Backpack to Briefcase: Thoughts for Soon-to-Be Graduates

LAUNCH Your Career!
Words of advice for soon-to-be graduates…

Here in the Career Development Center we use the phrase “Launch your Career” as one of the key concepts for our office tag line. For most new graduates, making the shift from college student to working professional brings with it a range of emotions—happiness, excitement, gratification, worry, sadness, confusion, and many others. Whatever you are feeling, know that these feelings are normal and that you are in good company. Nearly 1.8 million Bachelor’s degrees and 752,000 Master’s degrees and are expected to be awarded nationwide in 2015-2016 (National Center for Education Statistics).

One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of advice out there for college grads on how to successfully navigate this important transition. From commencement speeches to advice columns, some of the most common themes are listed below, along with a few selected tips for success and links to more info:

The job search

  • If you have not started your job search, do so IMMEDIATELY! A typical job search can take anywhere from 3 months-9 months depending on things like your geographic preference, demand in your field and the skills you bring to the table as a potential hire.
  • NETWORK! Still the #1 way to find a job. Are you on Linkedin? If not, you need to be. The vast majority of employers are active on this site! Get started at Be sure to join the “Official Minnesota State Mankato Alumni Association” group with 7,000+ members!!
  • You WILL be rejected for jobs (and probably multiple times)–don’t take it personally!
  • Not sure what jobs to look for with your major? Check out What Can I do with this Major? for suggestions.
  • Other random tips: don’t panic!; don’t hold out for the perfect job; keep the job you have until you have another one; ALWAYS target your job search materials to the job you are applying for.


  • You have spent a HUGE chunk of your life as a student. Graduating college and stepping into your career or furthering your education is a BIG life transition! Be patient, take good care of yourself, ask for help when you need it and surround yourself with good support people.
  • Gone are the days of sleeping in and starting your day with a noon class. Get use to starting early, ending late, working 8+ hours a day, and not having the same kind of built in “breaks” you had when you were a college student.
  • In the workplace, deadlines are critical—often more so than in the classroom where you might have been able to convince a professor to give you extra time to complete an assignment.
  • Other random tips: spend time with people and not just technology; maintain a set schedule; complete things in order of importance; get to work ON TIME (or even early!).


  • Clean up your online reputation. You want to be seen as a professional, mature adult, not a partying college student. 93% of employers say they are looking at candidates on social media! You might not like it, but its happening. Here are some tools to help with this: Vizibility Online ID Calculator, Google Alerts, Tweet Addictomatic, Klout
  • Pay attention to your visual impression during the interview process and in the workplace. Hint: AFTER you have the job, pay attention to the workplace culture—what are your co-workers wearing? Does your workplace have a dress code policy? Ask your supervisor.
  • Be confident in yourself AND respectful of your co-workers and others that have been in the field longer than you have. They have probably already tried some of the great ideas that you are thinking about and decided against them for specific reasons.
  • Find mentors both inside and outside your organization.
  • Join professional organizations in your field!

College as the foundation of your education

  • What you learn in college is the start of your education, not the end of it! You are typically not expected to walk-in and start working at full speed on day one. Most organizations have some type of training program, and in some cases it is pretty extensive. You will continue to learn and grow throughout your career—watch for opportunities to do this.
  • Don’t lose sight of your dreams for a career, but know you’re likely to enter at or near the bottom of the ladder. This is what “entry level” means. Be ready to prove yourself and be patient.
  • Accept feedback and use it to grow.
  • Your degree will open doors, although they may not always appear to be directly connected to your major and this is OK and very common.

Miscellaneous nuggets found here and there

  • Your life probably won’t go according to plan and that is OK.
  • Lose the cell phone. Check your email and RESPOND. Be polite.
  • Generally speaking, your GPA is not as important as you think.
  • Sacrifice today to position yourself for tomorrow. Be willing to do grunt work.
  • Step out of your comfort zone.
  • Know what you don’t know. Lose the entitlement attitude. You’re not as smart as you think you are, even if you are as smart as you think you are.
  • No boss or co-worker is perfect and neither are you.
  • Your career path is not limited by the scope of your major. (One of my favs!)
  • Your interests will change over time—let them.

More words of wisdom from those who have been there…in preparing to write this blog I did a quick informal poll on Facebook and asked the question “What is one thing that you wish you had known that would have helped you to be successful in the workplace?” Here are some of the responses I received:

“It’s not just about finding a good job, it’s just as important to be in a culture that is in line with your values and where you enjoy the people you are working with and for. You are at work more than you are at home, so find a place to work that makes you feel good.”~ Katy Note: the issue of getting to know and fit in with the office culture was mentioned more than anything else.

“People in organizations care about ‘experiences’ and ‘skills’ NOT about courses.”  ~Andi

“But I was only five minutes late!” really doesn’t cut it.” ~Fred

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  You don’t have to know it all right away!!” ~Kari

“Find a mentor!” ~Susan Note: This was also mentioned multiple times.

Ditch the backpack and get a professional looking bag. “It doesn’t need to be designer, but dignified.” ~Daphne

“Learn how to dress neatly and appropriately. If every guy in the office is wearing a tie, do not go without. And if no one is wearing a tie, think twice before you put one on. You can be independent in dress when you are the CEO.” ~Lee

“Gain all the experience and knowledge you can. Participate and be a meaningful player in your position. Then take that experience and step up to the next level.” ~Lana

“Ask for help if you need it. Sometimes even when you don’t.” ~Maria

Best of luck! And don’t forget about all of the helpful resources we have here in the Career Development Center to assist you:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” ~Michael Jordan

Pam Weller, Career Development Center Director.

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