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Transitioning From College to Work: 10 Major Differences Between the Two

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For a lot of people, transitioning from college to work can be quite a shocker. During my own college years, I honestly thought I had it rough—going to class a few hours a day, studying for exams, writing papers, and working a part-time job on the weekends. After graduation, reality sunk in and I finally figured out just how good I’d really had it.

Most college seniors are so eager to walk across the stage and accept their degrees that they fail to realize just how different college and work really are. Sure, there’s that whole “paycheck” thing, but along with a regular salary comes a slew of responsibilities, bills, and the realization that college didn’t prepare you for half the stuff you’re about to experience.

Top 10 Differences Between College and Work

There are so many differences between college and work that it would be next to impossible to list them all, but I’ve covered 10 of the major ones below.

1. Appearances matter.

The practice may have earned you a few strange looks from your professors, but unless you attended a strict college with a stringent dress code, going to class in your pajamas was perfectly acceptable. So was showing up in a tank top, a ratty old pair of shorts and your favorite flip-flops. In the workplace? No way. It doesn’t matter if you are 100% comfortable with your nose ring and green hair—at work, you will be judged by your appearance.

2. Time matters.

The days of slipping through the door 15 minutes late, sitting in the back row, and hoping the professor won’t notice are over. At work, time matters. You’ll be expected to show up on time every single day and if you don’t, the repercussions will be much worse than an annoyed glare from the person at the lectern—you could lose your job. Wasting time is also a no-no. Texting or making personal phone calls during business hours isn’t acceptable, even though you could sneak them in during classes.

3. Your behavior is crucial.

During college, goofing around was expected. Getting drunk in public was the norm. Skipping class just because you didn’t really feel like going and arguing with your roommate so loudly that everyone on your floor could hear it weren’t big deals, either. At work, your behavior is crucial. In additional to being judged by your appearance, you will be judged by your behavior. You will have to look, act and sound professional at all times—even when you’re off the clock. (Might want to watch your Facebook profile photo from now on!)

4. Co-workers come in all different ages, shapes, and sizes.

Non-traditional college students are becoming more and more traditional, but for the most part, you were around people your own age during college. When you get a job, this will change. You will be around people of all ages, shapes and sizes. You may have co-workers that are your parents’ age or older, and you may meet people from different counties. You’ll be expected to be respectful to everyone at all times.

5. Kiss your seniority good-bye.

After your freshman year, you were probably used to college and used to knowing everything about your school. During your senior year, you were the Big Kahuna. When you go from college to work, you can kiss that seniority good-bye. You’ll be the baby of the bunch and be expected to report to authority figures who will probably treat you like the newbie that you are.

6. The variety of college is over.

During college, things were different every day. Certain classes met on certain days of the week. You might have run from a chemistry lab to a history lecture before dashing off to your dorm to get ready for a night on the town. You didn’t have to wake up at the same time every day, and you could basically do whatever you wanted at any time. When you get a job, you might initially be shocked by the monotony of it all—showing up at the same time every day, eating lunch at the same time every day, being around the same people every day, doing the same thing every day. When the variety of college is over, you’ll probably miss it.

7. Changing things isn’t as easy.

Can’t stand your professor? Drop the class and take it again next semester with someone new. Hate your roommate? Crash on a friend’s couch til the end of the semester and request a new one. Not thrilled with your major? Change it! When you make the transition from college to work, changing things won’t be as easy. You most likely won’t be able to change established company policies or break traditions during your first few months of employment. You won’t be able to request a new boss because you don’t like yours.

8. The days of automatic promotions are over.

During college, you were promoted to the next level as soon as you’d earned enough credits. Your grades didn’t matter (as long as you’d passed the courses, obviously) and there was no interview or test to ensure you were ready to move up the ladder. Things work a lot differently in the real world. Raises and promotions aren’t automatic.

9. Your social life will take a drastic turn.

Exam at 9 AM on Friday? No problem! As long you’re back from the bars by 4:30 AM, you can grab a couple hours of sleep, stumble to class in your pajamas and take a nap as soon as you’re back. Once you make the transition from college to work, though, that sort of behavior just won’t cut it. You’ll miss it at first; you might even try to keep up with your old habits and go out with friends who are still in college. Then reality sinks in, and a full night’s sleep becomes a necessity.

10. You aren’t as rich as you thought you’d be.

Unless you’re indepently wealthy, living on a college student’s budget is tough. Working in retail or customer service (i.e., running a cash register or waiting tables) doesn’t pay a fortune, but you need to realize that along with a decent-paying salary come decent-sized bills. Living in your own apartment and paying for your own utilities is much more expensive than living in a dorm on campus. Driving to work every day means you’ll have to fill up the gas tank on a regular basis, whereas during college you could walk just about anywhere you wanted to go. Dressing professionally is a lot costlier than dressing like a college student. The list goes on and on, but the truth is, you aren’t as rich as you thought you’d be.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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