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Life After Graduation: Expectations vs. Reality

Cambria Pilger

The hardest part about the time between finishing my college credits and having a commencement ceremony was settling into the reality of no longer being a student.

I'll tell you a little bit about what graduating looked like for me. I completed requirements for my bachelors degree in December 2020. After the hybrid learning experience of that fall semester, I felt so wound up with stress and loneliness that I didn't even want to celebrate. I also had two unfinished assignments that I'd gotten extensions on. So when I arrived home for winter break, while my parents were ready to throw a party, I told them not to even call me a college graduate. I didn't feel like one.

To add to that, my school didn't hold a celebration for mid-year graduates. I received my diploma in the mail in January but had to wait five more months for my official commencement.

Last winter and spring were challenging. It was surprisingly hard to establish a routine outside of school — but maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I'd spent my whole life attending classes nine months out of the year and preparing for those classes the other three months (aka the dreaded summer reading).

My hope in this article is to share the expectations I had about graduating and how they differed from my actual experience so that you can support your student when they go through this transition — even if they don't graduate mid-year or during a pandemic!

Expectation #1: I need to have an AMAZING job right out of college!

Reality: Your student might not have ANY job right out of college.

This expectation is ingrained in students' minds despite all the evidence to the contrary. My parents assured me frequently that I could do any job out of college, and that would be okay. But I still panicked over this expectation starting junior year. "Eek, when I graduate, what job am I going to do? It needs to be a GOOD one! Should I start applying now? What if I have to go back to working at the grocery store?!"

(Now that I'm in the midst of a post-graduation gap year, returning to the grocery store where I worked during high school and college breaks actually sounds appealing. An easy job where I can save up money while looking for another position and having fun in my free time? Sweet!)

Maybe you have high expectations for your student; you don't want them to spend tens of thousands of dollars earning a degree just to settle back into an hourly job that doesn't utilize all the skills they developed at university. That's rational! And in the long run, I hope your student doesn't do that, either.

However, the expectation of finding the "perfect job" right out of college makes graduation stressful, not fun. The closer your student gets to graduating, the more they might dread it because they fear being stuck at a job that doesn't meet the high standards they've been taught growing up.

If your student is feeling this way right now, I encourage you to remind them that there is no rush. They are not less valuable just because they get a minimum wage job out of college; their degree is not suddenly meaningless and their future jeopardized if they don't immediately land a job in their area of study (this one was a hard pill for me to swallow).

They have time. Give them grace.

Expectation #2: As soon as I graduate, I need to start "doing stuff with my life"...and fast!

Reality: There is no timeline after graduation.

I don't know where this expectation comes from, but it seems to be a life-long one. Many adults I know also struggle with feeling a pressure to get things done fast.

In reality, there's no prescribed timeline. Your student can take as long as they need to process their graduation, unwind from the routine of being at school and consider what they want to do next.

I felt like as soon as I graduated college, I no longer had any goals. That's because I am now responsible for setting my own goals. If your student feels similarly and needs some structure, work with them to create goals and plans. You could create anywhere from a one-month plan to a five-year plan. Having you walk them through the process of exploring the future and encourage them not to feel pressured by a mysteriously fast-paced timeline could be very beneficial.

So, remind your student of this: there is no rush! Nothing bad is going to happen if they wait before making any decisions. The choice they ultimately make should be one they will enjoy.

And try not to pressure your student in any way. Allow them room to process graduating. Let them pick up a few new hobbies. Give them time to have fun and celebrate before getting a job or going back to school. Encourage them to rest!

Read Dear College Senior: You Don't Have to Have Everything Figured Out >

Expectation #3: I'm going to use my degree so much when I graduate!

Reality: Your student may use skills they gained in college but might not get a job in their field.

I, personally, feel like I frequently use skills from my field of study even though my current job isn't the exact same as my degree. I majored in journalism, and I'm not currently a full-time journalist. However, I have outlets where I can still manage social media, send out emails and write articles. Even though I don't do journalism full-time, I'm using those skills.

