12 Things You Learned in College That Prepared You for the Real World

June 15, 2015


When I was a freshman in college, one of my very first professors gave our class a piece of advice that I'll never forget:

"Begin emails with 'Hi,' not 'Hey.'"

If you were expecting some awe-inspiring, TED-talk-worthy words of wisdom, it might've surprised you that this is what's stuck with me over the years. I mean, what's the big deal with saying "Hey"?

To my professor, a middle-aged man who wore a coat and tie to every class, there's a world of difference between "Hey" and "Hi." He reads emails beginning with "Hey Mr. X" as "HEY! YOU!" It feels aggressive, like the sender is shouting at him from across the street. He preferred "Hi Mr. X" -- it was a much more neutral and respectful way to greet someone, he told us.

That was all it took. Since then, I've been starting every one of my work, networking, and other more formal emails with "Hi."

College taught us a whole slew of skills that've translated into the workplace, from how to address people in an email to how to hack a meal together out of snack food. I chatted with my teammates and compiled their stories below.

 Which lessons have you carried with you from college to the workplace? We'd love to hear from you in the comments. 

12 Things You Learned in College That Actually Prepared You for Work


The ability to search the internet on a moment's notice has been a total game changer for students and professionals alike.

"Don't know the answer to that question on your homework? Google it. Don't know the answer to a question in your first couple weeks on the job? Google it," says Brittany Leaning, Content Strategist at HubSpot.

If college graduations had Oscars-style thank-you speeches, let's just say Google (and Wikipedia, for that matter) would definitely get a shout out.

2) Don't bring your laptop into important meetings.

Admit it. Whether in a classroom or a conference room, when you have your laptop open, the temptation to catch up on email, respond to an instant message, or look through your open tabs is at an all-time high. But who could blame you? Some classes and some meetings are just more important than others. But for those you want to actually get something out of, simply closing your laptop can make a huge difference.

"I had a couple sections in college where we weren't allowed to use computers, and I found myself able to concentrate and participate so much better in those sections than in the ones where I could bring my laptop," remembers Lanya Olmsted, Conversion Rate Optimization Specialist at HubSpot. "I know I came out of some lectures without a clue what was lectured on because I was iMessaging, Facebooking, and online shopping. So at work, if there's a meeting where I don't need my computer to take notes (like a brainstorming session), I won't bring it."

3) Being scrappy can actually work.

For most of us, college was the first time we had to fend for ourselves -- and it kind of felt like we were airdropped into unfamiliar territory. In other words, there was a lot of stuff we had to figure out on the fly. (See #1, "Google Everything.")

Remember how intimidating that felt? But the survival skills we picked up as a result would ultimately become empowering -- and super handy for navigating real life later on.

"As a poor, starving college student, you often have to just 'make it work,'" says Leaning. "I would go weeks with $20 in my bank account, but I figured out how to get so many things for free."

I saw this in action, too. My group of friends whipped up a calendar of local restaurant deals, so we'd always know when and where to get the best bang for our buck. Sandwiches half-off every Monday afternoon? Yes, please.

"I always think back to these moments when I don't have a ton of resources at my fingertips and need to just make it work and get by," says Leaning.

4) Don't have an iron? Hot showers work pretty well.

Speaking of being scrappy ... this old trick worked like a charm in college, and it sure as heck works like a charm after college.

"In college, I had neither the space for an ironing board nor the money to buy one," says Corey Eridon, Managing Editor of HubSpot's Blog Team. "I figured since my apartment bathroom was so small (and by extension got steamy real fast), it would help iron out my clothes without having to invest the money and space in an ironing board/iron setup. Today I have an iron, but when I'm running late for work, I still use the shower steam technique to get my clothes de-wrinkled and looking professional."

5) Schedule time with people you can learn from.

"When I was in my freshman year, I was intimidated to go to office hours or schedule meetings with professors," says Olmsted. "I eventually took the first step in my junior year and got coffee with my design professor. It was a great conversation, and she has since become one of my best mentors."

