How to Prepare for College Graduation

As rites of passage go, few are as momentous as college graduation. The commencement ceremony marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another. It’s the culmination of years of hard work and a bridge to a future in either the workforce or to graduate school.

But college graduation is also a dream denied to many. Of full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in 2011, 40% did not earn their degree within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

For college students who are nearing graduation, here is a look at the milestones that mark the big moment.

The Path to Graduation

The checklist for graduating seniors is likely to vary by major, says Fred Corey, vice provost for undergraduate education at Arizona State University–Tempe. Some may need field placements or internships to meet graduation requirements. Others may require additional certification or professional licensing once they enter their field as a graduate.

“Students need to think long term,” Corey says.

That means planning for graduation doesn’t start as a senior, but far earlier.

Kevin Monahan, associate dean for career and professional development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, says students should start thinking about career options and goals early in order to build a robust resume.

Monahan works to do just that, helping students think through options. “During their first year, we engage them on identifying opportunities that will help build their skill sets and connect their academic learning to a potential career.”

[Read: How to Get an Internship in College.]

Beyond thinking about career options, students will have to check a number of boxes before donning their gown and mortarboard. Graduation requirements vary by college, but generally students should expect to meet the minimum number of credits and GPA for their program and may be required to complete a portfolio or final project.

Students should check with academic advisers and the university registrar to understand graduation requirements.

Celebrating College Graduation

When the big day finally arrives, students can expect to celebrate with a commencement ceremony.

The scene for most commencements is largely the same. Hundreds or even thousands of students and family members pack into an arena to celebrate. Students make the procession to collect their diploma as family and friends cheer. There also may be a long-winded speaker doling out life and career advice before students can collect their degree and take selfies with classmates.

Given the importance of the moment, graduates and families should make the most of commencement, Corey says. “It’s a really important ritual that students and their families value; it becomes a sort of performance of accomplishment.”

But graduation day, like countless other rituals, has been disrupted with many colleges modifying commencement due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some schools have made the move to hold virtual commencements, while others are rescheduling or canceling entirely.

Maria Reveles Gonzalez, a graduating senior at the University of Houston, is unsure how she’ll celebrate the big day. “I’d love to celebrate with my classmates, but if that’s not possible, I’ll celebrate with my family that supported me at home.”

How she’ll celebrate comes down to the status of the public health emergency. Graduating students should still mark the special occasion, experts say, and tap into modern interconnectivity to enjoy the long-awaited fruits of their labor.

“So what we need to do is find other ways of performing that accomplishment, and what ASU is doing, and many other universities as well, is creating a virtual online ceremony,” Corey says. And while it’s “not the same as the face-to-face environment, it is still a ritual, it is still a ceremony.”

He encourages students to wear their cap and gown, attend the virtual ceremony and celebrate with family. As with much of pandemic life, they should take advantage of technology and use video messaging apps to share the moment.

“What I would recommend is creating a different kind of event,” Corey says.

[See: 10 Ways College Students Can Navigate the Coronavirus Outbreak.]

Students blown off the path to graduation by the coronavirus should prioritize their health first, he adds. ASU will allow seniors struggling with the added pressures of pandemic life to withdraw from classes and retake those in the summer to graduate in August, he says.

Students should reach out to their college for help with whatever they need, whether that’s counseling services or additional financial aid. “They’re unique. It’s not ever safe for us to assume what a student needs,” Corey says. We really need to have one-on-one contact with that student to figure out exactly what’s best for that individual.”

Landing a Job After Graduation

Projections for when the economy will reopen in the wake of the coronavirus are a moving target. For grads, that’s likely to mean a challenging job market fraught with uncertainty as employers reel from the financial blow inflicted by the coronavirus.

Opportunities may be scarce for graduates and are even starting to vanish for some underclassmen.

“Underclassmen are hearing about the cancellation of internship programs,” Monahan says.

According to a recent poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 12% of employers are revoking summer 2020 internships. Others are looking to shift internships online, where possible.

Such cancellations prompted the creation of the crowdsourced website

While times are tight, that doesn’t mean jobs aren’t out there. As with any job market, availability varies by major. Monahan points to data analytics, software engineering, health care and supply chain management as strong fields now.

[Explore: 10 College Majors With the Highest Starting Salaries.]

Students on the job hunt, regardless of major, should do the same thing they would do in a normal labor market, Monahan says: prep their cover letter and resume, hone interview skills, identify potential employers and apply for jobs.

Like much of current life, the coronavirus has forced career fairs and career services to an online format. Monahan says students should tap into both, conducting virtual interviews with recruiters and seeking help from their college.

Corey encourages students to look at job postings and consider how the language used fits their talents and goals. Think about what the market wants, he says, and use that language in applications where accurate and appropriate.

Reveles Gonzalez, who plans to enter the teaching field, is interning online at an elementary school. With her college career winding down, she’s left with an obstacle — the inability to take exams for her teaching license.

“We can’t take our certification exams because the testing centers are closed,” she says. “We’re just kind of waiting it out.”

Yet, she sees this as a moment of professional growth in the midst of a crisis

“I’ve been able to utilize all these different resources online, I’m learning how to integrate so many things into my classroom, and all these different websites that I can give to my kids. Things that I probably wouldn’t have thought of, just because I wasn’t put in this situation,” Reveles Gonzalez says.

The reality for 2020 graduates is not the same as it was for the classes before them.

“Our new graduates are going to have to accept that the employment landscape is different than it was a month ago, six months ago, than what their friends went through last year,” Monahan says.

Grads should network diligently, build an online presence and volunteer if possible. Those unable to find a job right away should stay engaged in their field, he adds. “You don’t want time to go by and not be up to date about what is relevant.”

He also encourages students to build a support network. “A tight job market can be extremely demoralizing if you try to do it completely by yourself.”

Reveles Gonzalez encourages her fellow graduates to give themselves grace in these trying times.

“If they don’t have it all figured out,” she says, “it’s OK, because no one really does.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

More from U.S. News

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