Life After College: What It’s Really All About
Universities and colleges award an average of 1 million associate’s degrees and nearly 2 million bachelor’s degrees to graduating students every year.
This is an impressive statistic, but it says nothing about what happens to those 3 million graduates the morning, weeks, and months after commencement.
It’s easy to assume that most graduates plunge into entry-level positions, careers, or casual tours of Southeast Asia. Others lay claim to basement apartments or hang out at home, endlessly scrolling through job postings and printing out resumes.
A fair few (myself included) find themselves stepping into a world starkly different from college living. This world may be intimidating, underwhelming, or simply tough. It may be a relief.
Whether you’re freshly graduated or dreaming of those college years so suddenly behind you, I have news for you: life after college is never what it seems, but this doesn’t mean it has to be a letdown.
It may just be the best (and most rewarding) time of your life. It may be just what you need. Here’s what those post-college years looked like to me.
While employment rates for college graduates are soaring, a hefty chunk of newly grads (over 70%) find themselves navigating careers and internships entirely unrelated to their major. Still others struggle to land a job immediately after graduation, particularly a full-time position with benefits.
In the wake of my college graduation, I sent out a newly minted resume and several shy cover letters to any job that remotely resembled my major (English). I signed up for alerts from Indeed and considered printing out business cards. I bought blazers and ironed pencil skirts.
Weeks and eventually months were spent doing this, with little to no response from potential employers. One manager told me on the phone that he simply could not let me file legal documents in a dark, moldy basement because I was overqualified and his conscience would never forgive him.
I wasn’t the only one—in the years after graduation, I spoke with several close friends, and more times than not, our conversations concerned unemployment, frustration, lack of self-worth, and anxiety. Some friends abandoned the job search and hopped on planes to New Zealand, Serbia, and Vietnam.
Others couch-surfed, picked up random jobs when they could, and resorted to babysitting. I started making lattes at a local café and mopping floors.
Life after college is about patience. It is about having some expectations that life cannot meet. This gritty reality sometimes never translates to patience—but I soon realized that patience was a far better state to channel than one of bitterness.
Life After College Can Be What You Want It To Be
In fact, while employment may be urgent for financial purposes, it is not all that awaits college graduates. Life after college does not have to be about a career. It does not have to be about marriage, kids, or general seriousness. It can if you want it to be—but it doesn’t have to be.
Once I realized that the only person pressuring me to launch a career and “get my life together” was myself, I was able to relax. And the moment I relaxed, I knew what I wanted: a freelance writing career, the freedom to wander, and lots and lots of vinyl records and incense.
You guessed it—I chased after those things, and I’m still listening to Jimi Hendrix on vinyl, wandering, and writing on the fly.
Uncertainty & Risk
I still get phone calls and texts from friends who tell me they have “no idea what they are doing with their lives.” Our conversations are less fraught than earlier, but they often become philosophical discussions about uncertainty and the impossible state of knowing that occurs in mid- to late-twenties.
These years are, by nature, part of the decade of uncertainty. I wish someone had told me this when I began college as a bright-eyed, overeager freshman. The truth is, few universities emphasize the value of uncertain, risky wandering after commencement.
I confess I prefer a clear forest path to bushwhacking. But clear forest paths rarely lead to risk. And risk always leads to self-discovery, empowerment, and knowing.
There is no need for an answer right now. But there is need for bravery and attempts at new things.
I think the stereotype of backpacking in Asia to find oneself is a stereotype for a reason—there is value to setting out with a few items on your back and the aim of settling into your own bones, particularly in a foreign culture.
Uncertainty is evolution, even when it hurts. Evolution gets you places.
College life is often all about independence and choice. You had power of some kind over your schedule, courses, activities, and grades. But undergraduates are still part of an institution with guidelines and structure.
Life after college is boundless. These years are the ones that truly offer every graduate unlimited choice. These choices—unlike those that led to all-nighters or A-grade exams—have the capacity to truly shape your future.
Sometimes these choices are painful. I left a career and several relationships behind once I graduated. I traded passions and abandoned my will. Others do the same with expectations, comparisons, and standards.
Sometimes these choices are exuberant. My choices brought me to new continents, coaxed me to start writing a novel, and opened up powerful friendships. They enabled me to make wicked latte art, too.
I won’t say that you should be mindful of every choice you make. I will say that life after college is ripe with the kinds of choices that serve you. You can choose to be empowered in uncertainty. You can choose where you want to set your feet.
It’s okay to miss college. Those years are memorable for a reason. My nostalgia for college was sudden and intense, and it came only a few months after commencement.
I longed for campus, for cafes and restaurants open late, for the fury of studying and the passion of intellectual conversations. Life felt dull and unexciting after college. I missed the immediate community of people like me.
I realized, however, that what I truly missed about college was everything I thought I couldn’t now have: the sense of possibility and ease, the love of friends. But I did have these things, even if only glimmers of them.
I gave myself permission to be nostalgic (and I give you permission, too). Once I did, I was able to find those aspects of “college” in post-college existence and savor them even more.
Life After College—Your Vision
I’m not here to discredit or enlighten any college graduate’s path. I support and celebrate unemployed, employed, and uncertain graduates at every step of their post-grad journey. I am here, however, to suggest that the plunge into the “real world” is not all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s so much more. These years are perhaps the most fluid of your life, and they have the capacity to transform, empower, and probe. They can also limit, hinder, and destroy.
The more mindful and welcoming you can be of these uncertain, risky years, the better. It’s okay to get lost in a job search, but it’s not okay to make the job search more valuable than your own inner growth.
So, caps off to not knowing, wandering, and missing the past. Things can only get better from here—if you let them.
This guest post was authored by Kate McGunagle
Kate McGunagle is a freelance writer, editor, and mindfulness blogger. Her blog (A Lighter Earth) focuses on conscious living and sustainability. A graduate of Princeton University and Boston University, she recently moved to the northwest of the U.S. to become a yoga instructor, launch her writing career, and build an off-grid tiny house in the mountains. Her work is currently featured on Thought Catalog, Wonder Forest, and LifeGoals Magazine. Instagram: @alighterearth