Things every high school senior should know about college.

I’ve been mentoring the same group of high school boys for four years. They are seniors now, and most of them are in the midst of receiving their college acceptance/rejection letters in the mail. At one of my recent Bible studies I asked the guys if they would be interested in doing a “college prep” night where I shared with them some insights on the college experience. Here’s what I’ve got so far to share…

Do look in to going to a public school. I made the decision to go private and man oh man did I pay for that choice. My school ran about $30k/yr, quite a bit different than the $5K-10k/yr public school options at the time. Looking back I wish I would have considered going to a state school. It’s okay though, I don’t regret my choice as I had the best four years of my life, but I SHOULD have explored public options more carefully.

Don’t drop out. Yeah that’s right. If you start college…finish. I can’t tell you how many kids I went to school with that didn’t come back after the first year. They paid $30K for that one year, and don’t have a degree to show for it. School can be hard, life happens, and money will be an issue, but you better do everything in your power to make sure you graduate from somewhere, even if it’s your local community college.

Do work part time. I don’t care if you are working 5hrs/wk or 40hrs/wk, but try and make some money. I know, being a full time student can be stressful, but I bet part of that stress comes from being broke. You don’t need to be earning enough to contribute to a Roth IRA (although that would definitely be sexy), I just want you to be able to cover the majority of your personal expenses (food, clothes, school stuff, etc). It also will give you something to put on your resume come graduation time. Think about it, if you were on a hiring panel would you hire someone who graduated college with a 3.5 GPA and no work experience or someone with a 3.5 GPA who also had a job during those four years? I’m going with the latter.

Don’t use that fricken credit card you signed up for. Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been watching you. Some dude at a booth said “Hey fill out an application for this credit card and we will give you this frisbee” and you filled it out didn’t you…DIDN’T YOU!? I too took advantage of a “free shirt” offer, but I actually lied on the application and input all fake info (which I think is actually a crime, but I didn’t know it at the time). Fortunately, I never accumulated a credit card balance while in school and you need to do the same. This is a non-negotiable. Credit cards can not be the means by which you provide yourself food and textbooks.

Do get good grades. Sounds like a no brainer right? But are you really applying yourself in all of your classes. I sure didn’t. In fact I got an A in Organic Chemistry, but a B in Introduction to Art. I picked and chose which classes I wanted to succeed in and where I was okay falling short. I wish I could go back in time and try just a little bit harder. When you graduate your GPA is going to be a huge bartering tool for you. Yes, your college GPA will become less important as you establish yourself in the work place, but until that time comes, it is your most valuable asset. If you graduated with honors don’t be shy about telling your prospective employers about it during an interview. It shows that you are dedicated to working hard and doing well.

Don’t grow up too fast. If you are the typical 20-something college student you have a responsibility requirement to act like it. Have fun. Pull stupid pranks on your dorm mates. Stay up really late and watch movies. Once you graduate college, you have to enter the 9-5 world, and let me tell you… it ain’t pretty. Midnight burrito runs are a thing of the past. Enjoy the college lifestyle.

Do take advantage of EVERYTHING your school has to offer. I was heavily involved in various college activities. Sporting events, clubs, organizations, all at your fingertip. There are so many FREE programs available to college students, you would have to be stupid to not take advantage of them. You aren’t stupid, are you?

Don’t take out $100,000 in student loan debt to become a teacher. If you know exactly what you want to do with your life (teacher, socialist worker, nurse, etc) then you need to think about the average pay for that position and how much student loan debt you will have. Don’t be naive and take out $25,000 each year in loans, only to graduate and become a Kindergarten teacher who makes $35,000/year (if you even get a job right away). You will literally be in debt for just about ever, and probably doomed to live in your parents basement until your 40.

Here is a general rule I would use; the total amount of your student loans should be less than what you expect to make annually in your chosen profession. If that’s not the case, change schools or change majors.

So there ya have it, some of my thoughts on the college experience. Take them with a grain of salt as they are only my opinions, and according to Girl Ninja, my opinion means nothing.

