Here is what I wish I had known before college:
I came to the United States as an international student, with very little money. I had no clue, none whatsoever, as to the nature of colleges and universities in the US. I won’t bore you with the details, except to tell you that there is a lot I wish I had known before I started college, because you can make better decisions with more information. So, here is what I would suggest any student considering going to college (or not) think about:
Let’s start with the money. Yeah, it’s important. It’s important for you to start the process of deciding on a college by first stepping back from all external materials, messages, and pressures, and first reflecting realistically on your financial situation. Specifically, you might want to ask yourself:
What is the financial situation that I (or my parents or mentors or friends--whoever is paying for college) can live with? This means being realistic. A conversation about finances needs to be open, honest, and transparent, since overspending can affect everyone for years to come. And to remember is that when you overextend yourself financially, you will ultimately hurt your own future in ways that can be more detrimental than choosing a less-expensive college.
Don’t forget that there is money to be found through financial aid, grants and fellowships. This kind of legwork can quite literally pay off. Also, having a part-time job during college often makes you more focused on academic work. But be smart, and don’t just get any job. If you can, try finding a job in a field you are passionate about, because each job opens the door to a next one, and a next one. And sometimes the best way to get those jobs is to knock on doors, to have conversations, to ask questions, to show interest, and maybe even volunteer a few hours to get your foot in the door.
Then, sit down and reflect on the learnings that you would most enjoy. Do not start by answering the question: what major do you want to pursue? Sit down with a piece of paper and write down everything that you are curious about, and more: everything you’d love to learn and experience. This exercise is about you. So stay true to yourself and write down as much as you can, without thinking about what your parents might want you to learn, what your friends are doing, or what society says you should pursue, ok? Stay authentic. Stay true to yourself.
Let me repeat: do not start by identifying possible majors or possible jobs, because this approach will immediately narrow your future based on what you know now. And college is all about expanding and challenging what you know now, to open your mind to new ideas and careers.
This freedom to explore any and all possible subjects is what leads to surprising discoveries and career paths that evolve from making unexpected connections or thinking outside one’s comfort zones. And that’s what “liberal” education and the “Liberal Arts” is all about. It has nothing to do with liberal politics, and everything to do with every single human being’s ability and opportunity to free your mind, explore possibilities across a wide array of fields and think for yourself. And, yes, it's totally financially worth it.
This should be a conversation led by you, with your interests in full view. Although we as parents often want to guide our kids in the right direction, for this particular step, you should try to control our impulses and openly talk about what motivates you.
Once this genuinely authentic process is complete, looking at schools and colleges can begin. And that’s where it gets complicated. As someone who came to the US from Germany (but completed high school in Spain at the age of twenty, I knew absolutely nothing—zero, nada, nichts—about US colleges and universities, I understand how daunting this task can be. So here is what I wish I had known beforehand:
There are various types of colleges to choose from: community colleges, professional schools like nursing or engineering, public universities, private universities, research universities and liberal arts colleges. Each has different strengths and provides different opportunities. What you want to do is find a place that matches your budget first and your interests second.
Don’t forget: you are paying for your education. So get the education you want.
And whatever you do, don’t forget to:
Take your time to look at college websites. What you will search for is the course catalog and the general education requirements to see if there are classes that match up to your list of desired learnings.
If you can, visit the school in person (sometimes schools provide financial help to get you on their campus. Just ask the admissions office). This can make a huge difference. Some schools look great on paper, but then don’t live up to the hype when you see it in person. Other schools look so-so on paper, but then feel great when you get on campus. And, yes, sometimes you just need to go by what “feels right” to you.
Don’t let standardized tests get in your way. Standardized tests are made for people who are good test takers and whose brains work in specific ways. If you are not one of those people – I was definitely not one of them – do not waste your time or money trying to improve test scores. They do not measure your intelligence nor your future success. More and more colleges and universities, especially after Covid, are recognizing that standardized tests place a higher burden and do not measure success of students with different intelligences, from different cultural backgrounds, and with different strengths.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to look up a school’s general education requirements. Ultimately, these are the classes you will have to take. So make sure you want to take them! Too many students get to campus and then feel surprised, sometimes even angered, by the classes they have to take. Know what you are getting into before you go.
Okay, say you find
a college that offers many of the classes (learnings) that excite you, and it's a college you can afford. You apply, and you get accepted. Congrats! You get to campus. Now what? Whatever you do, remember these mantras:
Learn as much as you can. Your goal is to learn, so get yourself out there. Challenge yourself. Explore! Discover! Take a class, or two, or three, from a totally different field. Your goal is to learn and grow. That’s what you are paying for. So go out there and get it.
Don’t tie yourself down through more majors and minors. In other words, don’t get double majors or minors just because they make you look like a go-getter. More requirements means less time to explore other classes. Ask yourself whether the trade-off is worth it. You are a go-getter when you drive your learning through classes and experiences that you care about and that will expand your knowledge and skills. If you create your own unique path, you will stand out from the crowd.
Or create your own major. You see, there are lots of colleges and universities now that allow you to create your own major. You might need to jump through a few hoops to create that major, but this opportunity can let you stand out from the crowd while allowing you to pursue what interests you!
Go on a term abroad, no matter what. Alums who look back on their college careers repeatedly point to their terms abroad as the highlight of their college career. Once you have a job, going abroad for an extended period of time is very hard. You’ve got bills to pay. Maybe a family to support. So do it now. And go to a country where they don’t speak English. Because going to a non-English speaking country will blow your mind and change your entire perspective on life.
Participate in extracurriculars. When I started college I was twenty years old. I was super focused, and I had no interest in doing much else beyond my classes and studying. The truth is, I was too afraid to fail! But in the process I totally missed out. Don’t miss out. Go to evening talks. Participate in a club. Affect change in the community. At no other time in your life will you be offered so many choices and opportunities. Enjoy them to the fullest. You can drink and watch tv when you are old.
Meet new people. Colleges and universities are filled with students, staff, and faculty members from all around the world. People who are different from you. Don’t be shy, because that’s how you expand your perspective on your own life and work, and the world. Meeting people other than yourself is the best way to learn about yourself.
Talk to your professors. Speaking for myself, I love it when students talk to me about their lives, their interests, their hopes and dreams. Yes, we care. We are teachers! We want to support you in your learning. We want to get to know you.. and one day we might even write you a letter of recommendation. Yes, those matter. They matter a lot. But if your prof doesn’t know you, they can’t write you a letter. So, talk to your professors, ok?
Don't go to college if you consider it a burden. If you don’t want to be there, don’t go. Take a gap year. Work for a while. Do something else. Don’t go. It’s not worth your time, or money.
College is not the only way. Yes, I’m a college professor. I think it’s worth it. The intellectual and personal transformation that happens in those four years is deeply transformative (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). But I don’t believe college is for everyone. In fact, I went through a German apprenticeship program, and I think they are also incredibly valuable paths to build a future. And there are other paths as well. Decide the right path for you based on what it is that you want to learn. Don’t let others make that decision for you. Stay true to yourself.
You don’t yet know? Not a problem. You are young! How can you? The best thing you can do is not hurry into anything. Volunteer or intern at a place you find of interest. Is this work for you? Talk to people, and find out what they do. Be proactive. And, yes, learn. Learn as much as you can.
If you want to go to college, the experience can be transformative. College is a place to make lifelong friends; it’s a place to experience, to begin to map your future and build a network of ideas and connections. It’s a place to become yourself. Because we are all a work in progress.