10 Things Every Graduate Should Know

I graduated from high school…er, more than a decade ago, which means I can be part of the new generation mumbling about “what they’re teaching kids these days.” It seems the more complex our society becomes, the longer the list of basic things kids should – but aren’t – learning in school becomes.

To piggy back off last week’s blog Smart Money, Smart Kids (if you haven’t read the book – you should!), the following is a list of 10 things no one should graduate from high school without knowing, ranging from the profound to the not-so profound.

We’ll call them “basic career skills” every high school graduate should know:

1. How to go to college without going into debt. Yes, it’s hard, but it is possible (see Smart Money, Smart Kids). Nothing will hold you back from your future like a millstone of $50,000 around your neck when you turn 24. Add $18,000 from a spouse and $15,000 from a wedding and you’ll still be paying off debt when your children are in kindergarten. College is for getting a degree, not about living a lifestyle you can’t afford. Your 25-year-old self will thank your 18-year-old self later.

2. How to make a budget and do taxes. For the former, see The Total Money Makeover. Without beating a dead horse, this book is seriously probably the best practical gift you can give any graduate. For the latter, yes there’s Turbo Tax, but everyone needs to understand the basics of a written 1040 IRS form, including the difference between your gross income and net income.

3. How to leave a professional voice message. You’d think the generation who grew up with cell phones in their hand would know this one, but I can’t tell you the number of calls we get at work saying, “This is Bob…call me back.” Even if you wind up never working in the corporate environment, even if it’s just calling your doctor to make an appointment,graduates need to know how to leave a professional message —  “Hi, this is Diane Sutton. I’m calling to check the status of my order. Please call me back at 212-355-2965” or “This is Blake Brown. I need to make an appointment. Please call me at 365-789-2334.” Not “This is Jessica…can someone call me??”

4. How to write a proper e-mail. Professional e-mails do not say “Hi” in the subject line (or worse, have no subject at all). And they include a proper greeting and a closing, not:

Hello, where’s my password?

5. How to use 15 key synonyms. I still cringe when I see e-mails from CEOs and managers asking “What have we got to loose?” You don’t have to be a grammar whiz to survive in the real world, but proper use of the words below will make you seem enormously educated:


Bonus: That/which

Please put the elite vocabulary words like subjugation and substantiate on hold and focus on these until you’ve mastered them.

6. Google Search: awareness of online image. Give students a few sample names to practice on — you can even practice on volunteers from the class. Show them an online image – a “personal trail” – and how easy it is to find less than savory pictures/tweets/posts about that person. Even better, put together sample resumes of job contestants and have the students search them online to see which one they would hire. They’ll get the picture real fast.

7. How to dress to impress. Ask students (for a grade!) to come in one day dressed for a job interview. Have a guest judge explain, based solely on presentation, who he/she would pick for their firm. If students are low income, give them enough notice to be able to put together presentable outfit(s), but don’t forgo the chance to do this.  Better they solve this problem now before having two days’ notice to show up in a professional environment with a job on the line. Every day for a week, give students the assignment to come in dressed for an interview, wedding, funeral (is it OK to wear a tank top?) a dinner with friends, an awards ceremony (is it appropriate to show up in flip-flops?), shopping at Wal-Mart, etc. Anyone who forgets the assignment, doesn’t take the assignment seriously or shows up in pajama pants for any of the above gets an “F” for the day. Life won’t give do-overs.

8. Conflict resolution. Call it the result of Twitter where you can send zingers into cyberspace anonymously, or “helicopter parenting,” but many high schoolers graduate with zero conflict resolution skills. Zero. Let the teacher play various “roles” – a dentist office you’re having a hard time getting an appointment with. A repairman you can’t get to come to your house etc. Have students practice handling the situation effectively – who handled it best, who got the results they wanted? Why didn’t insulting the receptionist work, etc.

9. Social responsibility. Give students a variety of assignments to be completed in the course of 2-3 months:

  • “On-time” assignments, where you flunk if you’re late to class.
  • Event invitations where you flunk if you don’t rsvp (one way or the other).
  • The task of sharing a talent of yours with another person.
  • Doing something nice for someone else’s grandmother.
  • Helping someone in a time of crisis.
  • Leaving an anonymous note of encouragement.
  • Giving someone a gift for an anniversary event.

It’s not rocket science, but some teenagers have never been taught the importance of being on time or acknowledging the life events of others. Think girl scout badges – have a minimum of required events and give prizes for those who collect the most social badges. Highlight events of responsibility (and failures of responsibility) in current events in the media.

No, you may not change the trajectory of a teenager’s personality, but as far as life skills, they may get more out of this assignment in the long run than “State History.”

10. Career – What you were born to to? This is where the Purpose Driven Life and books like it comes in handy. Start thinking about purpose and what you were made to do. In addition to the usual career tests:

  • Have students read at least two “career books” of their choice.
  • Have students read at least one book in their targeted field (journalism, engineering, law, etc). Did they like it? Why or why not?
  • Have students solicit 10 encouraging statements from friends and family on what they’re good at.
  • Have them interview three people in their projected career field.

College should be a time of refining career path details, not blind experimentation. Pity on the graduate who graduates with a four-year degree (and $20,000 in student loan debt) in a field they hate.


But that’s setting the bar low, you say…what about History, Geography, Math and even gym? Don’t get me wrong – those things are important.

The best piece of advice I learned when I graduated?

I know it sounds cheesy, but “Know yourself, and follow your heart.” But at the same time, be practical. If your heart loves French poetry, you may need to get a double-major in Business.

The best piece of advice I’ve learned since graduation? “Sometimes the back-up plan is just as important as the plan.” We put so much stock in our dreams with little to no backup plan. Sometimes your dream is actually cobbled together using 4-5 “backup plans” instead of one perfectly executed plan. Don’t despise the back-up plan.

Congratulations Class of 2014!