of their dreams right after graduation and you’re still applying for jobs. It’s time to let go of the fact that they got that job before you did and continue working hard and doing what you can to get the job you want.

    Don’t spend too much time dwelling on the things you can’t control of change and put more energy towards the things you can. If you can’t choose when you eat dinner, buy yourself something you love to have for dessert. Paint your room your favorite color. Send supportive messages to the people in your life and ask for help if you need it. Treat people with love and kindness and remember that even if you don’t see the difference, someone else might. 

  3. 3. Practice self-discipline and create schedules for yourself 

    goals, coffee, notebook

    Finding the motivation and courage to perform the tasks you don’t want to do can be the most challenging part of being out of college. When you’re in school, you have an incentive to do certain activities and chores for fear of hurting your grades or being kicked out of clubs. But who’s monitoring you once you graduate? You are. 

    “Practice little things like forcing yourself to get up five minutes earlier, skip fast food or dessert, exercise when you’re tired, or to make a scary doctor’s appointment,” says Alyssa Pacheco, Director of Middle School Ministries at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. “You have to willingly strengthen the voice of independence and inhibition in your head!” 

    If you struggle with keeping yourself in check, ask a friend, family member, or roommate to help keep you accountable. Find someone to go to the gym with that will push you to be your best even when you’re “too tired.” Get your mom (or a different trusted family member) to help you make a script so you can call and schedule that doctor’s appointment by yourself — I promise it’s easier than it feels. 

    Practice creating a schedule for yourself. If you’re anything like me, this may be difficult. If I’m not at home lounging around, I’m either at work or picking my mom up after getting off work. It’s hard to create a full schedule with a part-time job and a schedule that’s different week-to-week.

    Consistency is key. Start small and work up to bigger tasks. Start by getting up five minutes earlier and find something that makes the mornings better. For me, I like to make sure I eat some type of breakfast with my mom. Sometimes it’s eggs and turkey bacon, but some mornings we have waffles (I love a good chocolate chip waffle). Adding that to my day gave me a routine and it’s something to look forward to.

    The end of your day is just as important as the beginning, and I struggle with this the most. If you don’t have a typical 9-to-5 job and feel like you work the best at night, it’s challenging to create those boundaries so you aren’t working too late into the night. Find a way to create a stop to your day, whenever that may be. Give yourself time to relax, recharge, and get ready for the new day. 

    “My biggest piece of advice is to try creating a routine that feels achievable that you can stick to,” Ayden Berkey, Co-Founder of Access Scholarships and a 2020 college graduate, says. “In college, you might have had a schedule that worked for you based on your classes, extracurriculars, and jobs. Your post-grad life can definitely be approached in a similar way, just subbing in some different activities.” 

  4. 4. Embrace old hobbies and find some new ones

    Having hobbies is important. Getting a break between workdays and having a chance to relax is critical to our mental health and wellbeing. But taking the time to find and learn a hobby is between a busy workday, chores, relationships, and your family can be difficult. So, how do we find hobbies that we have enough motivation and inspiration to pick up? As with everything else in this life, we need to sit down, brainstorm, and reflect.

    “I started to reflect on what I enjoyed previously,” Savanna Perry, a Certified Physician Assistant and creator of The PA Platform, says. “[I] connected with old friends and learned to create a new schedule around my job...I enjoyed my job as a PA and writing, so I started blogging.” 

    Without proper time management, it’s nearly impossible to spend time on our hobbies in college. I would even argue that if you’re taking a ton of classes and participating in multiple clubs, it is impossible. However, with a 9-to-5, I think it’s a little more possible (just maybe not easy). It’s also incredibly important and vital to your mental health and quality of life that you do spend time participating in activities that aren’t completely related to your job.

    By creating time to participate in old hobbies or explore new ones, you’re creating a new schedule for yourself and filling some time. Perry adds that she was blogging to create a sense of fulfillment in her life, but also wound up creating deadlines for herself that kept her from mindlessly watching reality TV all the time. 

    “I encourage students to hold onto their hobbies throughout school and take time to discover new interests after graduation,” Perry says. “I’ve found many students find themselves in new places, and instead of feeling discouraged, take that as an adventure and try to make the most of it as [they] adjust to the real world.” 

    As a new graduate, I spent a little time learning to play guitar and ukulele. It was time well spent even if I don’t play much anymore. The hobby you choose doesn’t matter much, but it’s important that you have a fulfilling and joyful activity to fall back on.

  5. 5. Budget for you and your future

    budget hero image

    Though limited knowledge of finances won’t make or break your transition from college to post-grad life, they’re still important and you need to know what you’re doing. Your financial situation can impact your mental health and whether or not you’re able to take a short vacation or no vacations at all. I’ve learned many money tips over the last few years of my life, but none as important as this: create a budget. 

    “When in college, you have a certain amount of freedom because your parents, scholarships, and maybe even your loans are helping you coast by without truly dealing with financial burden,” says Nakea Pittman, a loan processor at Freedom Mortage. “However, once you join the ‘working adult” life, you realize just how much you have to think about financially.” 

    Pittman goes on to list items such as health, auto and life insurances, 401ks, taxes, credit cards, car payments, mortgages and rent as well as utilities being financial things that you have to account for as an adult (which I’m sure we all know exist, but maybe not how to deal with). The truth is, finances are ugly and scary. It’s just as hard and uncomfortable to read and write about them as it is to deal with them —well, maybe not as hard as dealing with them. The point is, creating a solid budget and plan to save and pay bills is going to help you in the short-term and long-term.

    “If you start thinking and implementing some good budget plans now, those life expenses and your financial status will be a positive one,” Pittman says.

At the end of the day, every challenge, mistake, and success are going to help you grow. This is the time for you to embrace those mistakes and stand strong in your struggles. Take risks and go on the adventure. You won’t figure out what you truly want out of life by standing still.

Life after college is hard, but you aren’t alone. Don’t give up if things seem tough. You’ve got this.

Follow Katie on Twitter.