Into the Workforce: Mixed Messages and Misconceptions

When I got into my dream college, I felt on top of the world. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I received more praise and congratulations from friends, family, and teachers than I ever had before. And on most days, I still feel that way. I feel proud of my accomplishments, lucky to have the opportunity to go to college, and excited about the opportunities in front of me.

But throughout freshman year, it became clearer and clearer that getting into college was really just a minor part of a much larger journey that involved climbing the academic ladder to the workforce. Excelling in school suddenly seemed impossible; I didn’t even know people making straight A’s, and I sure wasn’t making them myself. I considered a day successful if I made it to all of my classes and turned in most of the homework. It wasn’t that I was the only one struggling. College seemed to be hard for everyone, like we were trying to tread water in a pool of rising water until the week of final exams arrived at last.

Overall, college is a happy time. But sometimes as a college student, it feels like you can do no right in the eyes of society around you. If you stay close to home for college, you’re underachieving. If you go far away, you’re crazy to spend so much on an education. If you go to a state school, you’re just there to party. If you go to an Ivy League, you’re a spoiled rich kid. If you go to a liberal arts school, you’re wasting four years of your life when you could be learning practical skills.

Business major? You’re just a partier. Engineering major? You’re voluntarily killing your GPA and any chance of employment or grad school. Political science or history? What in the world are you going to do with that after you graduate?

Needless to say, it’s a lot of pressure. With job applications and entrance into the “real world” looming closer every day, the need to get the right grades, show leadership in extracurriculars, make professional connections, and learn employable skills can seem suffocating. It doesn’t help that the media often sends mixed messages about what employers are looking for.

This USA Today College article highlights a law firm that refuses to hire Ivy League law graduates, claiming that those students do not have the drive to achieve or commitment to success that other students have. Another claims that recruiters look at students’ GPAs very seriously, but just until interviewing them. Then it’s leadership experience that matters. This Forbes writer says that networking is the only thing that will land you a job, and it’s something that millennials are woefully under-equipped to do. Fortune says that working for small startups is as good as a suicide mission for young workers; that’s no way to build a name for yourself. And The Huffington Post reminds us of the ten worst college majors, areas of study that are sure to land you in unemployment.

Bombarding college students with advice seems helpful, but the tips are often conflicting and confusing. Develop a few specific talents, but be flexible. Spend time networking through people you know, but don’t be afraid to apply anywhere. Keep a high GPA, but don’t forget to hold leadership positions and work during college so you have experience.  Be persistent, but be polite. Be open, but be determined. Live in the moment, but never stop planning for the future. And, as Ann Friedman generously reminds us, have fun.

It’s a lot to handle and a lot to process. Learning about rates of unemployment and the number of jobs that require college degrees can be overwhelming. I am nervous about finishing college and applying for jobs, but it comforts me to know that no one really has the answers. There is not an exact formula for pleasing employers because all companies and all people are different. All we can do is do our best in school, work, and extracurriculars. And although adults may always want to give advice, sometimes the best thing they can do for their children and mentees is to offer support and encouragement.

Good luck with your college and career search! Let us know your thoughts about employment and career readiness in the comments.

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  1. This post really hit home for me. As I enter my final year in my undergraduate degree, I’m constantly bombarded with conflicting questions about my future from friends and family, and not to mention I’m constantly questioning myself on my academic decisions. It’s scary to be in limbo in regards to my future and to not know all the answers. But it’s comforting to know I’m definitely not the only one. Being honest with yourself and doing something you’re passionate about is the most important!