This month a couple million students graduated from colleges around the country.
If you’re one of them, and through a combination of luck and vigorous initiative-taking  have landed your first “real” job, congratulations!
You may be feeling nervous about starting this new job, and that’s completely normal. The transition from student to professional can be a rough one. In college, your time was clearly structured, and the expectations pretty easy to understand. More importantly, you were basically only responsible for you; if you decided to slack off, skip class, or phone-in assignments, you only hurt yourself (and maybe your tuition-paying parents).
Now you have a supervisor, a team of co-workers, and a whole company relying on you and the work you do every day. If you mess up or flake out, you burden other people and can negatively affect a business and the lives of the people that business employs.
In addition to looking out for others, you still have your own future to consider. The economy continues to putter along, and the job market is highly competitive. If you’ve gotten a good job, you’re probably eager to hold onto it and move up in the world. Yet studies have shown that a quarter of new hires don’t make it even a year, and almost half get the axe within 18 months. It’s no wonder that, as psychologist Meg Jay puts it, “Twentysomethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed.”
Despite the sobering statistics, if you keep a few things in mind, you’ll do just fine. Beyond that, you can be a great employee who adds value to not only the company, but to the people around you that you work with every day.
With that in mind, the first impression you make at your new job counts for a lot and can help set you up for future success. To hit the ground running from day one, we offer the following suggestions and advice.
How to Have a Stellar First Day
The first day at a new job can be nerve-racking. It’s like the first day of school. You’re anxious about meeting new people, wondering if you’ll be able to find your way around, and hoping people will like you and that you’ll fit in. You don’t want to be the next Dwight Schrute .
You probably won’t be tackling big projects right off the bat, so your new boss and co-workers won’t be able to evaluate your work yet. As Emily Bennington and Skip Lineberg, authors of Effective Immediately , put it, you’ll instead “be judged on some very visible, basic parameters,” such as:
- Did you show up on time?
- What are you wearing?
- Do you display confidence and charisma?
- Do you seem overwhelmed or ready for a challenge?
- How well do you communicate?
- What personal items did you put in your office?
Here’s how to be intentional about how you present yourself, ace this first basic set of criteria, and get your new job off on the best possible foot.
Do your research. Before you set foot inside your new workplace, you’ll want to have done as much research about your company and how it operates as possible. As we’ll mention below, there’s a lot you’ll “investigate” and learn in the coming weeks, but know as much as you can about this business and the key people who run it before your first day. Google it up. This way you’ll avoid sticking your foot in your mouth about something right off the bat. Scan past press releases or articles about the company. Read every page on the website. See what they’re doing on social media. The amount of information you can find about your new company is probably more than you would have thought. Get at it!
Set out what you need the night before. The last thing you want to do is be late for your first day on the job, so make your morning routine and departure as smooth as possible by preparing the night before. Make sure your shirt is ironed and shoes are shined. Lay out what you’re going to wear (this is easy if you have a “silent valet ”!). Set two alarm clocks – not simply for practicality’s sake, but because knowing they’re both set will help you sleep better.
Brush up on your business etiquette. Business etiquette varies somewhat from social etiquette, and if you’ve only worked in food service or as a lifeguard thus far in your life, you’ll want to read up on how to be a gentleman at the office and avoid rubbing people the wrong way. Here’s our handy guide. 
A quick note on cell phone etiquette: Most business places these days allow cell phone use, and many rely on it. On your first day, keep it in your pocket, and off. You’ll probably have mom, grandma, and your favorite gal texting or calling to wish you luck. You don’t want an impromptu ringing or vibrating interrupting a crucial piece of training. As time goes on, it’s more appropriate to glance at your phone or have it on your desk, but keep it tucked away when you first start.
Dress for success. When you meet your co-workers for the first time, they won’t have much to go on in sizing you up, and will look to what you’re wearing for clues to your personality (don’t judge them, you do it too). That’s why what you wear is such a big part of the first impression you make. You don’t want to dress in a way that makes you stand out – either too casually or too formally. If you got a glimpse of your co-workers when you were interviewed, that will have given you a clue to what the standard is. If you don’t have any idea, email your supervisor or HR person a few days before to ask what people usually wear. Then aim for an outfit that’s just a small notch up from the norm.
If you feel like the office dress code exists in a vague gray area between casual and formal and don’t know what to do, there are few get-ups more versatile and foolproof than a blazer, dress shirt, and tie. If people are dressed more formally, you’ll fit in fine. If you find that a more casual vibe prevails, simply lose the tie and jacket, and roll up your sleeves .
