tips for new grads entering the workforce

Soon to start your first post-college job? Here are some tips to quickly build a strong reputation and ensure your first job is a success.

1. Listen more than you talk. Soak up information about how the organization works, and the reasons why, before you offer “helpful” alternatives.

2. Don’t segregate yourself with other people your same age. Get to know older workers too. Your peer group may be more fun to go to happy hour with, but those coworkers a decade or more older than you can be a major help with your career. (And you might find out you enjoy their company too!)

3. Don’t become part of a workplace clique. As much as you might like some coworkers, maintain professional boundaries. Don’t get drawn into gossiping about coworkers, and don’t take on other people’s workplace battles just because you consider them friends. Too many young workers have harmed their own careers by focusing on chit-chat over work or by deciding to dislike the boss just because a coworker does.

4. Take mistakes seriously. There’s nothing more frustrating than an employee who made a mistake and doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When you make a mistake, immediately take responsibility for it, figure out how you’re going to fix it, and make it clear that you understand its seriousness. Responses like “my bad” or, worse, no response at all signal that you don’t take work seriously.

5. Take notes. Your boss expects you to remember the specific instructions you were given – and that includes nuances, not just the overarching idea. For most people, that means taking notes. And while a good manager is happy to answer questions, she won’t be if the questions are ones she already answered when you weren’t bothering to pay attention.

6. Don’t use social networking sites or instant-messaging with friends throughout the workday. When you’re at work, you should focus 100% on work. There’s no quicker way to make a bad impression on your boss than to be spotted on Gmail or IM’ing with friends when you should be working.

7. Do what you say you’re going to do, by when you say you’re going to do it. Always, always sticking to your word will establish you as someone reliable and trustworthy, someone who’s on top of their game – and it’s such rare behavior that you’ll stand out for it.

8. Pay attention to the culture. This is hugely important, and when new employees don’t do it, they come across as tone-deaf. Observe how others act and you’ll pick up a ton of information about cultural expectations. Are people compulsively on time for meetings? Do they take a real lunch or eat at their desks? What hours do most people work? Is there a lot of chitchat during the day, or do people stay focused on their work? Do people primarily use E-mail to communicate or talk in person? While you don’t need to become someone you’re not, you do want to try to roughly fit into cultural parameters.

9. Be open to learning. You may have learned lots of theory in the classroom, but it tends to change drastically when human behavior gets involved. College gave you theory; work is going to give something entirely different, so stay humble and realize your first job is going to be largely about learning.

10. Thank people who help you. When your boss or another coworker takes the time to help you with something, give them a sincere thank you. People who feel appreciated are more likely to go out of their way for you again. If you don’t seem to care, they probably won’t bother again.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    As a few years out of college, I have learned these 10 tips. I would like to just point out there are those who have been in the workforce for decades (20+ years) who do not know how to follow these tips. Taking a look at those I work with, they need to better understand #6. My 50 year old colleague doesn’t know how to put her cell phone down or silence it from all of the texting she sends and receives! And it’s against company policy, but no one says anything to her as she repeats it day in and day out.

    So yes, new grads should definitely know these, but it also to keep reminding those who have been on the job for years to know these too. Am I just saying that because I am a few years removed from college? No. I understand new grads, including myself, need these friendly reminders. However, I am just commenting on my experience with others who are older; furthermore, when these other people do not play by the rules, it sends the wrong signal to the upcoming generation.

  2. ES*

    I would love to leave a print-out of this on the desk of the intern I manage, but that would be mean.

    1. X2*

      No, not doing anything would be mean… Do your job and manage your intern. If you notice some of these things being challenges for your intern, it is your Job as her or his manager to give actionable feedback about these things if they are a problem.

      Sorry if that sounds harsh, but if you manage this intern, you are in a position to make things better.

      1. Anonymous*

        Leaving a printout, yeah that’s mean.

        Talking to her, working with her to improve, and mentoring her, any or all of those would be very good.

    2. Anonymous*

      We already had a poster who wanted to tell a bully coworker to mind her own business and stop taunting another employee. That particular OP instead printed out what AAM wrote with all of our comments and placed it on that person’s desk anonymously. You should have seen the backlash here when we read about it in the updates!

      1. X2*

        The big difference here is this is the intern’s supervisor. Unlike just being a coworker, it is a manager’s job to give constructive feedback when the intern is doing something wrong.

        In the post you are referring to, the OP did the right thing in a wrong-headed, passive way. In this case, the supervisor not addressing these things directly with the intern is wrong, so trying to address it by leaving a print-out is more egregious.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I could actually see using the article as a basis for a discussion, or even just forwarding it to her and saying “hey, I thought you might enjoy this” or whatever (not in a passive-aggressive way, but in a genuine way of sending resources around).

  3. A Current College Student*


    As a college student now looking for summer internships (and a full-time job sometime in the future!), is there any way to convey that I’m a fair amount better than average at a lot of these skills? Or should I leave that to my references (who’ll hopefully agree)?

    1. Dawn*

      In my opinion, the way you conduct yourself in the interview should convey that you are a mature person who is focused . And, yes, your references will be able to support this.

  4. Jamie*

    Alison – thanks for doing your part to help stop the “my bad” phenomenon.

