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May 02, 2012 01:58 PM EDT

What I Should have done When I Graduated

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By Lou Carlozo

CHICAGO (Reuters) - There's no shortage of advice for new college graduates. Everyone from the commencement speaker to the local bartender (who may have been last year's commencement speaker) has a strong opinion about what you should do. So much often contradictory advice can cancel itself out.

But what if you could jump ahead a decade or two and ask your future self for straight-to-the-heart graduation guidance? Reuters asked people who had the wisdom of hindsight what advice they wish they had heard on graduation day.

Here's what they said:

Jeff DeLoach, 23, environmental engineer Dallas, Texas Graduated: B.S., Chemical Engineering, Tennessee Technological University, 2011

Advice: Don't take no for an answer.

DeLoach dreamed of a career in nuclear propulsion in the U.S. Navy, but a visit to a recruiter left him crushed when he was told he wasn't Navy material. "Years later I learned that there had been a misunderstanding; the man I interviewed with was unaware of my nuclear ambitions and I was unaware of his ignorance," DeLoach says. "One of my largest regrets from my college years is my failure to simply ask 'Why?' when I was denied entry. Had I been slightly more ambitious at a younger age, the rest of my life could've been radically different."

Lindsay Anderson, 30, publicist New York City Graduated: B.A., Marketing and Communications, Emerson College, 2003

Advice: Your first job is not a pass-fail test.

Anderson acknowledges feeling "stressed out" about landing the perfect job after college. "I thought whatever first job I found would ultimately determine the rest of my life," Anderson says. "I've since learned it's your first job and your mid-20s where you can take risks and even make mistakes. It's these things that will lead you to finding what you really like to do."

Hannah Holland, 24, graduate student Malibu, California Graduated: B.A., Entertainment and Music Business, Belmont University, 2008

Advice: Travel - and don't race straight to grad school.

Holland, who's pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Pepperdine University, never stopped between school stints to take a break and see the world. "Instead, I spent three years nannying and barely paying my bills," she says. "As much as I loved my time as a caregiver, I wish I would have taken a few months to go to Europe, take a tour on the EuroRail and just explore for myself."

Annie Dwyer, 25, publicist Washington, D.C. Graduated: B.A., Political Science and Journalism, Kansas State University, 2008

Advice: Start saving.

"You have to start saving some time, and I wish I had started sooner rather than later," says Dwyer. "I just started saving conscientiously this year." Dwyer says she simply lacked the budgeting skills to make sure saving was part of the puzzle. "A lot of people like me get out of college and say, 'I'm paying the bills and that's fine.' It wasn't until a couple of years later that I realized that my spending habits were expanding with my income."

David Bakke, 45, freelance writer Atlanta, Georgia Graduated: B.A., Creative Writing, University of South Florida, 1990

Advice: Be careful about credit.

"I fell hook, line and sinker for the free t-shirt and zero percent introductory APR credit card offer" that came right after college, says Bakke. Signing up for new cards every time he maxed out the ones he had, Bakke amassed more than $30,000 in credit card debt in little more than three years. If he had it to do over, he says he'd trade the luxe lifestyle for fiscal peace of mind. "It only took me about three years to rack up this level of debt, but it took significantly longer to pay it off."

Jim Vanderwoud, 40, attorney Orlando, Florida Graduated: B.S., Business Administration, University of Michigan, 1989 Graduate School: Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2005

Advice: Stay close to your college friends.

"Your friends from college will probably be the best you'll ever have," Vanderwoud says. "It is rare to make great friends as an adult, so hold onto them." College friends have endured for him even when his marriage ended after 11 years, and he's learned the value of the connections he made as an undergrad.

Mary Beth Hutchins, 27, publicist Washington, D.C. Graduated: B.A., Political Science, University of Georgia, 2005

Advice: Prepare for the "real world."

"The thing I regret most is not getting advice from friends a few years ahead of me," she says. Hutchins says she missed out on "practical advice on finding time to run errands, or dealing with exhaustion when night rolls around and the fun is supposed to start. Or how do you make new friends in a new place after losing the ones you had for the past four years?"

Benjamin Garvey, 31, bank branch manager Chicago, Illinois Graduated: B.A., Speech/Communication, Ithaca College, 2003 Current job: Bank branch manager

Advice: Choose passion over profit.

Garvey went for the cash after college, pursuing a banking career. Though he has done well, "I wish I pursued music instead of money." He says he sees his peers living the Rock Star life and yearns to share that joy. So he has formed a band, the Suburban Invaders, and is proving that (1) bankers can rock and (2) it's never too late.

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own. This is part of a six-story package on graduation.)

(Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and John Wallace)

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