I’d love for you to share a few MUST SHARE items that I need to address when I meet with these high school kids. What is something that your 18 year old self would have liked to know?

36 thoughts on “Things every high school senior should know about college.”

  1. This is all great advice. I agree with you on exploring the public university option. My husband and I went to a state school and emerged completely debt free. Cheap tuition is a truly wonderful thing! And, I’ve never felt at a disadvantage because I went to a public school. Quite the contrary, I think it has served me well.

    I’d add to your list: study abroad if at all possible. It’s such a uniquely wonderful experience and you’ll never again be able to travel so cheaply. Enjoy college–it’s over way too soon!

    • I agree with the study abroad 100%. I had the opportunity to do a shorter 8-week program over the summer, but I chose to stay back and work instead. Was too scared to go, didn’t want to pay for it, and didn’t want to miss out on a summer job income. It would have been worth it, and I still (nearly 10 years later) wish I would have done it.

  2. DO: Apply for schools you want to attend, regardless of sticker price. Some private colleges have large endowments and, after grants and scholarships, end up being on par with state schools in terms of cost. At minimum check it out.

    DO: Apply for financial aid for the SAT if you’re family is low-income. This opens the doors for you to get application fee waivers when applying for college.

  3. DO think about summer school – ESPECIALLY for classes you think you’ll have trouble with or aren’t interested in – it’s SO much easier for most people to stick with something they don’t love for 2-4 weeks rather than the entire semester – I took about 16 hrs of classes (in one summer, which was totally crazy, btw) using this method and I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t have stuck some of those classes or done well in them if I’d had to do them over the semester.

    • I’m not sure if a lot of states have started requiring it, but Florida public universities now require you take a minimum of about 6 credit hours during the summer semester in order to graduate. This is stemmed from seeing an increase in students who are taking more than 5 years to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

  4. I would highly suggest using a credit card in college…RESPONSIBLY. I used my credit card strictly for larger purchases like gas/groceries. But I would pay it back immediately and in full. By the time I graduated I had increased my credit limit from $500 to $10,000 and by the time I started the real world I had an excellent credit score.

    Although you’re right, many students can easily be irresponsible with their credit cards, but if you use it responsibly to build credit it can be extremely beneficial.

  5. Two additional thoughts:

    1. DO pick a “match” school. Essentially the idea here is you want to match your GPA / SAT to the most selective school that you get in to (while factoring in finances of course). There are simple matrices out there that align GPA / SAT to college selectivity tiers. Being in a match or over matched school (vs an under match) is proven to be correlated to finishing college (especially with lower income students). This technical piece of advice seems right up your alley and I’d suggest doing a bit of digging, as this idea is backed by lots of academic research.

    2. DO believe in yourself. I think it is much better to use a growth minded frame for your “don’t drop out” advice. Again backed by academic research, telling an adolescent that he has the capacity to learn / grow / overcome obstacles has an impact on his ability to persist in college. It sounds too simple to be true, but non-cognitive skills like perseverence and grit are what keep students from dropping out. And the growth frame – you can do it! – does have an effect. Google the work being done at UT student affairs and also an intervention in which each freshman (at a CA university I forget) received a postcard in the mail with this message.

    Good luck!

  6. You might want to give them even more info about those free t-shirts…on my campus it was free chunky knit gloves (it was the late 90’s).
    I thought I was SOOOOO clever, I signed up multiple times for those free gloves, always giving falsified info, and thinking that it would be an interesting experiment to see how much stuff came in the mail with the incorrectly spelled name. Oh what an experiment it would be, I’d show them!! (somehow…not sure what I thought I would prove with this info…spoiler alert: Companies sell your data.) Anyway…apparently at least once I used my real SS# not realizing that that was probably the most important piece of info to protect.
    Flash forward to 15 years later, I pull my credit report in preparation to apply for a mortgage, and I have two reports…one for me…and one with my name spelled wrong in that clever way I spelled it to *trick* the credit card company into giving me free gloves.
    And, that alternative me had a terrible credit rating since alternative me never paid the bills for the free-with-automatic-renewal-billed-to-the-new-card magazine that came with the gloves.

