College is a wonderful and daunting experience. There’s nothing quite like the freshman year, when things are new and you’re surrounded by numerous unfamiliar faces. Without some good advice, one can find themselves lost in their new environment.
Because of this, I’ve decided to make a list of things to know before going to college which may be helpful to those going for the first time. This list won’t be in any particular order, and it’ll flit about numerous topics and maintain a broad scope.
1. Be careful who you take advice from.
Before even setting foot on campus, you’ll likely be inundated with advice on college life. Much of the advice conflicts, and not all the advice is good. It can be taxing to consider so much advice at once, but it doesn’t need to be.
One principle that I’ve found helpful in determining the value of advice is to consider the qualification of the person who is offering the advice. This requires knowing something about them, but goes a long way in determining whether their advice is valid.
If a person is a school guidance counselor, their college advice is probably really good. After all, they have a position that makes them close to many college students, and in their experiences, they see what works and what doesn’t. Also, if a person has been to college, they’re likely to have insight that would help someone who hasn’t gone yet.
On the other hand, you might want to be a little leery of advice offered by those who have dropped out of school. After all, they didn’t succeed in making it work out, so whatever advice they have to give can be viewed in the light of how it worked out for them. The same goes for people working low-wage jobs. A college degree is intended to help a person’s career; if that person’s career is in the dumps, they might not have good advice to offer. That’s not to say that they can’t offer helpful college advice, but that’s a lot less likely to be the case when it’s coming from them.
You definitely want to be skeptical of advice offered by someone who doesn’t see the value of a college education and has no idea why anyone would go for such a thing. If they hold such an opinion, what would college success mean to them, whether for themselves or for you?
Not only that, there are a ton of “armchair experts” out there whose expertise with the college experience is limited solely to the fact that they know someone who went. Based on reasoning like theirs, a person can be an expert on Japanese culture because they know someone who speaks Japanese, or a person can be an expert on the Jewish religion because they work with a Jewish person. There’s a lot more to expertise than that.
When taking college advice, consider the qualification of the person giving it. That can help you get through the fog and go in the right direction. What about me? I’ve been to college before, and I’ve graduated, so I’m capable of giving some good advice. But if you’re unsure about some of the things you see in this list, it might be a good idea to bring them up with other people, so you get more insight. Taking helpful advice from one qualified source is good. Taking it from several good sources is even better.
2. Learn campus rules. Even if you don’t, they still apply to you!
When going to a new school, it’s a really good idea to learn the campus rules. I know that sounds like a preachy thing to say, but it’s a good policy on the reasoning that even if you don’t learn campus rules, they still apply to you.
I understand the principle of “just use good common sense” holds up pretty well in most places you go, but the excuse of “I just didn’t know” doesn’t hold up as well as people think. For that reason, it’s a really good idea to find out what the rules are. After all, when you know what the boundaries are, and make an effort to avoid crossing them, you’ll be far less likely to get in trouble.
On campuses, there’s usually a rule that smoking should only be done in designated areas. Are dorms designated areas? They usually aren’t. That’s helpful to know before smoking in a dorm, and it’s considered every student’s responsibility to know. If someone says something like “no one told me that rule”, what they’re saying is that they can’t be a responsible student, especially if it’s posted somewhere what the smoking areas are, and that dormitories are clearly not among them.
Schools also have strict no-weapons policies. So don’t bring those. There are places where it’s not clear whether pepper spray or Swiss Army knives are weapons. Play it safe and don’t bring those, either. For a rather severe example, a freshman at a school I went to once brought a katana with him, and carried it on his person. He apparently wanted to live some kind of Bushido fantasy. It didn’t take long for campus security to catch up with him, and he was quickly expelled. True story.
So yeah, learn what the rules are. If you do, you’ll be less likely to run afoul of them. It might be a good idea to reread them from time to time, like once a year. Play it safe.