    This little phrase doesn’t indicate that the utterer accepts responsibility for his/her actions. It does indicate that the speaker finds their own foibles kind of adorable and hence it’s okay to be dismissive of valid feedback.

    Few things set my teeth on edge as quickly as hearing this phrase.

      1. Lindsay H.*

        I’m trying to get better at saying, “I’m sorry” because just a “Sorry” can seem insincere and doesn’t articulate you’re responsible for a misdeed.

        1. Jamie*

          I’m sorry is still the socially appropriate way to express the sentiment though.

          I think it only seems insincere if it’s lip service – although learning how to deliver a sincere sounding apology is an excellent business skill to hone.

          There are degrees of “I’m sorry” as well – and it’s good to know which one to whip out depending on the situation.

          Two true circumstances from my work life:
          1. (Now former) Co-Worker A made an error based on disregarding policy and sloppiness. This error cost 5+ hours (each) of the time of both myself and another manager to correct the error. It was urgent and needed to be corrected immediately, which meant I didn’t leave work until 11:45 pm. And I don’t work nights – I had been there since 7:30 am.

          Co-Worker A’s response? “Ooops – so sorry. My bad!” with a shrug of the shoulders.

          Co-Worker B made an typo and asked for help in reversing a system transaction. Took about two minutes of my time, no big deal.

          Co-Worker B’s response? “I’m really sorry about that, I know you’re busy…thanks so much for helping me out.”

          Guess who I like better? And guess which one I would rather work an important project with, see promoted, or trust with the more crucial assignments.

          No one is perfect, knowing how to own your mistakes is huge. And rare – so when you are that person, people notice.

            1. jmkenrick*

              It might be worthwhile to consider how you respond to the apologies. I’ve apologized for errors before, only to have people tell me stop.

              Although my family says I err too much on the over-apologetic side.

          1. Lindsay H.*

            I was ambiguous with my first statement. I didn’t mean to say that I don’t use “I’m sorry.” To me, dropping the “I” part of the statement makes me question if they really mean it, much like your first example.

        1. Jamie*

          I blame Harry Potter for this :). In the US brilliant used to be reserved for the truly exceptional act. Now it’s just another another synonym for awesome.

          And I do love Harry Potter – but they have done as much to devalue that word as Apple has with genius…which now apparently means anyone who does tier 1 tech support in the mall.

    1. Anonymous*

      On this note, the overuse of “like” also needs to like, stop because it’s like, so totally like, annoying and like, so distracting from like, what the person is like, actually like trying to like, say and stuff.


    2. Naomi*

      In my experience this isn’t the case, but it’s good to know that using a phrase that indicates you understand the mistake is your fault, and is usually followed by “it won’t happen again” or “I’ll fix it by doing X” is perceived to mean the opposite!

  5. JT*

    “My bad” is literally a strong apology, but it’s informality makes it sound insincere.

    Another information phrase that I can’t stand is “It’s all good.” Never use that in a work situation.

  6. Anonymous*

    “My bad” is equivalent to saying “my fault.” Usually it follows, “Sorry” as in “Sorry, my bad.” I usually here it in haste or in very trivial things.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It has a very, very cavalier connotation, so it’s not appropriate to use in the workplace for anything other than the most minor incidence (like spilling something in the kitchen, which you then promptly clean up).

  7. KayDay*

    Conversely, I would also caution new grads to avoid apologizing TOO much (for small mistakes), no matter how sincere. I’ve had to be reminded of this a few times–it’s generally best to resist the urge to apologize unless the problem really is your fault and really is causing problems for other people. If the mistake is small enough that you can fix it (and really fix it, not just cover it up) without it affecting anyone else, there is no need to “confess” your mistake, unless directly asked. For example, from my first month at my first real job: I had to ship about 10 boxes to a client located abroad. I completely messed up on the forms the first time, and had to re-do them. When my boss came by later and asked how things were going, I told her exactly what happened and apologized for the delay. I should have just said, “I just called FedEx and the pick-up is scheduled for 4:00pm. They should arrive in 5 business days” and left it at that. If you apologize for everything, people will start to think you are unreliable.

    That said, if it is a mistake big enough that other people take notice you should definitely offer a sincere apology. Just don’t do it for every little thing (of which there will be plenty for recent grads).

    1. Jamie*

      This is good advice. When I started out I tended to over apologize and the man who later became my mentor told me to knock it off – because it was hurting my credibility.

      I wasn’t just apologizing for errors, but for not knowing something off the top of my head and I’d apologize if they were frustrated with the system. I had to consciously force myself to stop doing that.

      I still believe in apologizing for errors, or inconveniencing others…the intensity of the apology needs to be in proportion with the mistake, though. If you cost me a couple of minutes, a simple sorry – thanks, in an email is just fine. Don’t wear a hairshirt over a minor mistake.

      If you cost me most of my work day cleaning up a mess you made, especially if it was due to not following documented procedures – then coming to find me apologize and let me know you get what you did wrong and it won’t happen again is appropriate.

      It needs to fit the situation.

  8. Erik*

    Thank you so much for publishing this list. I needed to work on several of these things right out of college, but it really frustrated me in retrospect that I was judged by these criteria that no one had ever bothered to inform me of. As much as new grads have a responsibility to adapt quickly and behave maturely, I think managers have a responsibility to refrain from hidden expectations.

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