The Real World: Stop Avoiding It and Start Early

College studentsPeople are talking about the harsh realities of the real world these days, and now that I finished my first year of college and I’m beginning the process of building my future career, I’m starting to listen. Is the real world only for grownups? What is this “real world” exactly? I’m trying to find out, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The real world isn’t something you get into after graduating from college, facing the daunting task of getting a job and supporting yourself. Financial independence is a scary thing, and no one has the answers as to how it can be achieved. I definitely don’t know, but what I do know is that I get “I’m so jealous of you for having three years of college left” and “you get to spend all that time just enjoying life and living it up” a lot. And I’m sick of hearing it. Truth is, the way you can feel more secure in graduating, ready to begin your new life and career, is by starting early. No, the real world is something you live in, all the time, constantly seeking out opportunity, making connections and networking without even trying.

I just completed a five-month internship at a PR firm where I was the youngest intern there. I loved my experience – not at first, but eventually when they started trusting me with more responsibilities and tasks that a more seasoned intern would breeze through. But I spent my time poring through the intern handbook, reading blogs and other first-time intern accounts of their experience. I chose to write my paper for a journalism class on internships for fun. So when they gave me more challenging tasks, to say I was prepared would be an understatement.

With social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn at my side (contrary to a Criminal Minds episode, they’re not just places where creepers hang out waiting to kidnap you if used effectively) I’m setting out to establish my place in the public relations world years before stepping off the stage as a college graduate. Internships are getting increasingly competitive, not to mention the overwhelming scarcity of entry-level jobs, so I’m looking to have as much experience in my arsenal as time allows. But I don’t want just a laundry list of places I’ve worked and minimum wages I’ve made. How do I expect to have a packed resume plus some achievements that will stand out to a future employer? Again, by starting early.

I see college as a really powerful tool in building the house of my career. Internships are like the raw material: the wood, the plaster and the concrete that puts it all together. College makes it into something that can be used productively, like a drill or a hammer and a nail. Both things together will allow me to get comfortable in my house and have a good job that’s fulfilling and open for advancement. Right now, I barely have a roof over my head. But someday, I hope to have a big mansion. Maybe some recent college graduates have a shack that will barely withstand a thunderstorm. That’s OK. Just keep working at it and getting more experience and soon you’ll have a cozy abode that will get you to the next level.

I’m expecting that college graduates of the future will do nothing but follow the “starting early” philosophy. My advice for current college graduates is to take the time between finishing your degree and getting a job to really fine-tune your resumes and portfolios. What makes you stand out? It’s easy to deny that you’ve been living in “the real world” for your entire life, and not so easy to look at your work and ask yourself what you did with all those years. Maybe you won’t have to look too hard to find something that would make you an exemplary employee. Things that you do for free are a great start – volunteer positions, internship work, apprenticeships, job shadowing – all of those things will make you seem dedicated and engaged in your community. Highlight those things and if you don’t have them, start doing them. It’s never too late to start building your mansion.

Sara Steffan is a public relations student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She hopes to get both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in four years. A native of Buffalo, New York, Sara was an editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper and found a passion in journalism there. She also really likes people, so she thought public relations might be a good fit. She’s also fascinated by personality profiles in magazines and might want to try those out someday too. As a rising sophomore, she has three more years to make up her mind. Sara loves things like pens, mainstream music, puppies and social media, of course. She can be found tweeting about those and hopefully more entertaining things at

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  • Great post! As a recent college grad I completely agree with you! It's a great time to start not only discovering the industry, but where you want to be in that industry as well! A lot of self discovery happens in the first few months after graduation and I am definitely in that realm as I write this! Keep up the great attitude and you will go far.

  • Elisha Velez

    Great advice Sara. I wish I had started interning a lot earlier than I did. I guess that's what happens when you switch your major a few times. I always knew I was in the real world before I graduated, seeing as I have been financially independent since high school, but now that I'm still in search of my perfect PR job and trying to earn enough money to keep a roof over my head the real world seems a bit more real.

    I think it's a grea idea for anyone in between college and/or jobs to keep working on their portfolios and even more importantly, keep writing. Even if you can't afford to take on an internship, you can find a way to keep writing and stay current with your profession. Keep up with social media/PR/Marketing blogs, create your own blog and/or try to write for your local paper.

    Keep up the great work Sara. Thanks!

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  • T.

    I think you're taking an admirably proactive approach to college and your career, but I think you're missing the point somewhat. It's good to have internship experience, for sure, but there's a ceiling to how far that will get you. Beyond probably 3-4, you're not showing your prospective employer anything new. An internship is an internship is an internship.

    The real value in those internships isn't necessarily the experience, rather the networking. That is how you're going to get a job. I had plenty of experience coming out of college, professional help with my resume and cover letters, and couldn't even land an interview. My brother's college roommate, of all people, got me a position as a copywriter and now I'm the comm. coordinator at the same business after a couple of months.

    You can do a lot to position yourself for life after college, but in the end, a little luck is probably the best thing you can hope for.

  • nicoleshoe

    Love hearing from another Buffalo gal!!!
    I did plenty of internships as well in college. I was a journalism major and wanted to be a newspaper writer. Unfortunately times have changed, and while I still do some freelance articles, I've shifted towards PR and marketing communications. Even though things changed in the 'real world' I still appreciate the skills I gained through my internships.
    Just remember things can change at any time, and don't be afraid of that change!!!
    Don't work too hard 🙂

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