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by Kaitlin McManus | February 27, 2019


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High school and college go a long way in preparing us for “real life.” But even those who graduate with top grades from star schools can find some pitfalls in the day-to-day. How hard “adulting” is has become such a meme that there’s even an Adulting School where they teach you about everything from money to DIY projects. Spoiler alert: the classes aren't cheap, and you can learn about most of their subjects elsewhere for free. Given how expensive college is, you think they’d teach you how to adult just a little bit without needing a different expensive school for it. But, until then, here are some basic life skills you should know, and some (much cheaper) resources for educating yourself on the subjects.

Taxes 101: Filing Made (1040)EZ

I am a grown adult lady, and I have no idea what to do with all the various papers I’m sent in January. What, really, is the difference between a W-2, a 1040, and an 8962? I don’t know! But I got all of those in the past few weeks. And soon I’ll take them to my local tax prep office and hand them over in what I assume will be mascara-streaked hysteria. I was never good at math in college—I failed stats (fact) and had to downgrade to what I think was high school Algebra 2 taught at the college level, which I’ve never used. A class on how to do one’s taxes seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to offer as a math credit for those of us who sat in Geometry class and wondered when on earth we would need to determine the volume of a cylinder. (Never, really—it’s usually printed on the side of the can.)

Luckily, if you’re a student, your taxes probably aren’t that complicated. Which means that you have time to learn! Check out some online resources like TurboTax or H&R Block—they can help walk you through the basics of a W-2 versus a W-4 (they’re very different!) before April 15th.

Monetary Philosophy: What Even Is Money?

Do you know the difference between a Roth IRA, a regular IRA, and the New IRA? Hint: the last one is probably not something you want to invest in. How much should you be contributing to a 401k? Stocks versus bonds? Traditional bank versus credit union? Should you just stash all your money inside your mattress? Probably not. College does not teach you about bank accounts, investing, how to build a budget, or what to do about the massive amounts of debt you accumulate the moment you reach adulthood—and being unprepared can leave you scrambling.

There are plenty of people out there who are willing to offer you advice on what to do with your money. (My personal favorite being, “Give me some.”) Which is why I turn to books instead of people. Reading lets me absorb complicated information at my own pace, without having to stress about sounding like an idiot while talking to someone who actually understands money. I’ve gotten some good advice out of Your Money or Your Life and You Are a Badass at Making Money, and classics like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Think and Grow Rich never go out of style.

Writing 205: Emails & Memos

I took countless writing courses in college (as you do, when you major in it)—as much as I enjoyed my poetry classes, if I could have swapped one of them out with a class about how to write a clear, compelling email, I’d have been way more prepared for…well, basically everything. So much communication is done in writing, and increasingly so as us millennials bristle at the idea of talking out loud to a human being. Coming off as personable in an email is tough, as is not coming off like an overexcited ditz (at least for me). You want to present all the information you must without writing someone a novel. You want to learn when to hit “reply all” and when to not. Having a class on strategies for the cold email, the inter-office memo, anything where you’ve got to make an impression would certainly have been useful.

Since we’re talking about written communication, try looking online for tips. I enjoyed these articles by Forbes and Entrepreneur, and make sure to check out the rest of Vault’s blog for tips on cover letters, resumes, and other ways of making an impression with the written word.

Sociology 283: Public Speaking and You (and Your Audience)

Do you know how many people I know who are terrified at the concept of speaking to a group of their peers, be it as a presentation or in a meeting setting? It’s a lot. While many college classes offer you the opportunity to speak in public (read: they make you), for the most part they don’t teach you how to do it well or confidently. If imagining your audience in their underwear doesn’t help and your hands shake so badly you can’t read your own notes while public speaking, you’re not alone—but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on learning the skill.

In my opinion, the best way to get better at public speaking is to practice. And while it may sound horrifying, try putting yourself in situations where you can address a group. Even if it’s just speaking up in class or tackling an issue at your next club meeting, every little bit helps. You can also try taking in some really excellent public speaking: by watching TED talks, for example. A good friend of mine pretends he’s Elizabeth Gilbert whenever he addresses a crowd—which is often and, although he hates it, he’s quite good at it. Adopting the mannerisms of someone who’s good at public speaking can carry you through until you find your own presentation style.

Adulting is hard because life is hard. Very few of us will, in retrospect, call it a cakewalk. But having some basic skills at your disposal is critical to getting through life’s more complex parts. College can do a lot for you, but being able to teach yourself a skill can end up being more meaningful than a lot of your gen eds.