This past Friday, I came across a Buzzfeed article listing 18 questions that teens have about college. This particular post struck a nerve with me. As a first-generation college student from an economically disadvantaged family, I had more than my fair share of questions. Even when I went to college, I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into.
I was fortunate to be able to get through both college and grad school in a combined three and a half years. While I realize that my university course load was aggressive, and that I didn’t have as wild of a college experience as some people might have, after reading through the questions, I think there’s a good bit of advice I could lend to incoming students. Note that the answers below come from a combination of my own experience, my time working for a for-profit university, and my own research. Your mileage may vary.
1. How will I know what courses I should take?
As much as I hate to say this, there’s a decent chance you won’t know what you want to take. Yes, there’s likely a degree you’ll have in mind going into college. Your academic advisor will be able to help point you in the right direction if you choose to stick with that plan. That said, a significant portion of those I went to school with changed their major at least once. While I never changed my major, I actually made it all the way to my final semester before realizing there was a field of study I cared more about than what I was majoring in.
If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have been an education major rather than a broadcasting major. Take advantage of those general education courses that colleges make you take. Diversify your courseload with those classes. You might find that you have a different passion than what you originally thought.
2. How do you keep in touch with friends from high school, especially if they’re planning on going to college far away from you?
Admittedly, I’m not the poster child for this question. I talk with nearly no one from high school anymore. By the end of my freshman year, there were only 4-5 people I went to high school with that I still talked to, and nearly all of them were different people than those I hung out with in high school. People change. You’ll change. You’ll find new friends at college. Embrace this.
3. Is going to a really good (and therefore expensive) college worth it for undergrad?
This one’s pretty simple. Are you planning to go to grad school, med school, or law school?
Yes: Then it’s worth every penny, provided you have good grades.
No: Not in the slightest.
In working in admissions for a graduate school, I couldn’t believe the horrors I heard from my co-workers who laughed at where some people got their undergraduate degrees. Universities are like the 35 year old version of the popular kid from high school — no matter how shitty they really are on the inside, they’re going to say they’re the best and ridicule everyone to hell on the outside. Grad school admissions, especially at prestigious institutions, is not all that it seems. If you have aspirations to be a doctor or lawyer, pay a bit more for your undergrad degree. If not, save as much money as you can. Community college is your friend.
4. Is staying focused in college as hard as adults say it is?
That depends on who you are. For me, I was willing to give up any semblance of a social life in an effort to graduate early. Therefore, focus was extremely easy. For the majority of college students, the urge to go out and party and fit into a social circle is more prevalent than you think, especially in your first semester. If you can make it through that first term, you’ll be in good shape.
5. Are parties at major universities that distracting that you flunk out?
Considering that it nearly happened to at least two of my closest friends in college, definitely.
6. Is it hard to get a job right out of college?
That really depends on how willing you are to settle for an entry level job. If you think you’re going to walk right out of college and into your dream job, expect a long, uphill battle. If you’re willing to take smaller, less prestigious jobs to make ends meet in the short-term while gaining experience, it’s pretty easy.
7. Career-wise, is it better to choose a major that I’m not that passionate about but it will be easier to find a job, or a major that I really like but the career paths aren’t that wide?
That depends. Do you want to work in an office job the rest of your life? If so, major in anthropology.
8. On a scale of 1 to NOPE, how bad are student loans?
I can’t say they’re fun by any means. My entire college bill was paid by student loans and grants. While I’m in better shape than most people my age, I still won’t have my student loans paid off within the next five years. Student loan debt is a major problem in America, and very, very little is being done to change that.
The problem is not student loan debt by itself. It’s the combination of student loan debt and other things, such as credit card debt, moving away from home too early, and not taking advantage of the lower tuition rates of community colleges. If you have scholarships, grants, or money from your family to pay for college, awesome. If you don’t, I’d encourage you not to let student loans stand in your way of going to college.
9. If you’re talented at Liberal Arts and nothing else, is it OK to try and make a career out of it?
Go for it! Just surround yourself with people who are brutally honest with you. They’ll help you to realize if you’re truly talented or not.
10. Besides having the ‘typical college experience’, is it really worth going to a four year college?
That all depends on the person. Many four year colleges have access to programs like study abroad, as well as internships that you would never get at a trade school or community college. That said, the cost difference is pretty drastic. Weigh your options carefully.
11. Will it really be as difficult as I’ve heard to get a job after getting a degree in English?
God no. Well…so long as you’re okay with working in a call center to start your career. Well-run call centers scoop up English and communications majors like a fat baby going after a bottle of Mountain Dew.
12. Will I ever be able to pay off my college debts?
If you go through college without using a credit card irresponsibly? Probably. Seriously though, if your institution offers a money management course to its students, sign up for that day one. You’ll thank me later.
13. How important is it to go to college versus just getting a job after I graduate?
That really depends on what you want to do with your life. Many businesses are now requiring at least an associate’s degree even for entry-level positions, so not going to college does limit your job opportunities. With that said, if you can get into an entry-level job at a company you love without a degree, and then work your way up, you won’t have to worry about student loan debt.
14. How do you make new friends once you’re there?
Keep your dorm room door open for the entirety of the first two weeks you’re at college except when you’re studying or sleeping. I cannot stress this enough.
15. Do you recommend sharing a college dorm with someone you already know or someone new?
It’s up to you really, though I have a pretty strong bias towards rooming with someone new. I didn’t get the option to room with someone I already knew. What ended up coming out of that though was rooming with a complete stranger who would become my best friend. While there are roommate horror stories out there, take the chance on meeting someone new.
16. What kind of job can I get with a degree in Visual Fine Arts?
Not a fucking clue.
17. Should I switch my major to something more practical?
I feel like I’ve answered this same question three or four times now. That said, you need to explore how passionate you are about what you’re learning and how good you are at it. If you’re not both extremely passionate and at least very good at what you’re learning, you should probably consider switching your major, regardless of how practical your current one is.
18. Why does college cost so damn much?
If I had the answer to this, I’d be rich.