    So I would teach them to stay away from the free swag, and to protect all aspects, especially their SS#, and maybe give them a crash course on credit ratings. I was a 4.0 GPA student…but didn’t realize the damage I could have done. And I’m grateful it wasn’t worse.

  7. #1 – not everyone drinks, does drugs, has sex in college – it’s okay to say no to those things

    #2 – I don’t mean to be negative, but I think there’s a lot of pressure to have the best years of your life in college, but many freshman run into roommate problems, grade issues, friend issues, homesickness, etc….it’s okay to struggle and honestly if you look around, there are a lot of other students struggling too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – from counselors, professors, your parents, your friends – if you are feeling depressed, anxious or sad.

    #3 – get off the cell phone, facebook, twitter, snapchat, and other electronic devices and be with people…..too easy to sit in your dorm room surfing the web instead of getting out and meeting people.

    #4 – make a point of talking to your academic advisor (in person, not email) at least once a semester. They are there to help and WANT you to succeed!

  8. Oh – and two more things……1. know how to do your own laundry and 2. know how to manage your time/get out of bed on time! oops 3 things #3 – go to class!

  9. I agree with many of the comments above and I have a few additional thoughts on this, as I’ve reflected on my college career quite a bit.

    1 – Try to go to a junior college for the first couple of years. It’s really cheap compared to a 4-year college, and you’ll only be taking the basic courses everyone has to take anyway.

    2 – Don’t wait until you’re a couple years into college to start figuring out what degree you want to pursue. Take this decision seriously before you even begin and do your research on careers, salaries, job availability, etc. I made this mistake and spent unnecessary years and money on college.

    3 – Don’t waste your time focusing on how much fun you can have in college. A It’s okay to enjoy yourself, but remember why you’re there – to learn, develop skills, begin building your professional network, and prepare for your career.

    4 – Take advantage of the resources you’re paying to have access to – advisors, student/professional associations, internships, etc.

    • I totally agree with number two. I majored in Art History (loved every second of it) but didn’t ever try to correlate that to a real world job. DUH, 18 year old me! It’s taken me several years to settle into a career, and I wish I had thought that over a little more clearly. Someone gave me the advice, “Major in what you love!” Yes, but also major in what’s going to make you love your life post college.

      • Totally agree with this. I studied what I loved in college, International Relations, but I haven’t done a thing with it even though I work in DC. I wish someone had shaken me at 18 and told me that when you have a skill most people don’t, pursue that in college. I am naturally very good at math and I frequently wish someone had pointed out that there was more I could do with math skills beyond being a teacher. I expect I will go back to school to study accounting, I just wish I had known to study it 15 years ago when I started school. I’m always amazed at how much people will pay you to do math for them!

  10. I would tell them to keep their social media profiles clean…once its on the internet it is there for ever. Heck, I would give them a don’t have social media profiles and don’t get caught in the background of pictures. Even if they are doing nothing wrong, guilty by association.

    Do have fun, but don’t focus on it. Drinking, drugs, sex will happen – be responsible and think long and hard about consequences.

    DO get a job at any on-campus restaurants or catering places. I can’t tell you how much free food/booze I got from working at the on-campus catering gig. The paycheck was nice too.

    College is a time to figure yourself out, the fact that they are getting ANY kind of mentoring puts them way ahead of most of their peers, so good on ya Ninja!

  11. Wholeheartedly agree with the don’t drop out, or even taking a long break from school. It makes it really hard to get back into study mode when you do return.

    Don’t take on more classes than you can handle. High school fits several different subjects in one day, college is different and I made that mistake the first semester with 5 classes (I was fried the first week ). They say for every 1 credit hour a class has, you should put about 3 hours a week studying for that one class.

  12. Unless they’re going to school on a full scholarship or one that covers the majority of their expenses I’d encourage them to think about what it is they want to major in and then contact their schools of choice and find out what lower level basics would transfer over from the local community colleges. This way they can work and pay for school out of pocket if need be or save up and pay for the 4-year school out of pocket with the money they saved while going to school at the community colleges.

