7 Distinct Differences Between College and Your First Job


You’ve finished your degree and you’ve worked the part-time jobs to help pay for it all. You may have even completed a few summer full-time internships. Now you’re about to start your first full-time job after university. Here are a few differences to expect in when it comes to work tasks, the office environment, and work-life balance now that you’ve got your first real-world job.

Work without an end date

Your first job out of college might be the first time you’ve had a job without a clear-cut ending (i.e., a semester position, a summer job). If all goes well, you could stay at this company for years! This open-endedness affects your workstream because you’ll most likely take on longer-term projects than you have before. The work assignments of your first job post-college will be more self-directed than prior work experiences. Get ready to manage your own time and ask for help.

The open-endedness of your first job out of college also affects your social connections at work. Think of colleagues as long-term connections and teammates. Be conscious of how relationships may evolve over your time at the company. For example, your current peer may one day become your boss or may be in charge of reviewing you for a promotion in a year.

A higher level of difficulty

You’ll most likely have a blend of work that is grunt work that a high schooler could do, as well as new challenges you’ve never done before. Do your mundane assignments with a good attitude, but look for ways to excel and add interest to it. Remember that most people at the company completed these tasks at the beginning of their careers and that it’s all part of the process.

When assigned difficult work, consider whether it’s a stretch role that can help you grow or whether it is truly above your skill level. In my first job, I was asked to do something that my boss incorrectly thought I could do. I didn’t want to say no, so… I said yes and made some pretty big mistakes. In my next job, learning from that experience, I explained my discomfort when a “stretch role” request came and was able to make a training plan with my boss to get me up to speed. Know your limits.

Distinct differences from college collaboration

In your first job after college, you will likely depend on others more than in college. This includes meeting deadlines as a team and coordinating with peers. No more working at your own pace or doing a late-night deadline scramble if your plans change. At this new job, you’ll need to be accountable to someone with a timeline for most tasks, others will be accountable to you, and you’ll all need to collaborate to complete tasks well.

You’ll likely be humbled in the transition from the top of the university ladder in a community whose rules you understand to entry-level in a work world you’re new in. People are going to treat you as young and inexperienced — because you are. Own it by soaking in as much knowledge as you can. You had to learn the ropes and unspoken rules in college and it’s the same with your first job.

The need to ask for help

Expect a disconnect between college textbook theory and real-life practice. For example, in my first job out of school, I was a case manager and found a large difference between textbook scenarios and real-life client situations. I had to learn on the fly, and ask for a lot of help. Just because you’re no longer in a classroom doesn’t mean your education is over!

Ask questions rather than assuming you know how something is done. It takes at least three months to feel comfortable in a new job. You will send the wrong email to the wrong person, you will make mistakes, you will be told things that you don’t understand. Ask a lot of questions to solidify your foundation, and soon you’ll be flying free.

Different social boundaries

You are likely to find the social rules different than in college. Not everyone you work with will want to be your friend, but just having solid coworkers is okay! Unlike in college, where your life is infinitely better when classmates turn to friends, it’s healthy to keep work at work and your coworkers as coworkers, not friends.

Happy hours, social boundaries, and socializing require nuance and thoughtful intentionality. Don’t take it personally if most coworkers don’t want to hang out with you outside the office. Be patient though, and you’re sure to build a few meaningful connections. And don’t be afraid to be your excited self — your new eyes bring a fresh perspective to your (possibly jaded) colleagues!

If your company has a large incoming class of new employees, it can be tempting to turn to them for the entirety of your social life. While it’s great to have good work friends, keep pursuing your hobbies and connecting with people in other venues. Almost every city has a young adult group of Catholics that gathers regularly after work, for example — those connections can offer a healthy variety to your newly growing social network.

Employee benefits

You will make more money than you ever have before, and you should learn how to save and invest wisely. It’s easy to set aside the 401(k) paperwork without reading it, but make sure you are using the company benefits in a way that is best for you and capitalizes on the options they have.

A new rhythm to life

Finally, a word on sleep and self-care. You’ll be finding your way into a new rhythm of life in your first job. Exercise, adequate sleep, and eating well are essential. Staying up late and rolling into your 9 a.m. college class knowing you can nap afterward is one thing, but staying up too late, coming to work at 9 a.m. on five hours of sleep and pushing through a workday is another.

Be mindful of how after-work drinks and company lunches affect your health. Know the eating habits that work best for you and indulge selectively to stay balanced. Limit involvement in extracurriculars, too. Maybe in college you wore five different hats but think twice before you volunteer to lead the animal welfare club at work on day three. First and foremost, you are here to do your job. Settle into that role first, then you can invest in the fun stuff.

The transition from college life to your first job is an exciting step. Stay humble, and remember that you were hired for a reason and that you’re there to learn and contribute and grow. Your workplace is lucky to have you!


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