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What I Wish I Knew Before Starting College Advice College Grads Hope Someone Had Told Them Sooner

For many students, starting college is their first time living on their own and making their own decisions. It’s a unique time and setting to learn and grow as independent adults, and it can be incredibly gratifying to come out the other end with a degree and a new set of life skills. Sometimes, though, a little guidance can be helpful — take it from people who learned the hard way. We asked a group of professionals from different academic backgrounds what they wish someone had told them before they started college and gathered a bit of advice from counselor and former dean of students at Eastern University, Daryl Hawkins, to better prepare incoming students for college.

Meet the Expert

Daryl L. Hawkins Founder, DDMH Educational Strategic Solutions

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On Money

Money can be a huge concern while in college, and little expenses can sneak up on students. Going out for lunch when a meal plan has already been tacked to their tuition bill, needing university-specific textbooks, treating their friends to a drink, accruing library fines or sprucing up their wardrobe can end up making college cost a lot more than students expect. That doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t have any fun, but they should make a point of getting good at monitoring their money.

Take ALL core classes at the community college. You get the same professors and quality, but for less money.

Shelby B.

“The students I have spoken with say that they expect college to be costly,” Hawkins says. “However, I tend to think they are looking at the cost generally and not specifically looking at the ways a student can nickel and dime themselves through extra expenses in the moment or over the course of a semester.

“I am a big proponent of students using cash,” Hawkins continues, “whether it’s a weekly allowance or bi-weekly stipend. Get the cash. See the money that is going out in an effort to make a better determination of, ‘Is it worth it?’ At least until the student is able to identify the ‘hidden’ costs in eating out, late-night eating and supporting friends.”

Katrina R. says she wishes someone had warned her about using credit cards over cash while in college. “They used to put the credit card applications in the bags at the bookstore,” she recalls. She recommends students avoid them.

While it’s easy for students to chip away at their bank accounts, big-picture costs can also take students by surprise. Hawkins points out that students often don’t look at their itemized tuition bill and instead cover the cost via loans without really knowing what they’re paying for. “I wish more students did look at the bottom-line bill,” he says, “even if paying by student loan.” Loans can be tempting because, unlike other financial aid options, such as scholarships and grants, they don’t take much work to obtain. Plus, they are necessary for many students: more than 42 million students had outstanding federal students loans in 2017.

Buy or download textbooks online, or use international or older versions.

Philip F.

That said, graduates echo each other’s loan woes. Nathan P. says he wishes someone had told him that he’d still be paying off his student loans six years later. Katrina R. agrees that she would have liked some warning about the unexpectedly long-term nature of loans. Exploring other ways to fund her education would have been more work but would’ve made the debt easier to swallow: “Investigate all financial options — grants, scholarships (every year), work-study — and not just loans. The debt will definitely be around for longer than they tell you when you’re signing the paperwork,” she says.

Other graduates say they wish they had known about the range of ways they could’ve saved money in college, from small savings in the surrounding community to significant cuts to tuition costs:

There are tons of student discounts in your community. Use them!

Katrina R.

On Majors

If you don’t know what your major should be, that’s fine. Take classes in things that interest you and figure it out from there.

Kim W.

The pressure to choose a major can be very real for many students. A student’s major and their future career options are often talked of as though they were one and the same, so it’s understandable that students feel extra intimidated by the process of choosing the right major. “Choosing a major can seem like a daunting task because it sounds so finite,” says Hawkins. “The career path is determined with no option to deviate.”

Yet, when students say they don’t know what they want to study, someone is bound to talk about how nobody sticks with their first major, or nobody ends up working in the field they studied. It seems like the pressure should be off, but students still get hung up on their majors

Hawkins cites some possible reasons for this:
  1. Students aren’t sure if the major is something they want to do.
  2. Someone else has “suggested” what the student should do with their life.
  3. Students hear stories of how often people change from their first choice of major, and they either want to be the exception or they fall into a “there’s always time to decide later” mentality.
  4. College is expensive. Who wants to choose a major only to change it, thus extending time in college and increasing the cost?

These issues are not new to students. Regardless of when they finished college, one of the biggest things graduates stress is they wish someone had told them it was OK to take their time to figure things out.