    Also, if they’re planning on thinking about the community college to 4-year university plan I’d encourage them to also find out what scholarships are available to transfer students.

  13. I wish you hadn’t used the word “even if” when you suggested the community college route. The community college is not a “less than equal” choice. They are a wonderful opportunity for a student to explore options while paying a lot less. I do know they can be pricier in other states, but in Calif., they are a bargain: @ $36-46 per unit.
    All three of our kids went to c.c. and LOVED it. DD1 worked with the Athletic Trainer and decided that was for her. Ultimately earned her doctorate in physical therapy. DD2 played basketball there, earned a scholarship to a small school in Hawaii, earned a degree in Biology and is now a doctor. DS fell in love with acting (science gene stopped at kid #2) and did the Actor Training Program and went on to earn degree in Theater. He now works in insurance and does plays on the side.
    The other advantage of the c.c. is this: once a kid decides on a major (and most change their majors once they get to college, right??), then they can investigate what school has the best program in that major. DD1 initially wanted to transfer to UC Berkeley. Great school, right?? Yeah, but they didn’t have her major and at the time all the licensing reqs for her program were changing. San Diego State was the best program out there; and the toughest to get into. A very rigorous application/interview process and they only accept 16 each year (student population at SDSU is @ 35,000 or more).

    My point is students should really make c.c. a sought after option. Best way to go, IMO. Please stop perpetuating the myth that it is the ugly stepchild.

    • “Even if” was implying one should finish school even if it is for a two year degree. I have no issues with CC nor do I think it is a less noble path than traditional 4yr plan.

      That said, it’s pretty well established that a four year degree provides more options than a two year degree in much of the professional world, so to pretend they are equal is disingenuous.

      • Internships, internships, internships! Try to get one with a company you’d like to work with after college. I had a job in college (food service) and an internship being a lackey for a professor who was also a published author, but didn’t settle into a “professional” job until I had a paid internship while working in a non-professional job at a company about 7 years after I finished college. I ended up with a professional job on the same team I had my internship with.

        Connections are nearly everything when it comes to employment success. Learn it earlier than me, please. This ties into joining groups at your school as well; the friends you make will end up in various organizations and you never know when they may be aware of the perfect opportunity for you. This goes both ways; you should keep others in mind when opportunities are presented to you that you don’t want to personally take advantage of.

        Also, as someone mentioned above, there is a lot of pressure to have college be the best time of your life. My dad even told me it would be before I left for college. Thank God he was wrong. I had some fun and miss the freedom, but I’ve had some pretty awesome times since then.

      • Then that’s how you should have written it.

        Thought I’d add one more thing to the list: tell the kids to read the college catalog. Any academic question they may have can be answered there. I would trust the catalog more than any advisor. People can tell you anything, but if it isn’t in the catalog, then it isn’t true. When you think about it, how can an advisor know everything about every major–especially if a student is transferring from a c.c. to a four year. Substitution petitions, academic renewal, etc. are all things students need to know.

  14. I’m just finishing up my last year of college (45 days until I cross the stage)!

    Get involved, make friends and have fun. College is a fun experience and getting involved in organizations that align with your interests is a great opportunity.

    Don’t freak out….you’re probably going to change majors a few times. Lock down what you want to do by your second year….that way you aren’t behind! So explore some different fields/classes you think would be interesting your freshman year.

    Don’t expect to love your roommate. Most people don’t become besties for life with their freshman, random match roommate. Some do. Most don’t. It’s okay to be best of friends the first few weeks and then go your separate ways as you make your own friends.

  15. Also….apply, apply, apply for every scholarship you can find. Even if it’s $200 from the Senior Adult Ministry from First Baptist Church. Every little bit helps!
    With my help (because we are NOT rich), my son applied for everything he could find. I am not kidding, he has $0 college debt and he received a B.A. and TWO masters degrees!!!!

