Don’t Know What to Do After College? Here’s How to Figure it Out

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It all starts around Thanksgiving. You’re home with your family and friends, and the questioning begins: What are you going to do after college? What’s your plan? What’s next? You’ve barely eaten half of your mashed potatoes when panic steps in. You think, What do I even want to do after college? 
For any college student in their last year, this question can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s one thing to graduate and become an adult in the “real world”; it’s another to pursue something that you want once you leave college. But how do you sort through the pressure of graduating and discover what you actually want? Here’s your guide on how to start figuring it all out.

9 Steps for figuring out what you want to do after college.

1. Stay calm and realize this is normal.

If you’re caught up in worrying about what’s going to happen next, it’s difficult to figure out what you want to do. Try relaxing and understand that not knowing that you want to do is more than normal. Even if some other college students have plans, there are many more who have no idea what they want to do. Stressing out won’t help you make this important life decision. Instead of freaking out, clear your head before you start thinking seriously about what you want to do. Once the pressure’s off, you’ll be able to get in tune with what you really want.

2. Make a list of things you like. 

The best way to figure out what you want is by starting to understand what you like. You don’t have to think in concrete terms and start listing jobs you might like; instead, think broadly. What kinds of activities do you enjoy? What hobbies do you have? What are your favorite types of people to spend time with? What’s been your favorite part of school? Understanding your preferences before looking at programs, job options or even travel groups can help you focus on what you like instead of adjusting your interests to the opportunities you find.

3. Consider environments you love.

Figuring out what you want to do also means figuring out where you’re going to do it. Do you want to move to a big city or live in a quiet small town? Do you want to work in a place with lots of collaboration or do you want to work alone? Are you very social? Do you like to go out a lot, or do you spend most of your time at home? Think not only about where you want to be but also the types of environments you want to be in, whether social or professional.

4. Consider your strengths.

While it’s important to dream big, it’s also important to play to your strengths. Consider what you have to offer to a potential office or community. Are you a dedicated, organized worker? Are you a great listener? Your strengths help dictate your purpose in life. Where have you succeeded before, and how would you want to build off and expand this success?

5. Consider your experience.

Once you’ve gotten familiar with your strengths, it’s time to consider what relevant experience you have before going out into the world. Pretend you’re refreshing your resume, but expand it to include a multitude of experiences, not just professional ones. What in your life has given you joy? Did you like leading your newspaper sports section, or did you just do it for the title? Are you a great financial manager for your a cappella group? Reflecting on your experiences, whether professional or extracurricular, can help you understand your areas of interest and types of activities you’d like to continue in the future.

6. Reach out to your network.

Networking” may be a business buzzword, but reaching out to your network doesn’t have to be only about your job search. Talk to members of your family, neighborhood, friends, friends of friends, your hairdresser or your favorite barista. You can ask about their jobs but also their lifestyles — do they like where they live? What activities do they pursue outside of work? — to see if you might be interested in anything they love. Talking to older people in senior positions can help you with overarching career information and tips about their industry, while talking to people who have recently graduated can help you get a sense of what your near future can be like. Make sure to thank them for their time!

7. Write out your goals.

The best way to start achieving is by dreaming you can do it. Make small goals for the upcoming year and then bigger goals for the next five or ten. What do you want to accomplish? Think not only of career goals but also of personal, social, mental and physical ones. Do you want to start eating and living healthier? Do you want to have a large social network or stay in touch with a few close friends? Do you want to run a company or manage employees? Dream it, and you’re one step closer to doing it.

8. Make a plan.

Now that you’ve thought about your likes, strengths, experiences and goals, make a plan — just to try out new things you might want to do. If you’ve had leadership positions in student theater, you might want to plan to shadow a professional in the industry to see if a career in theater is something you want to pursue. Make a plan to get an internship, volunteer at an organization you love or even spend quality time with your family. It doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be a life plan but rather your first next step into adult living.

9. Be okay with not knowing.

My mom told me the other day that she’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do. While she loves her job, she’s still dreaming and wants to understand how to put more of her passions into her everyday life. Just because you’re graduating doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out. It’s okay not to know what you want, think you know what you want and then change your mind or figure out what you want in a few years. You’ll try and try again and hopefully discover new passions along with way.

9 Ideas for post-grad life.

1. Find your first full-time job.

Getting into the working world can be scary, but it’s also a way to start pursuing your career dreams — while making some money. The job search can be hard, so start preparing and looking early, and remember, your first job matters less than you think. Don’t sweat trying to find the perfect job, but rather find something that interests you. 

2. Freelance first.

Freelancing is a great option if you’re not ready to jump into full-time work but want to work on individual projects. Freelance work is often much more flexible than full-time work and gives you the opportunity to work in multiple industries at once if you have multiple skills. It will also help dip your toes into professional life and build up your portfolio or resume.

3. Find an internship.

Internships, like freelancing, are a great way to dip your toe into the professional world. Unlike freelancing, internships sometimes require you to work with one company at a time doing both short- and long-term projects. They differ from full-time work because they usually only last a season or a year or two. This gives you a great opportunity to see what a company or type of work is like; it also gives you a taste of professional experience.

4. Travel.

If you have the ability to travel, now is the time to do it! You’re young and the world is your oyster. Even if you don’t have the finances to do a European escapade for three months, small travels to visit friends in nearby states can be fun and just as enjoyable. Use the free time you have to go to someplace new or visit someone you’ve always loved — the choice is yours!

5. Apply to graduate school.

If you hope to work in a field that requires a graduate degree, applying to grad school is a great next step. Some people go right to graduate school after college, but others may want to take a few — or even 20 — years. If you’ve loved your academic experience in college and know you want more, graduate programs can help you continue your education and start to narrow your focus of study.

6. Get industry certification.

If you don’t want to find a job right away but want to be prepared for your career, invest your time in getting an industry certification. There are tons of certifications out there for every field, whether it’s in development or project management. Make sure to research what certifications are in your state and what you’ll need to prepare to get the certification. These certifications are a great addition to your resume and can get you ready for the workforce.

7. Volunteer.

Volunteering allows you to get involved with an organization you love and do work that helps others. What could be better? You can get involved in your home community or a totally new one. Either way, you’ll be meeting new people and making important connections with those who love the things you do.

8. Connect with your family.

Even if you went to a school close to home, living at college means spending a lot of time away from your family. After graduating, spending time with family can give you the time to reconnect; it can also help you adjust during the difficult transition from college to the real world. You don’t have to move back home to reconnect, but you can use this time to plan longer trips and spend extended time with your loved ones.

9. Learn a new skill.

You’ve just graduated and learned a lot about your major. Maybe you’ve even picked up some knowledge in other courses along the way. But what didn’t you learn in college that you’ve always wanted to learn? Is it a language? Did you always want to master the art of baking pie? Now’s your time to do it. Don’t be afraid to get crafty and start cooking up something great with your new knowledge.
Graduating from college is a difficult transition to the real world, one that can bring on a lot of nerves and stress. Instead of panicking and taking the first opportunity that arises, take the time to figure out and understand what you want to do after college. Considering your interests, strengths and experiences first can help lead you to opportunities that you’ll find much more fulfilling.

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Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoë