The National Center for Educational Studies projects that 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees will be awarded in the 2012-2013 school year. What will nearly all of them have in common? Within weeks of graduating, they will fall into a post undergrad existential crisis. What was the point of college? What do I want to do with my life? What do I do with all of these loans? Why didn’t I build my résumé? #FirstWorldProblems
As a high school teacher, I constantly had students asking me for advice as they prepared for their undergraduate journeys. Below is a summary of the many great conversations I have had with former students about preparing for college. Hopefully it will help others as they prepare for this huge stage in their lives.
See something I missed? Share your wisdom in a comment below!
1. Who do you want to be?
When applying to schools, it is so easy to start with the US News & World Report Rankings, or some other unimportant and subjective list. The truth is, no one can agree on how to evaluate a college and most rankings are bullshit. The secret, is not to attend the most prestigious university, but to determine who you want to be, then to visit schools and meet alumni to determine which university will get you there.
In the end, it is these soft measures that matter more than the metrics provided by any of these “reports.” Will the school give you the courage and creativity you need to achieve your goals? Will it connect you with the people you need to know to achieve these goals? Will it provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to be successful after your foot is in the door? These are the questions that matter.
2. Great minds solve problems that matter
Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed for saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.” If my college years had a theme, it would be this quote. I spent hours each day with my nose buried in books and typing away papers on my laptop. I lived in the world of ideas. Then I graduated.
My world of ideas was nearly shattered by the realities of the very real present I found myself in. As a teacher in one of the worst high schools in the nation, my theories about education violently crashed against the realities faced by my students. The problems that face America’s education system are not one clean line of logical errors, but a complex matrix of variables, wrapped in an even more intricate combination of socioeconomic, geographical, historical, and cultural factors. It was only by working in the trenches of reality to improve America’s urban education system that I could see what living in the world of ideas had made me blind too.
In college, I wish I had devoted more of my time to do and less to talking. Love to write? Don’t wait until you graduate to start, create a tumblr or print a satirical paper. Upset about a school policy? Change it, and don’t blame others when you hit a road block.
The most impressive group of students I meet in college was the Environmental Club, I believe that was their name. They wanted to make the school more energy efficient, but hit a roadblock convincing the administration of its importance. Instead of quitting there, they launched a “turn off your lights” campaign in the freshman dorms to show the impact of improved energy efficiency. It was such a success that the administration made a 180, opening its doors to their ideas. After being refused by the administration, they did not return with a list of theoretical reasons an improved energy plan would help the school, no they launched an experiment to show that it would help the school.
So if I had the chance to go back in time and speak with Eleanor, I would respectfully disagree. Great minds do not discuss ideas. Great minds solve problems that matter.
3. Never work for minimum wage
In many ways, this lesson is interconnected to lesson two. For most of my college career, I worked within my university’s work study program,i.e., I made minimum wage. To offset my low income I gave up driving my truck and regularly skipped meals. In short, I accepted my situation, and worked with what I was given.
Fuck that. If new me could go back and slap old me in the face, the beating would be followed by the following: shape your reality. Not in a self-help, stare in the mirror and say “I’m a shiny star. I matter,” but in a practical way. I lived on a campus of four thousand undergraduates who spent money everyday on things they could have been buying from me.
My favorite example of this, is the story of Innocent Drinks, a UK smoothie company. Though Innocent now sells two million smoothies per week, its humble beginning is inspiring to those who seek to do. In 1999, three friends from Cambridge University bought $800 dollars in fruit, agreed on a handful of smoothie recipes, then opened up a stand at a music festival in London. Each customer was asked to vote whether they should quit their jobs to make smoothies full-time by tossing their empty bottles in a trash can marked ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The yes was unanimous, and that night Innocent was born.
In college I did not have $800 to spend on fruit, but the possibilities for earning more than minimum wage on a college campus are endless. From tutoring, to selling subsandwiches out of your dorm room, don’t take reality as it comes, do everything in your power to shape it.
4. Don’t buy textbooks
Peer-to-peer used buying: A very popular challenge to the traditional university bookstore buy-back system, which only gives you 1% of what a used book is worth, are student peer-to-peer used bookstores. This system uses facebook and other online social networks to allow peers to buy used books directly from each other. The beauty of this system is that students can sell books to students for less than their university bookstore, but more than the bookstore would pay them to buy back the used copy. In some cases, I have even seen students donating books to whoever needs them. It is a beautiful thing. If your school doesn’t have one of these systems you could start one!