Aim to arrive ten minutes early. Again, you absolutely don’t want to be late on your first day. It can be a good idea to do a “dry run” of your commute in the week before your start day, especially if you’ll be taking public transportation. That way you’ll feel more comfortable about where you’re going and how long it takes to get there. Make sure to do your trial run at the same time you’ll actually be setting off on your first day of work in order to duplicate traffic conditions.
Because unexpected obstacles to getting to work may arise on the morning of your first day, aim to get there 10-15 minutes early. That way you have a built-in cushion if you are delayed; you don’t want to walk in all amped up from driving like a crazy man in a desperate race against time. If you do get there early, just take a moment to collect yourself in your car or in the restroom before making your way to your new boss’s office.
Carry yourself with confidence. You’re probably going to be nervous, but try to give off a relaxed and confident air. Think to yourself that in a competitive job market, you landed this position; you’ve got what it takes to succeed if you apply yourself and have a lot to offer. We know that even when we don’t feel a certain way, if we act like we do, our brains will catch up with our behavior ; so act calm and collected, and you’ll soon feel that way too.
Take the initiative in introducing yourself. Your supervisor or boss may take you around to meet your new co-workers, but even if they do, they probably won’t introduce you to everyone. So take the initiative in meeting others yourself. Don’t put the onus on your co-workers; remember, you’re coming into their territory, not the other way around. One of the keys to success in your new job will be networking with others, building trust with your co-workers, and learning how to operate as a team – and that starts on the very first day.
It will never be easier to introduce yourself than it is now, as you’ve got a built-in opening line: “Hi, I’m ____, the new____.” You don’t have to have a long or deep conversation with your co-workers – they probably have plenty to do. But ask them things like what they do in their position and how long they’ve been on the job. Use what they have displayed in their office/cubicle as easy small talk fodder: “Are those your kids?” “Are you a big Bruins fan?”
In turn, be prepared for them to ask you about your major, where you graduated from, and your hometown. Try to think of short but memorable answers to these questions – remember, a good small talk artist  offers up bits of info that their conversational partner can easily riff on.
Your new teammates will likely also ask what you’ll be doing in your new job. If you’re not sure about the answer to that latter question, Bennington and Lineberg recommend saying with a smile, “I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be working on yet, but I’m looking forward to getting started.”
Take notes. From loads of new names to where certain files are located, people are going to be dumping a whole lot of information on you from the word go. And it’s going to come in a rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness way that’s not always going to be well-organized or easy to follow; a co-worker will add new tidbits each time they see something that reminds them of something to tell you. So carry a pocket notebook with you wherever you go and take copious notes. These notes will be invaluable to you later, and keep you from having to ask as many questions (not that questions are bad – see below – but the less you can interrupt people, the better). Also be sure to take notes on names and roles, and study them. Being able to recite people’s names right off the bat is an excellent way to build rapport.
How to Ace the First Week
Ask lots of questions. Your first couple of weeks on the job are a grace period where people will generally welcome, or at least be super patient with you asking as many questions as you want. After that time, their patience will gradually diminish as they begin to expect you to have a handle on things. So take advantage of this no-questions-barred time. When you’re confused or wondering about something, ask, and then put the answer down in your notebook.
But your questions shouldn’t simply be a “defense” mechanism for when you get stuck; they should also serve as a proactive way of getting to know your co-workers, supervisor, and the company and organization you now work for. When you first start a new job, there’s tons you don’t know, from office dynamics to business practices, yet you don’t know that you don’t know. It’s only after months pass that you can reflect and realize how little you understood about what goes on “below the surface.” So from the very first day, find out as much as you can about everything.
Questions for Your Boss/Supervisor
It’s good to get a handle on your boss’s managerial style from the get-go. It’s also essential to be as clear as possible on exactly what your responsibilities, roles, and projects are. So ask your supervisor things like:
- Do you prefer updates through face-to-face meetings, email, or voicemail?
- Do you like frequent check-ins, or do you like when people mostly work on their own?
- What are my responsibilities?
- What are the priority levels for those different tasks?
- What is your metric for success on those tasks?
- How do my responsibilities fit into the organization?
- What are my co-workers’ responsibilities and how do they relate to mine?
Questions for Your Co-Workers
Your co-workers may be glad to have you aboard, but at least some of them may be a little wary of you; they wonder if you’ll upset the good mojo and balance they have going on or if you’ll upstage them. So you want to build rapport and trust by asking questions that show a genuine curiosity about them and how they do things and a commitment to adding value to the team:
- Tell me about your experience working on X project.
- How did you handle Y problem in the past?
