What I Wish I'd Known About College
The most important lessons I learned at college weren't the ones my professors taught me. Instead, I learned unpleasant truths about things like money, socializing, and self-sufficiency – usually the hard way. If I could go back and give advice to my freshman self, this is what I'd say.
Apply for scholarships and grants.
A good education will eventually pay for itself, but the more you can accelerate that process, the better. Leaving college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt can be crippling. There are countless individual scholarships and grants out there for the taking, and sometimes nobody applies for them. College students leave free money on the table because they don't know any better. Take the time to research available scholarships – here's a good place to start – and apply! There's no downside to trying.
Be aware of all financial aid requirements and deadlines.
The paperwork involved with financial aid can be confusing. Make it a priority to file all paperwork accurately and on time. Otherwise, you may find yourself out of money and out of options once the school year begins. The sad truth is that nobody cares about your financial aid more than you do, so you have to take charge.
Take the opportunity for a semester abroad.
If your college has a program to study for a semester or a year in another country, take advantage of it. Yes, it will probably cost a little more, but you may never again have a chance to travel abroad for an extended period. College should be more than learning about facts and figures – it should be a chance to educate yourself about the world you live in. There's no better way to do that than to immerse yourself in a new culture.
Get involved with student organizations.
This isn't high school anymore, so there's no need to join every club under the sun to try to impress somebody. Figure out what you're passionate about, and then pursue it. Colleges have radio stations, political advocacy organizations, writers' groups, and so much more. They're a great way to meet people with similar interests, as well as to broaden your horizons. If your college lacks the group you'd like to join, go ahead and start it yourself!
Some college graduates expect to have their choice of job offers immediately after getting a diploma. It doesn't work that way. Particularly in this wintry economic climate, getting a job is less about what you know, and more about who you know. The best way to meet the people who may one day hire you is to pursue internships while in school. You can get in the door at a company you may truly want to work for after graduation, get some valuable work experience, and even get course credit – not to mention getting an edge on the competition that didn't bother interning. It's a winning situation all around.
Resolve problems with roommates now, not later.
Especially as a freshman, you may not always be happy with the roommate you have. Personality clashes, conflicting schedules, and different standards of cleanliness can all cause strife between roommates. This is inevitable. But the tendency is to let conflicts linger and fester until they blow up into ugly situations. Don't let that happen. Instead, when an issue arises, talk to your roommate calmly and respectfully about where you differ, and how the issue can be resolved equitably. If you find that nothing works, see if your school will allow you to transfer to a new room. Your dorm room is your home – you should be comfortable there.
Get a job, especially during summer vacation.
Most of your basic needs are met if you live on campus, but life is awfully drab when you can't afford anything besides dining hall food. College towns are hubs of activity, from concerts to movies to restaurants. Without some cash in your bank account, you can't take advantage of any of it. Even with a heavy load of coursework, working 10-15 hours a week will provide more than enough income to take advantage of the free time you'll still have. During summer vacations, working a 40-hour week will allow you to save thousands for the coming academic year.
Beware of credit cards.
Lots of college students (and their parents) think it's a good idea to have a credit card, if just for emergencies. Don't believe it. Credit card companies tend to prey on college students, saddling them with exorbitant rates and assuming, rightly, that too many students consider new clothes to be an acceptable emergency situation. Misuse of credit cards in college can turn into a lifetime burden of consumer debt. Although it can be helpful to start building credit early in life by responsibly paying off your balance each month, a better idea is to have a job, a simple checking account, and a debit card – and then buy only what you can afford.
Every class counts.
If you're passionate about your major, you won't have much trouble earning good grades in those courses. But your general education requirements count just as much toward your overall GPA, no matter how uninterested you may be. Dropping the ball in just one of them could mean the difference between graduating with honors and graduating with no distinction at all. It is not fun to look at your final GPA and realize that you came within six-tenths of a point of graduating with honors.
Moderation is the key.
There's a reason that National Lampoon-style parodies of college life resonate with so many of us: It's because they're largely based in truth. Experimenting and testing one's limits is part of the experience, whether we like to admit it or not, and for the most part that's not entirely a bad thing. But for some, the unbridled freedom that college life affords can lead to unwise choices that can have damaging and far-reaching consequences. Remember why you're really at college – to learn, and to set yourself up for a long, successful life. Don't undermine that by making stupid, shortsighted decisions.
Understand your rights as a tenant.
Lots of college students move from the dorm to an apartment after a year or two, which is another important step toward independence and self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, unscrupulous landlords often take advantage of student renters, and do not fulfill all of their legal responsibilities. Take the time to understand your city's laws about tenant rights, and report your landlord if those rights are being violated. There's a flip side: If you want your security deposit back, don't treat your apartment like a big dorm room. You're renting it; it doesn't belong to you.