  16. DO: NOT FALL FOR IT. Thinking that it takes a full four years to complete a bachelors degree is insanity. I went to an extremely large, well-know, reputable state school on the east coast and I couldn’t trust a single advisor there to lead me in the right direction FINANCIALLY. I know that not everybody is equipped for this, especially if they’re playing a sport or working a full time job – but I, amidst getting too drunk every weekend and having fun, managed to graduate in 3.5 years with 2 majors (no, not Math or difficult science, but still) and two minors. You have absolutely got to look at the credits/tuition before you let your advisors plan it for you – capping off at 3-4 classes each semester is just a way for you to get ripped off. Most colleges, especially state schools, classify full time as ANY NUMBER more than 12(ish) credits (probably capping off at like, 20) and part-time as 12(ish) credits or less. Why would I have spread out the credits I needed into 8 very expensive semesters, when it can easily be done in 6? I’m not saying “easily” in the sense that it isn’t hard work, but even those in the toughest of majors are capable of this, and NO you do not need to be Albert Einstein to be able to do this. If you sit down, take a serious couple of hours, look at your major(s) and what their pre-requisites are, and in what order you need to take them, you will absolutely have a plan for yourself to easily finish in three years.
    I have helped many friends try to accomplish this since I discovered it myself. I would literally have advisors tell me “You can’t take that many in one semester, it’s too much!” or “You should really only be taking 12!” translation: We should really be making $10k off of you per semester, please stay longer.
    The friends that weren’t able to complete their degrees in less than four years weren’t able to due to the following reasons:
    1) This doesn’t go well for people who are particular about their schedules. Again, if you’re working full time along with classes or playing a sport, may not work – you literally have to take your classes when they’re available, regardless of the fact that you hate 3:30pm classes on Fridays. I had to deal with 4 hour night classes, 3x per week courses that started at 8am, etc, but I was getting the course taken care of on my audit and that’s all that mattered.
    2) They wanted to be in college for four, full years. Couldn’t grip the idea of parting with their peers early. Socializing is worth the extra thousands for some, and I respect that.
    3) It can be too much! Some people just cant take six classes at once, especially when everyone around you is taking three or four. Nothing wrong with that.

    I just encourage people to not be so trusting of higher education as an institution – they want your money, and A LOT OF IT. They will not help you to the extent that they are capable of, if your request is “I want to leave this university early to save money” – to them, that sounds a lot like “we’re going to lose money” – and while advisors are there to help you succeed and are lovely individuals, you have to look out for yourself.

    • I agree, I was going to write about not taking the bare minimum to meet full-time status and take your college career into your own hands – do the research and figure out what is needed to graduate. I saw so many people cruise the first year and then have to take 18+ credits in the senior year while I was only taking 12. Worse – taking additional time to graduate because you didn’t plan ahead, so now you’re taking out loans for an additional year or 2 or 3 that should be unnecessary!

  17. 1.) Study abroad! Biggest regret I have from my college years. Once that 9-5 hits, your employer has a hard time letting you go for weeks at a time to tour Europe. (In fact, I’m taking myself for my 30th birthday this fall. Just because I didn’t do so in college.)

    2.) Become friends with you CAREER counselor. Best decision I made in college — my academic advisor was great in terms of making sure I could graduate, but my career counselor made sure I was on track to actually get a job. They looked at my resume, made suggestions about grad school applications, and just generally pointed me in the right direction. I still email mine asking for advice every year or so (and also, to say hello).

    3.) Invest in the people around you. Here’s what they don’t teach you in class: Life is all about networking. You’ll never have another time of your life where you’re around so many smart, interesting people. Invest in a few of them. Make good friends you’ll carry with you through life. It’s important.

  18. Good advice. As a college professor I would agree with almost everything you said. I would also add get an internship and study abroad (of some kind, even a study tour is good). Those experiences are fantastic and pay dividends on the job market and in one’s career.

  19. Haha! “Socialist worker”! Nice one. I’m actually a social worker and my wife is a teacher, so we both fall into your categories of you better think twice before you take out all those loans to make no money. We’ve managed to pay off our student debt somehow (mine – before I graduated!!).

    I would say get a job is the best advice. Some people don’t do well with all of the sudden free time between classes and all the fun things to do. I think it helps build discipline, especially when you have to balance finals and big projects with still showing up to work. Plus, it’s really annoying when college kids complain about no money but don’t do anything about it but then go out and spend money they don’t have. Don’t work too much though, I regret working too much and not spending enough time being a college kid and missed out on some fun stuff.

