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5 things not to say to new college graduates

By Anne-Marie O'Neill,
Think before you talk to college graduates and ask about their post-college plans.
Think before you talk to college graduates and ask about their post-college plans.
  • When speaking with recent graduates, get creative with your questions
  • Don't ask, "do you have a job lined up?" Instead, offer them connections
  • Grads are realistic, so don't offer them empty platitudes

( -- While you are congratulating some new college graduates, here are some examples of what you should not say to them.

'What can you do with that degree?'

No one poses this question to electrical-engineering students. But ask a roomful of liberal-arts folks if they've heard it and every hand goes up. It's frustrating for them.

A better question might be "What have you learned that will help you do what you enjoy?" Today's economy is rapidly evolving, and many new grads will end up as freelancers or entrepreneurs and perform jobs that don't exist right now.

Ultimately, what really matters is whether they have developed the critical-analysis skills to help them succeed.

Katharine Brooks is the director of liberal-arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "You Majored in What?" ($26,

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'You should go to law school'

Many college graduates jump into law school because they don't know what they actually want to do. Parents and friends suggest it because they think it's a safe default. But a grad should choose his life's path only once he knows himself well enough to be sure of what he wants.

See photos of the Class of 2011

I think people should first spend a few years exploring to figure out what engages their passions. I ended up in law school because my mother pressured me to "do something already."

She wanted me to go to medical school but settled for law. I got lucky and stumbled into a field I love. Unfortunately, it doesn't end up that way for everyone.

Larry Kramer is the dean of Stanford Law School, in Palo Alto, California.

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'Do you have a job lined up?'

While firms in a few areas, like finance, recruit seniors before commencement, many companies fill positions as they open up. So this type of question can make students heartsick.

Instead, offer them any industry connections you have. And be sure to ask them how they are feeling, listen to them express frustration, and offer hope.

Mark Presnell is the director of the Career Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

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'The economy has been bad before. You'll get through it'

Grads are realistic, so don't offer them empty platitudes or assure them that things will get better in a few years. They're concerned about what they can do right now to jump-start their careers.

I suggest they spend time making their profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook appear as professional as possible. That's where employers are looking for new hires these days.

Nancy Shulman is a recruiter for the accounting firm Ernst & Young in Washington, D.C.

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'My fill-in-the-blank relative just graduated, and she's doing great!'

Nobody receives more unsolicited advice than a recent grad, except maybe a pregnant woman. But my least favorite thing to hear is someone else's success story. I'm sure people mean to inspire us when they mention their 23-year-old cousin who scored a position as a photojournalist for National Geographic right out of school.

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But in reality that's terrifying. We would much rather believe that everyone feels as nervous and lost as we do. Tell us about your neighbor's son who is balancing four part-time jobs -- none of which have anything to do with his degree -- and assure us that he's doing just fine.

Rachel Walls, 23, of Brookline, Massachusetts, is a recent college graduate who is balancing two part-time jobs and doing just fine.

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