College, for many fortunate Americans, is like “Adulting.Beta.” There are way more responsibilities than there were during high school, but there are still some safety nets in place. This can be a crucial time of self-discovery, where children enter the system and something closer to adults leave.
The range of experiences — and privileges — is quite extensive. Some students will have to work or may choose to work while also taking classes. Some students may be older and attending for the first time, while others still may have children or other dependents under their care. Some may be disadvantaged economically or come from an ethnic minority. Some may finish in two years, while others may not finish at all.
The real college experience is far removed from smiling faces scattered before a leafy autumnal collonade, which is what many promotional pamphlets might have you believe. But, in truth, there are as many college experiences as there are college students. Each one is unique, and though some may fall along the bell curve in terms of a “traditional experience,” no two can be quite the same.
Active College vs. Passive College
If there is any advice I can offer — as a legal assistant, professional writer, and college alumna — it is to wrest as much control as you can out of your college experience. Don’t let college happen to you. Use college as a springboard to get you to where you want to be (or closer to it because many of you won’t know what you want to do). Move through college actively, don’t get pulled along through it.
If You Are Undecided, Decide To Wait
And what if you don’t know what you want to be doing? Well, you really have two options ahead of you if you aren’t sure what to do. Either go undecided or don’t go. I recommend not paying a dime before knowing at least what field you want to work in. There is a terrible myth that you must go to college even if you don’t know what you want to do. This myth originates from the same people raising tuition and forcing students into terrible amounts of student loan debt. (I’m still paying off mine, and I graduated in 2006).
You don’t HAVE to go to college right out of high school just because what seems like your whole world is pushing you to do so. Have you ever read the quote from Elon Musk, one of the wealthiest people on the planet?
In the interview, he explains that Tesla doesn’t require a college degree in its hiring requirements because Musk believes that college doesn’t necessarily prove exceptional ability, which is one of the hiring requirements. He states that some of the most successful people in our modern, tech-driven era — i.e., Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — were college dropouts. To sum it up, he says you don’t need college to learn stuff. (Note that Musk has completed degrees at prestigious universities, so he isn’t saying college isn’t useful — just that it isn’t necessary).
It is my belief that a college degree and all its component experiences are a tool. Like any tool, it is only worth having when used appropriately. Having the best set of knives and a top-of-the-line oven range doesn’t make you Rachel Ray. Therefore, having a B.S. in physics doesn’t make you Stephen Hawking. College is way too expensive for you to show up, not knowing what you want to do.
You need a general plan! And yes, plans change, and you might discover a new path while trekking on the old one, but you need to be thinking ahead. It’s simply too expensive for you to move through college passively. Consider a gap year if you find yourself already enrolled and not knowing what you want to do.
What About the Connections, Networks, and Social Life?
Some might argue that it’s not necessarily about the education, but rather it’s about the social networking and connections you make while at college. And it is true that many of the connections you forge while at college will, in fact, last you a whole career’s worth of time. But stop and consider that you can find human connection all around you for free.
Nothing is stopping an eager — yet unenrolled — mind from reaching out to a department and requesting information or asking to attend a meeting or club. My point is that you don’t need to take out a loan to send an email or go to a public lecture.
Let’s also address the sloppy elephant in the room. When it comes to the “social life” college offers, nothing is stopping you from going to a frat house on a Saturday night with a five clutched in your hand. If the movies are any indication, people try that even after they graduate.
To Sum It Up
College might be one of the most amazing experiences of your life, but it can be the first of many marvelous and unforgettable experiences if you do it right. I am by no means suggesting that you do not go to college. Rather, I suggest that you take the time and try to grasp what you want to do first. If that means waiting a year, then so be it! If that means taking a gap year, and working, so be it. Your wallet and future self will thank you.
About the Author
Veronica Baxter is a writer, blogger, and legal assistant operating out of the greater Philadelphia area. She writes for David Offen, a successful bankruptcy attorney in Philadelphia.