- What has worked well in handling a B situation like this?
- How do my responsibilities overlap with yours? What things do you like to head up and where might we work together?
- What qualities do you like to see in a co-worker?
- What are some things that I or my department can do to assist what you’re doing?
Listen, observe, and research. Your learning should not be limited only to questions you ask of your supervisor and co-workers. You should also constantly be observing, keeping your ear to the ground, and researching your company in order to get a handle on the big picture of the business you work for. The more you understand the company, the better job you can do in your role, and the more value you can add. Here are some questions the authors of Sink or Swim  suggest finding the answers to:
- What does your company sell, how do they sell it, and what goes into creating its products and services?
- Who is the competition? What are they doing to give themselves an edge?
- What is your company doing to stay ahead of the competition?
- What are the trends for the industry, both past and present?
- What is the history of the company? How have their offerings changed over time, and what influenced this change in direction?
- What direction is the company moving in and why? What’s being phased in or phased out?
- Who are the key individuals in the hierarchy and what are their roles?
Keeping yourself educated on all these questions is something you should continue to do throughout your time with the company.
Decorate your space. Adding a few personal effects to your cubicle/office not only gives your space some character and makes it feel a little cozier, it also provides your co-workers jumping off points to start a conversation with you, just as you used their knickknacks to make small talk with them. Keep things appropriate and tasteful and add some photos and decorations that reflect your interests and hobbies.
Set up a calendar. If you didn’t organize your time at all in college, now’s the time to start doing it. Use a calendar – whether of the paper or cyber variety. Write down all your training sessions, phone calls, and meeting times. Put down your deadlines for projects, and break those down into milestones you want to hit along the way.
Review your calendar at least three times a day: first thing in the morning so you know what’s on the agenda for the day, right before lunch to review what your afternoon holds, and before you go home to plant the next day’s itinerary in your brain. You may also have shared calendars with your department and/or supervisor. Be sure to check those as well. Keep in mind your calendar will likely be visible to your boss and/or co-workers, so keep the items business-related. You don’t need your cousin’s birthday party showing up for all to see.
Create a to-do list notebook. Like calendars, to-do lists are an easy but highly effective way to organize your tasks. There are a ton of different formats and styles of to-do lists; this is something people nearly fetishize. So search the net for a way that makes sense to you, or simply write things down and cross them off when they’re done. Worked for Gramps!
Don’t talk about how things used to be done at your old job. If this isn’t your first professional job, or you’ve had an internship in the same industry, don’t keep letting people know how you used to do things at your last job. Comparisons, even those that seem innocuous, can feel insulting to your new associates, annoy them, and put them on the defensive. It makes you seem more like a smug outsider than someone happy to be on a new team. You may come to find out that the way your new employer does things is actually better. If not, the time to suggest a change will come after you’ve been on the job awhile, paid your dues, and earned the respect of your co-workers.
Send your first Friday Update. A good suggestion Bennington and Lineberg offer is sending your boss a weekly update every Friday. The Friday Update is a short email that “functions to communicate your progress and the status of your current projects and tasks.” Here’s what they recommend including in the update:
- Accomplishments this week
- Challenges or stumbling blocks (areas where you need direction or input)
- Noteworthy opportunities, suggestions, and insights
- Issues that need your boss’s input or approval
- Your schedule and goals for the coming week
To make this task easier, start a draft of your Friday Update on Monday and add to it as the week goes on. Then you won’t have to spend time on Friday when you’re already mentally spent trying to remember what you did. Your supervisor/boss will appreciate being in the loop about where you’re at with things, what’s going well, and what you may need help with. As an added bonus, by updating them regularly, instead of only when you have problem, they won’t come to associate you only with headaches.
So what happens if you’ve been at your job for a little while, and you feel like you’ve already screwed up on a few of these points? Fear not! You can change your ways any day you decide to. Start sending those Friday Updates tomorrow. If you haven’t met all your co-workers, there’s no better time than now. “You know, I can’t believe I haven’t had the chance to meet you yet, my name is _____.” Been struggling with keeping your tasks organized? Bring a notebook in tomorrow and get on track. Be encouraged that it’s easier to right the ship with a job than it is many other things in life. Start working hard tomorrow, and you’ll be set in no time.
Down the road we’ll discuss some tactics to being successful beyond that first week and keeping a job you love.
What are your tips for acing your first day and first week at a new job? Share with us in the comments!
Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job  by Emily Bennington and Skip Lineberg
Sink or Swim! New Boss. New Job. 12 Weeks to Get It Right  by Milo Sindell and Thuy Sindell