5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About College
1. You’re living on borrowed time (and money)
When I started college, I was stupid. Ten years from now, I’m going to look back at myself now and think the same thing, but that’s in the future so it doesn’t feel quite real. It’s this nebulous mass out there that’s changeable and variable, so every time my dad started to give me a lecture on the value of money, I nodded and drifted off. He didn’t have to tell me about the value of money, I thought. I’m not an idiot!
You think, “But I’ve got a year before I have to start paying back those loans! And it’s not that much!”
Say you take out $40,000 in loans, which is a conservative estimate for a decent college education. The typical college student looks at potential jobs and their salaries and thinks, “Pssh, I’ll be making that back in no time flat!”
Like many of my fellow students, I knew about the costs of finding an apartment, interest on the loans, gas, health insurance, buying a car, car insurance, and the numerous other plagues of adulthood that pop up like boils on a Black Plague victim, I just never really understood how much a chunk of money that was.
That’s even considering if you find a job immediately—gather round, children, because I’m going to lay some wisdom on you: a year goes by fast. Those people who loaned you money are going to be sending a doomsday counter to you every day from when you graduate and you’ll watch those slowly dwindling numbers with a sinking feeling in your chest and a hollow feeling in your wallet.
Especially in this economy, don’t count on finding that dream job—or even a good job—for a while. It takes time and work, and sometimes even that doesn’t help.
2. But they’ll work with you, right? They want their money!
They do, this is true. But it’s less like borrowing a $20 from your friend for gas and more like taking a loan from the Russian guy who waits on the street corner and cracks his knuckles ominously every time you pass. I was told, and naively believed, that they would lower my payments, consolidate my loans, and I could even defer them if I was having trouble making the payments.
Well, that sounds great!
Except… the lowered payments? One of my loans went from $130 to $100.
I can’t consolidate and the student loans woman told me that I could only defer payments for six months. Again, that time will fly by and you might still not have a job that can pay for it.
3. Get through college as quickly as possible
So I’ve given you the bad news, the tough love, all that jazz. What can you do? As I found out, scholarships and grants help, so get good grades, but the best way to avoid incurring truckloads of debt is to get through school as fast as possible. Colleges are a scam. There are people who will tell you that, “College is what you make of it!” and while on one hand, this is very true, on the other hand, I found that while my oceanography class was absolutely fascinating, it’s not exactly applicable in the real world.
I worked two jobs while I was in college, but it never seemed to make a dent, because I was working the jobs that pay by the hour rather than by salary. No matter how hard you work, you’re probably not going to be able to keep up with the cost of tuition and living. Your best bet is to load up on classes (12 hours is a joke, while I can tell you from personal experience that 21 hours is a bit too much), take summer school classes, and work your schedule aggressively so that you can pass in the minimum amount of time. At most colleges, if you’re taking full-time classes (12 hours being the standard), then you pay a flat fee for tuition. This means that if you take four classes or seven classes, you’re going to be paying the same amount of money. If you don’t mind hitting the books and being perpetually tired and stressed every semester, you can graduate in two years.
If that sounds like too much, consider the fact that you could save yourself two years’ worth of college loans—which will be much less stressful when it comes time to repay those loans and still haven’t found that job.
4. GPA isn’t as important as you think
Don’t get me wrong, grades are important, and you should strive for the best. That said, I had a 4.0 until my junior year and the truth is, it wasn’t worth it. I was perpetually stressed with keeping this perfect record and while that may have worked in my favor, it also made my life incredibly tougher every year than if I had a 3.9 GPA.
You know in elementary, when they told you that all the high school kids wrote in cursive, and then you got there and found out that no one does?
Or remember how SAT’s were everything in high school, but once you got into your college, they weren’t important?
I’m here to tell you that GPA is one of those things.
When you’re looking for a job, it’s good to have an awesome GPA on your resume, but it’s not as essential as you think. If you have solid work experience, went to a good college, and can ace your interview, the difference between the candidate who has a 3.6 and a 3.8 isn’t as big as you might think.
I’ll reiterate: grades are important and do the best you can. But don’t kill yourself trying to get that perfect grade.
5. College teaches you absolutely nothing about real life
This is it. This is the big truth. We like to think of college as this beacon where kids go to become adults, where they learn about real life, and where they gain an education in that great big classroom we call The World.
You’re going to be taking classes that have no real relevancy to the job you’ll be doing (see: Oceanography; also, liberal arts). You’ll become friends with people who consider being Beer Pong Champion of the Week an impressive achievement. You’ll be spending money that you neither worked for nor earned outside of filling out the FASFA.
When you do graduate, you’re going to find yourself floundering. My parents never paid for tuition or living expenses while I was at college, but they fully endorsed the sink-or-swim method by also dropping my medical insurance and car insurance once I graduated. I found myself praying that if I was in an accident, it would be quick and painless, because I couldn’t afford a hospital stay. The only reason I had a place to live at all was because my brother offered to let me stay with him until I could get on my feet.
I found myself learning how to refine my resume, search for jobs in my area, and what to wear during interviews by Googling. One interview, I was talking to a man who kept using words that were practically foreign to me, because he assumed I would know all about it. I kept nodding and pretending that I knew exactly what he was talking about, secretly wishing someone would hand me a manual so I could page through the index and find out what on earth he was saying to me.
Here’s the newsflash: no one’s going to give you that manual. No one’s going to step in and find that job for you. No one’s going to work with you to help you repay your loans (unless you consider garnishing your wages “helping”).
You’re on your own, kid.
But just in case I sound too pessimistic, at least you had
someone to tell you these things beforehand. I'm not trying to tell you to not have fun in college--you're going to look back after a hard day of slogging through interviews and think of the days when you could roll out of bed at noon, play video games through the weekend, and hang out with your friends at a bar after your 3 p.m. class. Just be smart about it and don't make the mistake of thinking that school is going to last forever.
You’re gonna need it.