Entering University and leaving behind the dramas and schedules of high school is exhilarating. For the most part you can take whatever classes you want, create a schedule that works for you instead of the state, meet new people, and feel like school is finally working for you as an individual instead of another person stuffed into a box like high school can feel.
But looking back at my college years and dealing with the post-graduation life of confusion and sentiments of “I wish I’d known…,” there are a few things I want to share with those about to embark on the college adventure and those who are still in college and have time to learn these valuable lessons.
1. College is expensive. This is a no brainer, obviously. But bear with me for some details. College is expensive, yes. This is a detail that is easily obtained from a university website (unless it is an evil, confusing website. I made a point to never apply to those colleges). But I was a senior in high school when I first started thinking about funding school. Representatives from FAFSA, various colleges, etc. came to visit my school and said, “thousands of dollars of free money go unclaimed every year simply because people don’t take the time to apply for scholarships or financial aid.” Let me tell you, this is a load of hooey. I applied for every scholarship I could find, filled out FAFSA every year, applied for grants, everything I could think of. Want to know how I funded my college education? Student loans. And these aren’t the nice student loans from the 80’s with low rates that pay for fairly low tuition. Nowadays tuition is astronomical and loan rates are pretty high. And those loan rates are from 2007-2011. Now that congress passed a bill that would double those rates, it’s going to be worse.
I don’t point all this out to discourage people from school, or even from paying for school with loans. It is just really good to know so you can plan accordingly. Part of my trouble came from that I was surrounded by adults who all went to school in the aforementioned 80’s when scholarships were easier to come by, loan rates were lower, tuition was lower, and the job market and economy were a match made in heaven. So, listen to the guidance of your elders, sure. But regardless of how safe and secure your finances may seem, always be prepared to go it the hard way. I was told my whole life that because I am an amazing student I would receive scholarships and not have to worry about paying for school. Well, being a good student isn’t as impressive to many colleges as being able to throw a football. That is the cold reality of it.
So what do you do? If you haven’t started saving for college, start now. Do what you can to convince every college-bound person you know to do the same. If you are a parent of young kids, open accounts for them now. Go to your bank or credit union and talk to someone about the best kind of account that will help you to accrue more dividends. JUST DO IT!!!
2. Textbooks are expensive. Another no-brainer. Or is it? I am moderately obsessed with books (in case you’re wondering, this is an extreme case of understatement), and I didn’t even think about them until I was at the campus bookstore with my eyes popping out of my head at how expensive they are.
The thing about textbooks is, in general they are expensive. But depending on your major they could cost more or less. It’s all up to the professor who decides which textbooks you need. Regardless, they are manageable with a few tricks: save, hunt for discounts on half.com, rent, or borrow. These are simple tricks, but they are tremendously helpful. On occasion, there isn’t much you can do. You might just have to break down and get that brand new first edition that costs $175.00. Oh, and ebooks I guess are a cheaper option. Despite my online presence I am somewhat of a luddite so never even considered this option, but it seems unfair to the wallets of freshmen not to mention it.
3. Use your professors’ office hours. Many people have no problem with this. Either because they have a natural tendency to visit everyone they know, or because they need/want extra help from the professor one on one. I studied at the University of Utah where I had a professor who had taught in others states besides Utah. He said that for some reason Utah students hardly ever if at all use office hours, to the point that he wondered why he bothered to show up. I don’t know about the rest of Utah, but for me office hours were never a draw for a few reasons. First, they rarely if ever matched up with my bus and class schedule. Second, I am a very good problem solver (it’s that obsession with books, I think) so could quite easily figure things out on my own. Third, I am an introvert and never felt compelled to visit my professors just for a chat.
But, as a person who has completed her undergraduate degree looking into graduate school, I am hitting myself for not getting to know my professors better. It comes down to three words: letters of recommendation. All applications to grad school require letters of recommendation. It is part of a professor’s job to write these, but it is hard to decide who to ask if you never had a one on one conversation with your professors (curse my introversion!!!). And even if you don’t want to go to grad school, opportunities like study abroad and internships also require letters of recommendation.
And besides all that, these professors are experts in their field. That is why they are teaching (duh). So, just think of all the extra knowledge you can gain by the building a relationship with your professors! Please learn from my neglect and go to the provided office hours. Please.
4. Consider grad school. One of the many things I have learned since graduating is that the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. Ergo, it is wise to consider getting a master’s or PhD.
Depending on your skills, chosen field, or personality a bachelor’s degree is all you need. But when choosing a major you should have a plan of action in mind, so when people ask the dreaded, “what are you going to do with your major?” you have an answer. This plan is likely to change of your own volition or because the world likes to mess with our plans. But, at least it is a plan and you are more likely to know your options. Grad school is definitely a plan to consider. Since graduating, most jobs that I want have listed under the qualifications, “Masters degree or equivalent experience.” These are jobs that a few years ago only required employees to have an undergraduate degree. Times, they are a-changin’.
It is often the “equivalent experience” that gets me. Most employers don’t feel in the mood to give you the opportunity to gain that experience. It’s quite the catch-22.
Another reason to consider grad school (and early on, I might add) is that if you are willing to pay for school with loans, it is best to wait for grad school to do that, simply because grad school is so much more expensive than undergrad. If grad school is in your horizons, do what you can to pay for your undergrad without loans. Then you will feel more free to pay for that increasingly important master’s degree with loans, and without having the hefty weight of debt from BOTH graduate and undergraduate schooling.
I for one never considered grad school until my last year or so. Now, I am desperately trying to figure out how to pay for grad school without loans. It is rough going. Many programs offer funding if you are a TA, but that is not a guaranteed plan of action.
5. Be involved on campus. For a lot of people, this is easy and not anything that requires much thinking. But, remember that part where I mentioned I am an introvert? Well, there are a lot of us out there and for us getting involved in campus doings is a bit difficult.
Being involved can take many forms. One is just to live on or near campus. I lived with my parents for financial reasons and bussed in to school for an hour each way everyday. That bus was a great discourager when it came to getting involved. If at all possible, live on or near campus. It makes it that much easier to get involved, especially if you are prone to being an introvert.
Another way is to join clubs. Colleges are huge. Trust me, there is a club for everyone. This is one of the best ways to meet people with similar interests. I failed to join any clubs. I went to a few meetings, but didn’t fully commit. Fail, fail, fail. Bad idea. College is about learning and earning that degree, sure. But it is also about meeting new people, expanding your ideas, and gaining some seriously meaningful experiences. Being in clubs is a great way to do all those things, including the learning part.
6. Go to your graduation ceremony. I failed to go to my college graduation ceremony. Now I almost feel like it didn’t happen. Graduations are notoriously boring, but they are cathartic. They mark the significance of the occasion and therefore are important to attend. I missed mine because I technically graduated in the fall but my school didn’t have any ceremonies except in the spring. By the time I knew received all the information for my graduation ceremony, it was too late to get work off.
Graduating in the fall is hard enough. The event gets swept under the rug during the rush in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the oncoming snowstorms, and everything else that accompanies the transition between autumn and winter. Thus an actual graduation ceremony, even a few months later, would have been nice. I fully regret not being able to go.
So, go to the ceremony if at all possible!
This list is compiled by the top things I wish I’d known. There are likely others, depending on who you ask, but I hope at least someone in the world benefits from this post. School is amazing and worthwhile! There are just some things that surprise you in the process.