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Five Lessons I Wish I Learned in College (Instead of in My Mid-Twenties)

5 Lessons I Wish I Learned in College Instead of in My Mid-Twenties | GenTwenty

It’s been nearly two years since I received my official diploma in the mail (I eschewed the whole cap and gown commencement ceremony thing because yawn).

By the time I graduated, I had done my second-year senior victory lap and was ready for a new challenge. Now that I’ve had some time to adjust to the so-called “real world”, I look back on those 5 years of college with fondness and even a longing to go back.

I miss the friends I made, the daily thought-provoking conversations, and the fact that my most important job was to learn. Not only that, I miss the naivete that I was able to hold onto while I was in school. Sure, adjusting to college life comes with a whole new set of responsibilities that are challenging in their own way, but I don’t think I fully reached what can be called a “responsible adulthood” until the college goggles came off and the loan repayment notices started coming in.

The biggest adjustment for me was that not every day brings new things. Of course, some people would argue that you “learn something new each day” or whatever, but that’s not necessarily true when you spend 40+ hours doing the same job next to the same people each week.

In college, almost every day was filled with interesting new ideas and meaningful discussions. Since I was at a large campus, it was like the entire world was just outside my door ready to be explored. I spent every day with my nose in a fascinating book, picking the brain of a professor, or building a new argument in a research paper. I may be romanticizing a little bit here, but that’s generally how I remember it.

Now that I’m out of school, my days are no longer focused on this type of learning. In fact, every day sort of blurs into the next. If I want to exercise my brain, I have to go out and seek my own opportunities. I read up on current events, frequent didactic sites like Khan Academy, and write whenever I can. It’s a far cry from focusing each day on learning, but it helps keep me engaged.

I was also surprised to learn that college grades don’t matter in the professional world. I was almost obsessive about maintaining a certain grade point average throughout college, but my GPA hasn’t equated to any new jobs or opportunities since graduation. When it comes to promotions or raises, my employer couldn’t care less that I graduated with honors. Areas where grades do matter are in your applications to graduate and professional school, but that’s about it. If your GPA isn’t so hot, you can stop stressing about it now.

Another thing I sort of knew but didn’t officially learn in college was the importance of savings and self-reliance. I was lucky enough to have my parents nearby and willing to help, as well as a university that cares a lot about the health and wellness of its students. If an emergency cropped up, I was never on my own. Because I had these two huge safety nets, I never felt a strong need to build up an emergency fund or a sense of true independence.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the importance of saving; I just didn’t have the mentality that I had to pay close attention to my finances while in school. There’s hard evidence for what I mean. I just looked through the history of my checking account and realized I used to make some terrible decisions, like buying a $2.50 coffee on campus when I only had 5 dollars total in my account. I was focusing on my GPA, but I should have taken a look at the numbers in my bank account instead. When time machines are finally a thing, I’d like to go back and slap the 2009 version of myself because she’s an idiot.

Now that I can no longer lean on my student status as an excuse to ask for help, I take my finances much more seriously. While I try not to make money my first priority in life, I know the balances in each of my accounts at any given time and actually have a budget and financial goals. I am adulting so hard right now.

Something I actually had to unlearn from college was the importance of competition. In this day and age, competition is out and collaboration is in. I went to a relatively competitive school with some insanely intelligent people from around the world, so each lecture felt like a marathon to take better notes than the person next to me. Each discussion felt like a game to come up with the most creative argument. The reward was clear: a higher grade, resulting in a higher GPA, resulting in a better job after graduation. Wrong.

Most workplaces are not so focused on competition. Sure, you and your coworkers will have goals to reach and there may be some hint of competition there, but a truly constructive and positive workplace will be driven more by collaboration than by competition. Revel in the success of your coworkers, even if they snagged the promotion you desperately wanted. Help others reach their goals and in turn, they will help you reach yours.

Along the same vein, network, network, network! I can’t stress this enough. I entered college knowing absolutely nothing about networking and left college knowing only vaguely what it meant. I’m so lost when it comes to networking (still), mostly because I have the social skills of a potato. I’ve also made some common mistakes that other twenty-somethings are making.

But I can tell you this: networking is important and it’s not going away anytime soon. In my short time in the professional workforce, I’ve seen people succeed because they are experts at networking and I’ve seen others fail because they don’t put themselves out there enough. I’m still mastering this one and am not the right person to give networking advice, but I think this article is a great place to get started.

Maybe you left college knowing and living by these rules already, in which case, congrats! For the rest of us, the adjustment from college life to “real life” is a little bit like walking up uneven stairs in the dark. You have to learn and adapt as you go, hoping the next step is within reach.


About the Author

Natalee Desotell

Natalee graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a triple major in Political Science, International Politics & Economics, Languages & Cultures of Asia, and a minor in Global Public Health. After a couple years in the working world, she recently returned to her alma mater to study Cartography and Geographical Information Systems. A self-proclaimed public health nerd, her dream job is to communicate epidemiological information visually through beautiful interactive maps and graphics. She enjoys iced black coffee, punk rock music, and surprising people.

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