"Taking the initiative to schedule those that I could learn from academically can also apply in the workplace. You can get coffee with managers, those on your team, and even those not on your team to find opportunities for collaboration, learn how they got to where they are now, and discover cool projects people are working on."

6) Learn to identify what really matters.

In college, many of us learned to observe our professors for clues on what they believed the most important material was -- we wanted to be prepared when exams rolled around. These clues ranged from the obvious (what was written on the board; what was repeated more than once) to the more subtle (what they became especially excited about; what they made particularly poignant points about).

These emotional intelligence skills have transitioned well into the office, where bosses, clients, and customers aren't always able to verbally express what's most important to them. Being able to pick up on non-verbal cues can be very helpful in saving you time and guiding your work to address the most important needs of its stakeholders.

7) Use Twitter to connect with people you don't know, but want to.

Twitter wasn't around when many of us were in college. But for the latest generation, it's proven itself an incredibly useful networking tool.

For example, Leaning says she "essentially got every internship in college by DMing someone [she] didn't personally know on Twitter to inquire about a certain position or a certain company." Talk about resourceful.

8) Find your working style.

It goes without saying that college is a great time to find out what makes you more productive -- and it'll serve you well as you consider which work environments fit best with your own style.

For some, procrastination forces you to do your best work.

"I always wrote my papers last minute in college -- I was queen of the all-nighter," remembers Eridon. "But junior year, I decided to turn over a new leaf and finish stuff well in advance like a normal human. I did it once, and the paper sucked. I think I got a B-. (Not the worst, but I should've done better considering what the class was.) After that, I went back to procrastinating and writing my papers last minute ... and they all got better grades, too."

"It made me realize I just work better under pressure, and so I kind of forced myself to procrastinate from there on out," she says. "Now, at work, I impose aggressive deadlines on myself so that I get my work done faster and better."

For others, working in spurts is better.

"I would always try and spend 12-hour shifts in the library studying for finals, but it never worked," says Leslie Ye, Staff Writer for the HubSpot Sales Blog. "I realized I do much better working for an hour or two, taking a break to eat, read, nap, take a walk, or watch TV for half an hour, and then coming back fresh. I take the same approach at work. Otherwise, by the end of the day, my productivity has become the definition of diminishing marginal returns."

9) You're probably either a morning person or a night owl. Learn which, and organize your schedule accordingly.

Same goes with how you schedule your working time. Could you wake up just fine for your 9:00 a.m. college classes, or did you find that you were most attentive in those around 2:00 p.m.?

"College teaches you whether or not you are a morning person," says Olmsted. "You can use this information to be smarter about scheduling your meetings or work time for optimal performance."

10) You can actually do pretty good kitchen work with a plastic knife.

The utensil struggle was real in college, and guess what: It's just as real in the office.

"What college kid has a good set of knives? If I ever had to chop up food in college and all I had was a plastic disposable knife," says Eridon, "I learned that if you saw back and forth really, really fast and do not try to press it down into the food prematurely, it does a pretty solid job of slowly-but-surely cutting your food. I still use that technique at work when I'm making my lunch."

11) Don't spread yourself too thin.

When I look back at all the teams and activities and internships and coursework I juggled in college -- especially those first two years when I was eager to make friends and find my niche -- I'm amazed I found any time to sleep. Over the course of my four years, I learned how to be realistic about what I could handle while maintaining happiness (and sanity). It's a mentality that's proven itself quite useful in my professional life as I learn how to balance work, relationships, health, and hobbies.

12) Introduce yourself to everyone when you're new.

While we all wish being a freshman was the only time we'd have to be the "new kid," it happens every time you move to a new city, join a new organization, switch companies, switch teams at the same company, and so on. The key to minimizing that "new kid" status? Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.

"During freshman year, I would go up to people with unfamiliar faces and introduce myself," Olmsted said. "Some great friendships came out of this, and other times I at least got a lunch buddy when none of my other friends were available. This type of attitude can be great when you first join a new company."

What are lessons you learned in college that have proven useful in the workplace? Share with us in the comment section.

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