When I first entered college, I was as wide eyed and excited as the rest of the incoming class of 2009. Now that I’ve graduated, I look back at the best years of my life with a type of sweet nostalgia. I miss it. But you can’t change time, and sooner or later everyone grows up, and that’s the hard part to face.

Everyone’s college experience is different. For me, it was like one big study abroad program. Everything was laid out for you to do with your class schedule and homework, and during downtime there was time to mingle with other students and explore your campus/city surroundings. It felt like a big vacation from life, a type of bubble surrounding you from the real world.

When that bubble burst and I graduated, I did not feel as prepared as I could have been. Even though college is four years, time goes by fast, and a lot can happen in the world once you leave the safety of school life. When I graduated high school, the economy was in great shape. Everyone was buying houses and making a lot of money, and jobs were secure. Fast forward four years later and you have a recession with one of the worst unemployment rates for graduating students in history. I wasn’t prepared for that.

If I could go back and tell my freshman self what I know now, I would tell that sweet, innocent girl to start planning for her career at day one. This means networking and making the right connections with professors and alumni, utilizing the career center and, most important, getting internships. Honestly, as a freshman, I was interested in, of course, getting good grades, but other than that, I wanted to have fun, meet people and party. Not to say that focusing on these things was a mistake; it’s what made my college experience so memorable. What I neglected to do was balance the fun with the necessary. The real world is waiting for you, and it can be beautiful and ugly in so many ways. Preparation for the ugly depends on how you use the tools that college offers you.

These tools sadly, are not all found in the classroom, especially if what you’re learning is theoretically based. You have to apply, apply, apply. Take what you learned and apply it to everyday life. How? For example, as a Communications major, I learned about diagramming and dissecting a conversation between two people and what makes for effective communication. I read about it, wrote papers and listened to my professor talk about it for an hour. I had a final, and that was the end of it. During that time, I could have contacted and communicated with alumni or joined a club where networking was necessary, so I could practice what I learned in order to seek these contacts for advice or even a job once I graduated. For those in the sciences, join a lab and find research opportunities with professors. It will pay off in the end.

Another important thing to note, and something I wish I could have done sooner, was interning. The biggest thing to remember is that a majority of internships are only offered to students, so once you graduate, you’ve basically missed a whole window of opportunity. There are still internships out there after you graduate, but they’re harder to find. One thing I learned is that the most legitimate internships offer you school credit, and if you’re not learning anything from your internship, then stop wasting your time.

Lastly, I would tell my freshman self that you never, ever stop learning once you get out of school – that every day will be a challenge, and that mistakes are bound to happen. I would tell myself to truly foster the relationships I have with friends and family, because I will need their support during my transition into adult working life. And not to forget to be open to new things and adventures. Fear is a part of the experience, but you can always alleviate the fear with the right preparation and support.