3. It makes a difference what you go to school for.
This is a point that’s been made so many times by so many people that it’s difficult to say anything on this point that hasn’t already been said. But it belongs on a list like this, so I thought to include it. The point is, it matters what you go to college for, not just that you go to college.
Think about it: college’s purpose is to start you on your career path, or give it a solid boost. If what you go to school for doesn’t result in a fulfilling career, then you’re better off going to school for something else.
In this regard, English majors usually get picked on. It’s not that English majors don’t find fulfilling careers, but they do have a harder time of it than most other majors. Generally speaking, a person is better off not majoring in an elective, unless that elective is Math.
So, what does one go for? The best majors are usually ones that give a person skills to do a job or certain kind of job. And if the job pays better, that makes it a better choice (after all, there are student loans to repay).
A proper mentality is to think about what you want to do for a living. Would you want to be a doctor? A lawyer? An engineer? A programmer? Or something else? Then, once you’ve decided, you pick a major that does a good job of preparing you to do that. After all, college is intended to prepare you for your future job. If what you’re doing in college doesn’t do that for you, then maybe it’s time for you to rethink your approach.
4. Try to determine whether you may be buying into a false narrative regarding your future career prospects.
That point is a mouthful, but it’s important to think about. And it’s not always that someone is lying to students about job prospects; sometimes a student may be misguided about just what their degree does for them because they didn’t do their own research. Sometimes, people do fool themselves.
For one thing, it’s possible for a person to obtain a college degree without understanding the distinction between an undergraduate or a postgraduate, or between an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, or how they can affect one’s job prospects.
I’ve heard of a student who obtained an associate’s degree in Electronic Engineering Technology who, after having graduated, believed that that made him qualified to be an electrical engineer. He even succeeded in finding a job as one. However, he was quickly overwhelmed with problems that he wasn’t prepared to find the solutions to! But, “Engineering” is in the name of the degree, right? Yeah, but an associate’s in that usually prepares one for industrial electrician jobs or working as electronic technicians in laboratory environments, which isn’t exactly the same.
As with the previous point, it’s better to know what you want to do, then determine the major that helps you achieve it. To understand what you want to go to school for and how it affects your career aspects are two points that are very closely related, so I put them on this list back-to-back.
5. Having a degree still makes a difference.
There are too many anecdotal stories out there that try to make the case that a college degree doesn’t make the difference it used to. As these stories are passed on, they have the effect of discouraging younger people from living up to their potential.
In reality, a college degree matters more than it ever has. It makes the difference between having a job that you’d love waking up in the morning to do, and barely getting by with a grocery, retail, or restaurant job wondering whether you’ll ever be promoted to management.
Not only that, a college degree makes a huge difference in one’s earning potential, even considering the increasing expense of student loans. Think about it, what seems like a better deal:
- Making $50,000+ a year (results vary, do your research), with a debt that one can pay off in only about 10 years, or
- Making $18,000 a year, possibly for life.
Your student loans go to an investment, not just an expense. While it’s true that student expenses are getting pretty crazy, it’s still a better choice than being broke your whole life.
Contributing to the problem are the stories thrown around, such as that Bill Gates became successful without a degree. Pointing to outliers only demonstrates that there are rare exceptions, and people who buy into them are apparently banking on becoming a rare exception, and in so doing making a terrible gambit.
It may be true that your granddad got by without a high school education, but he grew up in a time when high school educations weren’t needed to get a decent job. It may be true that your dad didn’t get a college education, but he was a child of a different time. Today, the job market is far more competitive than it ever has been, and if a person wants to afford a house, a car, and a family, that usually takes a job that requires a college degree.
You might have heard it said that a college degree doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but the fact is, it’s more important to have than it ever has been!
This is getting to be a bit lengthy, and there’s still a lot more ground to cover. So this is going to be the first of several parts. More to come.
Part 2 of this series
Part 3 of this series
Part 4 of this series
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