5. Student loans
Like many young Americans, there were two things waiting for me when I graduated from college: a struggling economy and student loans. In fact, last year “outstanding student loans topped $1 trillion” (USA TODAY). With more Americans drowning in student loan debt than credit card debt, it is more important than ever that you understand how student loans work.
Here are seven things you should know about student loans broken down into question and answer format. Test yourself. If you know the answers to all of these questions, you are more educated in student debt than most, if not, I have included the answers to help you better understand how it all works : )
Once you understand how loans work, you can take on the 7 Quick Tricks to Pay Off Your Loans.
6. Study abroad
There are lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom and studying abroad is the cheapest opportunity you will ever have to live in another country. So take advantage of it! There is no need for me to go off on how amazing the experience can be, just ask anyone who has done it. Every adventure is different, but each is memorable. So check out your university’s study abroad programs, or jump on Google and create your own : )
7. Picking a major
Unfortunately for undergraduates, America’s education system is still struggling to adapt its aristocratic roots to the democratic needs of a modern nation. Historically, what one studied at a university had no reason to apply to a career. University students where the children of the aristocracy and more often than not would get the job training they needed when they took over their family’s businesses. University was the place where one learned to think, where one completed the culturing process for the intelectual demands of the aristocratic life.
Now things have changed. In the 2012-2013 school year, 21.6 million students were projected to attend university. In a nation run by its citizenry, it is important not only that its people have the knowledge necessary to vote, but the skills necessary to support the nation’s economy. Though we are still far from having a voting body that understands the US political system, the recession has the entire nation challenging the purpose of a bachelor’s degree and the role of recent graduates in a struggling economy.
Taking all this into consideration, I now see the importance of choosing a major that bridges one’s passions with viable career options. For example, if you are feminist driven to end gender disparity, you could minor in women’s studies to provide you the theoretical framework of gender, power, and inequity while majoring in business to gain the know how you need to launch a company that empowers women living in shelters, or a marketing degree to help a non-profit serving women in need be increasing their contributions. The combinations and possibilities are endless. Majoring only in woman’s studies, however, would make you only marketable to graduate programs, a small, expensive, and competitive niche. Diversify the access points to your dreams and you will lessen the likelihood of ending up in a career you hate.
8. Don’t suppress your hobbies
In college, it is very common to get trapped in stereotypes: the protein chugging jocks eat, workout, and party; the newspaper crew’s entire life is newspaper clippings; and the “outcasts” refuse to participate in on campus events. The problem with stereotypes is that they are too small for us. Some jocks love playing piano, sometimes the newspaper editor is secretly obsessed with Twilight, or the outcast occasionally sees an on campus event that aligns with their interests. Either way, don’t let your stereotype limit you from enjoying your hobbies: they are key to surviving college.
Hobbies release stress because they allow you to regularly do something having nothing to do with your major. From anonymously publishing a blog, to joining the rugby team don’t abandon the activities that keep you sane.
9. Manage your time effectively
In college, I lived with a chronic procrastinator: Rod Lopez. In fact, I knew each of his term paper deadlines by the all-nighters that proceeded them. Not so secretly, I took pride in not having the stress and unhealthy sleeping patterns that plagued the middle (midterms) and end (finals) of his semesters.
But there was one thing that bothered me about Rod’s procrastination, his papers always came out amazing. With a single eight-hour all-nighter, his papers earned the same grades as mine.
Though it is easy to respond with, Well my eight hours were spread over four weeks, that would be completely wrong. I spent at least thirty hours on each paper and in the end we both came out with A’s.
The problem was my time management. With so many deadlines, hobbies, on campus events, and networking opportunities time management is key to getting the most out of your time in college. Here is what Rod taught me about time management.
Matthew González is a pedestrian, cyclist, and in-denial vegetarian who decided to blogs his adventures. He formerly worked in Miami with Teach For America and now travels Europe doing research as a Fulbright Fellow. He launched mgregueiro.com as a place to discuss great ideas with the many great minds hiding throughout the wrinkles and corners of the interwebs and is excited to be working with a great team writers. Follow him on Google+ for the most up-to-date news and posts.