I have multiple friends who studied something they were passionate about, and as soon as they graduated, they decided they didn't want to work in that field at all — or the job they were able to find right away was nowhere near the same field. One of my friends got a B.A. in Music Composition, and now he's going to grad school to pursue his undergraduate minor, Psychology. His first job out of college was working graveyard shifts at an orphanage.

Going to college is about more than just getting a degree to show future employers. Even if your student doesn't always work in the same field as their degree, they will have grown in many other ways. In college, they're surrounded by opportunities to be challenged intellectually, socially, spiritually and emotionally. My music major friend, for instance, learned a lot in his undergrad that's now helping him in graduate school, and he may return to music composition as a way of expressing himself.

Bottom line: Even if your student doesn't get a job after college in their exact field of study, it doesn't mean that working toward their degree was for nothing or that it's a bad thing to get experience in a different career than you studied at school. I think people should always be learning new things!

Expectation #4: Graduation will be so fun!

Reality: Honestly, it depends.

I had a more exciting graduation experience in high school than college. By that I mean that when I graduated high school, I had senior breakfast events, senior sleepovers and a big grad party with my two closest friends. When I graduated college, I had a celebratory dinner with my family, encouraging emails from professors, and one senior breakfast event (that I actually couldn't attend because I was already out of town). I didn't have a grad party at all.

For me and many students, graduating college may be the biggest accomplishment of our lives so far. But the celebration might not match up.

In the five months following my graduation in December 2020, I went through a period of anxiety and existential dread. I felt like my college experience meant nothing and that the "real world" wasn't fun. I didn't want to create my own schedule. I missed professors telling me what to do and ranking me with grades and giving me structure. Fortunately that period has faded, and I grew a lot from it.

My brother felt the same way when he graduated two years before me, and for him it lasted over a year. Some of my friends resonated with my experience, even while finishing their final semester. Your student may go through a similar existential or anxious time.

There is hope! If your student is going through something similar, remind them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Encourage them to focus on whatever brings them joy, and help them to write down the stories in their head about what is stressing them out. For me, I felt like I needed to have my future figured out instantly, but worrying didn't help and just caused me to feel more anxious over something that wasn't true.

Expectation #5: No way am I moving back home after graduation!

Reality: Many students live with their parents for a bit. It depends on your availability and your student's needs.

It's actually quite common for graduates to spend time living with their parents again after graduating; my brother did, I did and many of my friends did, too. Even though your student may want to get their own place and start living independently right after college, living at home for a period might be a more wise option. It gives your student time to rest, search for a job, reconnect with friends and family and save money while living rent-free (or at a low cost, like my parents offered).
If your student lives at home with you, they may want to change some things to still feel a sense of independence. For example, when my brother moved back home after college, he asked for his own shelf in the fridge, where he could store groceries he bought and wanted to cook for himself only. He also openly discussed with my parents what the dinner expectations were going to be (i.e. "how often are we eating together, as a family?"). Even though my parents still treated him as their son, living together shifted into a more "roommate-like" situation than before — including a more equally divided chore chart.
If you can offer a place for your graduate to stay, make a plan with them for how long they might want to live there, how chores/meals/living responsibilities will look different from when they were growing up (if at all) and, if you are going to charge them rent, how much. And, if/when your student decides to move out of the house, support them in the search process of finding their own residence and coordinating all the things that come with that.

Even though the context surrounding my graduation was not super positive, my parents were. They encouraged me when I was deep in fear of the future, and they reminded me of the joy of life. They also helped me work through my anxiety after college and to settle into a more structured routine on my own. You have an opportunity to do the same for your student!

Cambria Pilger is a recent graduate of Whitworth University. She studied journalism and mass media communication, with minors in Spanish and business. She is a freelance writer and a Communications & Development Admin at a local ministry. Cambria is passionate about understanding humans, exploring the world, thinking deeply, developing skills and getting to know people.
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