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Here's what really terrifies college seniors about life after graduation

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Last week I had the surreal experience of returning to my alma mater, the Grady College of Journalism in Athens, Ga. The school asked me to come to speak to graduating journalism students about what it’s like to work in the business today.

Maybe I was naive to expect to see optimism in the faces that stared back at me as I passed from class to class. Unemployment is at an all-time low. Companies are hiring. Overall, the economy is healthier than when I graduated -- in the thick of an economic crisis six years ago. Back then unemployment rate was nearing 10%. Newsrooms were slashing jobs left and right and passing out buyouts like Manager’s Special donuts. Of the dozen or so close friends I graduated with, just a fraction of us are still writing and producing journalism today. I was laid off from my first magazine job after just 2 months and spent the following summer racking up credit debt while I looked for another job.

Surely, today’s graduates have to feel a bit more confident about their futures….right?

As I listened to the questions the class of 2016 asked me last week, I was surprised to see so many of the same emotions I felt six years ago — uncertainty, anxiety and a little fear.

What's different is that they were asking the kinds of questions I don't think many of the folks in my class ever considered before we were gracefully shoved out into the "real world." With each question they asked, some common themes surfaced. Here’s what the class of 2016 is worried about, along with my slightly-more-organized and slightly-less-rambly attempt to put those fears into context.

Is anybody going to hire me?

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The unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in eight years and salaries are improving in just about every field. However, traditional journalism as we know it – newspapers, broadcast news, and radio — is struggling as readers crave online content and publishers struggle to generate revenue from online advertising. By 2022, the industry will shed 7,100 jobs, the Department of Labor predicts. A Georgetown University study found that journalism is one of the only fields where salaries have gotten worse, however, it only looked at the period between 2010-12. Reporters earned about $2,000 above the median annual pay for workers in the U.S. in 2014. Pew also shows how greatly earnings can vary depending on where you live (Georgia, for example, pays reporters 27% above the annual average).

That doesn’t mean journalism is dead or dying. It’s evolving. Try to keep up. If you’re looking for the future of news, look no further than your smartphone. That’s where the eyeballs are. Up and coming journalists will have to understand mobile storytelling in a way veteran reporters never did. You think I ever dreamed I’d run my own podcast six years ago? I barely knew what podcasts were. I had to adapt and learn on my own.

That’s it for my journalism-specific advice on that front. Broadly speaking, the important thing here is to not worry so much about what you have no control over — whether companies are hiring — and instead focus on the part that you can control: Do you have the skills those companies need?

Have you done the work it takes to prepare yourself for life after college, like internships and externships and part-time jobs in the field you want to enter? Employers care much more about your relative job experience than what school you went to or the clubs you were a part of. This obviously doesn’t apply to all majors, but if you haven’t got job experience before you graduate, don’t be surprised if employers aren’t banging down your door. In a 2014 study by Bloomberg, 61% of business students who completed internships said they had a job offer by the winter of their senior year, compared to just 28% of students who didn’t have an internship.

How can I possibly afford to live in [insert wildly expensive city here]?

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Yes, the rent is too damn high, but don’t put too much stock in those “Most expensive cities to live” slideshows. They are often based on average rental rates, which don’t always paint the whole picture. For example: Does $3,000 a month buy you a one-bedroom apartment with onsite washer/dryer in Manhattan? Maybe. Is that what the little old lady in Brooklyn will charge for the basement apartment her nephew helped her post on Craigslist? Probably not. Rental rates vary widely depending on neighborhood and what kind of amenities you’re after. Ask a local who’s lived there at least a few years where affordable rents can be had. If your heart is set on Manhattan (or San Francisco or Boston or D.C. or any other expensive city), get used to living with roommates and putting up with inconveniences like weekly jaunts to the laundromat.

The worst thing you can do is start living beyond your means after you graduate, which is shockingly easy to do. Some of the best advice I ever got was to keep living like a broke college student even when I wasn’t one anymore.

Did I pick the wrong major?

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High school students and parents should absolutely weigh the value of a major with the typical earnings and student loan burden graduates face. You can get a true sense of a school’s value by checking its College Scorecard, calculated by the Department of Education. Unfortunately, that site doesn’t let you see average earnings and debt by major. For that, check out this comprehensive tool by Georgetown University.

By the time you’re in your senior year, it’s a little late in the game to pivot your career focus. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, however. If you’re having second thoughts about your major and want to try something different, your first instinct might be to jump ship and start all over with a fresh new degree. But that usually means more school and more loans. It might make more financial sense to try to get an internship or job in a different field and start building up the skills you would need to establish a career in that field first. Worst-case scenario, you wind up hating your job and decide to go back to where you started. But at least you were getting paid to test the waters.

Did I wait too late to start building credit?

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Quite a few of the students I met were worried about their credit. Apparently, they were denied when they tried to apply for credit because they had no credit history. This is perfectly normal. A lot has changed since the recession, when banks used to pass out credit cards like candy on college campuses. If you’re under 21, banks can no longer extend credit to you as easily as they could before. You have to have a parent co-sign or show proof of independent income in order to qualify. Many banks still offer student credit cards, which are easier to qualify for but have higher interest rates. If you open a high-interest card, be careful not to carry a balance as it’s a quick way to damage your score and only means racking up more interest charges.  

An easier way to start building credit is to have a parent or guardian add you as an authorized user on their credit card. So long as this person is responsible and pays their balance in full each month, you should benefit from that good behavior. You could also sign up for a secured credit card through a local bank or credit union.

I’ve got a whole host of tips on how to manage credit here.

Am I saving enough right now?  

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I couldn’t believe how many students were interested in knowing how to save and invest more. It was pretty refreshing, considering my friends and I hardly knew how to spell “401(k)” when we graduated college. Today, I call my savings and retirement funds my FREEDOM fund (OK, so I might have stolen that one from Learnvest CEO Alexa von Tobel). They give me freedom to make choices about my career and my life that I want to make.

General rules of thumb like “save 10% of your paycheck” don’t always work when you’re just beginning to build your career and learning to manage a budget. Save what you can when you can save it and don’t stop. My basic advice for college students is to pay off any high-interest credit card debt first and save however much they can swing after that. Yes, those student loan bills are important, too, but federal student loans come with the kinds of flexible repayment options you’ll never get from a credit card lender.

You can make things even easier and automate your savings, whether it’s through direct deposit your employer offers or by using a free app like Digit or Qapital. If you’ve got extra cash after you’ve paid bills, saved for emergencies and fed yourself, start contributing to your retirement fund. You can start investing in your company's 401(k), if they offer it, or start even smaller by using an app like Acorns. Whatever you do, don’t wait. Small contributions made today can be worth way more than larger contributions made 10 or 20 year from now (hello compound interest).

Are you graduating from college this year? Tweet me @mandiwoodruff with your money and career questions!

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Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career, life and money.

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