Two things I wish my teenaged self had known about college

I approached college selection in my usual methodical manner: first I sat down with two huge catalogs — each two inches thick on newsprint-thin paper — that listed and rated every accredited school in the country. I made a list of desired criteria and started winnowing the possibilities.

college marketing brochureI went to career fairs and signed up for nearly every college related information newsletter. I had been getting unsolicited college brochures in the mail as well, often several a day. I saved everything in a brown lawn-size garbage bag under my bed.

Eventually, I gathered up all of these publications — by then overflowing the bag — sorted them into piles by college, and began the process of deciding which universities I would apply to. I was confident that I would make good choices, because I had collected ALL the information.

There was just one problem. I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t actually getting information. I had a 39-gallon garbage bag full of advertising under my bed.

That’s the first thing I wish someone had explained to me — that colleges are selling a product. Their main goal is convincing you to give them your money … or in the case of outside scholarships, convincing you to give them someone else’s money. Even if the school is footing the entire bill, because you were valedictorian or a National Merit Finalist or whatever, the aim is still money: they’re using you to bump their statistics and rankings in order to convince other prospective students to give them money. Whether the school is a good choice for you is completely beside the point.

hamburger compared to photo on boxIn most cases, the picture of college life that you get from a brochure or a campus tour is no more accurate than the hamburger in a fast-food television commercial. The fluffy golden bun, sizzling grill-seared meat, curly green lettuce with water droplets arcing outward in slow motion, all bear no discernible resemblance to the smushed hockey puck you actually unwrap.

Even hard facts are suspect, because you can’t possibly know the whole story. For example, I chose the college I currently attend because my tennis coach new the tennis coach there. 4 years after that decision and I have never played tennis for this school, I have however rowed crew. In addition my major is not the schools “speciality”.

soldiers climbing in training exerciseI got to college, signed up for my freshman year classes and suddenly realized that I actually needed to major in something. I never wanted to go to college it was just simply what everyone else in my family (and friends) did. So I picked the two easiest things (things I was good at) since I had to major and minor in order to graduate and ended up with a computer science and economics double major.

The second big thing I wish I’d understood is that college doesn’t actually revolve around the students. Universities, like any organization, are chock-full of personal politics. College professors almost universally have goals quite unrelated to teaching yet another set of kids the basics of whatever for the umpteenth time. They have personalities, and ambitions, and foibles. There will be struggles over power, over money, over prestige. And all of those things will define your experience as a student — sometimes in ways you come to understand, but often entirely behind the scenes.

If I could go back and give advice to my teenage self, here’s what I’d tell her:

Any assumptions about college you make in advance are likely to be wrong — there’s just too much you can’t know until you have boots on the ground. All that advertising under your bed is actual garbage: toss it out now. Same with campus visits — they’re still marketing, and give you a very poor idea of reality. College ratings are rigged — ignore them. Don’t succumb to flattery. Don’t pick a school for the major you think you want. Don’t assume that any circumstance that exists today (class, teacher, program, department) will be the same next year, or four years from now.

university students listening to lectureInstead, remain flexible. Pick the most diverse university you can afford and keep your options wide open. Pick one with a strong reputation but not because it’s the very best. Go visit it, you cannot get a real feel about something without ever being there. Try lots of things, because your favorites will surprise you. When you find a teacher who inspires you, cultivate their acquaintance and take every class they have to offer. If something stinks, bail. Let go of preconceptions and adjust to the real circumstances in which you find yourself. I personally would have a preferred a slightly larger college. Though despite my desire to avoid the liberal arts, I do believe they have actually greatly improved my perspective of the world.

Marketing has only gotten more sophisticated, and I feel confident that academic politics are as pervasive as they ever were. As far as I can tell, teens today are no less naive or idealistic — if anything, they may be more likely to have unrealistic expectations.

In fact, the only significant difference is that a college education costs a lot more — over than three times as much, while wages have (adjusting for inflation) remained about the same. That’s a lot of money to spend barking up the wrong tree.

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17 comments

  1. Thank you, for writing this.

    Oh, the things I would tell my younger self…

    Do you regret your choice in college? If you had known what you know now, would you attend the same university?

    I would probably tell myself that I definitely SHOULD have spent my senior in Japan, and to NOT take calculus and Japanese at the same time. It won’t end well. Also, take calculus at a community college and not at the university- where it is a weed out course.

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    1. *I meant senior year of high school in Japan. I found a somewhat expensive program to go to, but my Japanese would have been so much better when I got back that it would’ve been worth it. At the time, I was worried about the program not being acceptable to universities, therefore limiting my college options.

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    2. In a way I do regret my choice because I made it completely on the fly. I could have gone somewhere better since I got in everywhere I applied. I think I doubted myself, I probably still do sometimes.

      But in the end I’m happy here and I made it work. Sure I should have done something different but in the end I realized my mistake and went with it.

      Where did you go to school?

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      1. In my defence, the google search’s first two hits were Mars Hill, then your university twice, and then there’s a college called Medical Hat….

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  2. This is something I really needed to read right now. I am in the process of working out what career I want and in turn what university I want to go to. I too have mountains of information, not under my bed though, on different universities and different courses aimed towards the choices I have at the moment. It will be some time before I have to make a final decision on what career I really want that will make me happy and what Uni I should choose to help me achieve this goal but this post has helped understand things a little better especially as I have no one else in my family or friends who has been to Uni that I can talk to about their experiences. So thank you for this.

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