  20. The 2 stupidest and greatest things I did in college were: 1). major in what I loved (triple majored – absolutely NO market applicability); and 2). studied abroad – again absolutely No market applicability. Hence, I spent years being broke, but I’ve been gainfully employed for years now and I don’t regret one minute of majoring in what I loved and studying abroad.

  21. DO consider study abroad, DON’T assume you can’t study abroad because you can’t afford it. Really look into the numbers before you make it. I got a $5k scholarship for it, so it was actually cheaper.

    DO get an internship, and start applying as early as after your freshman year. I took summer class one summer, but financially that was probably a mistake.

    DON’T blindly trust your career center. Seriously, their qualifications are pretty questionable, as some have never worked in industry. I’d advise Ask a Manager blog as a starting point for more useful info. But do go to the career fairs!

    DO find friends in your major to study with. It makes it much more fun to do well. If you befriend older students in your major, they might be able to hook you up with insider tips.

  22. You should definitely think about going to a community college for a year or two to get gen eds and then transferring to a state or private school, but make sure they accept the credits where you want to end up. Also research the major that you want to go into and make sure there are viable career paths that come out of that degree that you are actually interested in. In addition you should make sure you can actually pay off any student loans with said career.

  23. I would like to tell my 18 year old self to try to save 50% of my income. That would mean graduating college probably, and then living well below my means. With my expensive tastes, that would mean obtaining a high paying job and budgeting carefully but you know what? I most definitely could’ve done it but instead spent everything on consumerism.

    I would tell the high schoolers that saving money, beginning early in life, means that they will able to BUY THEIR FREEDOM later on in life.

  24. 1 – Take school seriously. I went to a community college right after high school and didn’t commit myself at all. If I only focused back then my current student loan debt would be cut in half.

    2 – Major in something that will make some money. I majored in Real Estate and graduated during the credit crisis in 2007. I’m now in IT. Let’s just say everyone in my graduating class that year were thinking about taking on another Major or going to grad school.

    3 – Prioritize…I can’t remember how many times I would make a poor choice with my time. Instead of going home early to get up for a 9AM class the next day I said, “meh” I can hang out for another hour. That always dragged for another two hours and I would only get a few hours of sleep for that 9AM religion class.

  25. Mo and ryan make a good point – that you can finish faster if you are motivated. However, I would add that if you don’t finish on time, don’t beat yourself up. In my last 2 years, I’ve dealt with two serious health crisies, which combined mean that I cannot handle the recommended course load (5 classes per semester + labs) without precipitating yet another health crisis. Yes, do well in school, pick up a job, socialize/network, DO INTERNSHIPS (summer is a great time if you can’t handle it during the school year like me), but remember that your health must come first. I see a lot of people at my school who are neglecting their health and I know it will come back to bite them. A degree will do you no good if you aren’t in any condition to use it.

  26. You probably already gave your talk but I thought of a few things to add to your already-awesome list.

    1- College has a lot of activities. Maybe in high school you could do them all, but there’s so many to pick from that it’s impossible. Figure out what’s most important to you or you’re sufficiently good at (I tried out for acapella groups and didn’t get into any, so that was out, but I did varsity sports too) and pick those. They’re a great outlet and will help you manage your time well, too, but only if you pick wisely.
    2- Don’t over-subscribe yourself academically. I went through a stage where I tried to keep up with the hot-shots in my classes and considered a double-major and did 6 classes, TAed, and a sport to start. I ended up nearly failing a few classes and dropping the ones I didn’t need. Next semester I focused on a few classes instead and did much better.
    3- Of the activities you pick, do at least one that’s related to a future career. I’m an engineer, and while there are classes that have practical parts in them, getting hands-on experience tinkering earlier would have been great for me, and it provides real experience you can talk about in interviews for internships, grad school, or real jobs. Plus, if you hate it, it’s much lower-risk to find out then rather than later in your career.

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