Wes R. and Shelby B. both wish someone had emphasized the importance of choosing a major they would enjoy rather than one that would yield a big paycheck. “Study what you enjoy, not what you think will make you money,” Wes says. “I started with a heavy dose of math and finance, and I hated it. It wasn’t until I found more intellectually engaging classes and material that I found my major and degree path.”

The No. 1 thing is that it’s OK to be uncertain of your major and to explore other opportunities.

Roy R.

Teresa M. had a slightly different experience: “I wish someone would have talked to me about the option of not going right into college,” she says. “I felt pushed into choosing major and, essentially, a career path. What 18-year-old knows exactly what they want to be when they grow up?! What I knew at 18 was that I liked and was good at writing, so I chose an English major. Then, to be practical, chose an art minor. Now, in my 30s, I’m a marketing professional who enjoys marketing but also misses helping people. I’ve thought about going back to school to be a teacher, become a physical therapist or get my MBA. Imagine what would have happened if I had taken a year between high school and college to volunteer, get into service learning programs or apprentice for a variety of professions?”

Uncertainty can exist for anyone, even after they’ve graduated. Hawkins says a lot of that uneasiness comes from a misconception that students are making the decision in a vacuum. “There are people who come alongside students and walk with them through the process. Students are not as alone or on their own as they sometimes think. It’s really about tapping into the available resources.”

It’s OK to not know what you want to do for a degree program. Focus on the prerequisites for a couple of years and figure out what is a good fit.

Katrina R.

On Course Loads and Studying

When it comes to schoolwork and studying, college is bound to be much different from high school, and poor study habits students may have gotten away with in the past won’t necessarily slide in college. Students can be taken aback by how much effort they must put into their classes, and even when they know they need to do their homework, study and go to class to pass, a lot of students get so shaken up in the early stages of acclimating to college that they feel they can’t recover or figure out how to study effectively.

Learn how to study effectively. Once you learn that, it makes each subject matter easier to digest. Read, memorize and regurgitate is not the solution!

Rory O.

“I wonder at times if students understand that each class and each class time slot may require a different approach to passing the class,” Hawkins says. “If a student has 15 credits, and let’s say two classes are on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two classes are on Tuesday and Thursday and one class is once a week, they cannot truly implement the same strategy for each class. Some students are surprised at the number of hours outside of class they should dedicate to studying, sleeping, having fun, exercise, leisure time … and did I mention studying?”

While they may have understood that college requires effort, graduates emphasize that they wish they had known exactly how to be good students. “I wish someone would’ve encouraged me to treat college like a full-time job,” Wes R. says. “High school was social life, sports, etc. first, studying second. That prioritization didn’t work in college. It wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I made academics the priority, and social life, sports, etc. second, that I finally saw great results.”

“My big one is that you don’t need to take on more than you can handle,” says Caitlin S. “I started with 21 credits my first semester, went down to 18 credits second semester, and it wasn’t until sophomore year that I started taking 15. I was just scared that I would fall behind if I didn’t take enough, which was so stupid.”

While they’re in school, students may realize that earning their degree is going to take longer than four years. Upon graduation, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in the moment, it can feel catastrophic. It’s normal for school to take longer, so students shouldn’t stress about it. Getting hung up on the stress of finishing a degree in four years can also keep students from taking advantage of fun, unique opportunities available to them, like one-off classes on interesting subjects, internships or going overseas. Doug J. says he wishes someone had told him to make sure to study abroad while in college.

Hawkins often wonders why it is that students miss out on these opportunities. “When I’ve spoken to students about this, their responses are along the lines of ‘I heard about the opportunity, but I didn’t think I would want to study abroad,’” he says. “This is why it is important to revisit others’ tips and advice at the beginning of not just the first semester, but the second semester and then the third semester, because all of the things a person may wish to have known may not occur in the first semester of a collegiate experience. And it happens so fast. Keeping the list next to your study action plan and goals for college sheet will go a long way.”

On College Life

It’s hard to know what to expect when going to college because every student, campus and experience is different. Still, students likely have certain expectations regarding social life, study habits, good health and other facets of student life. Keeping those expectations and hopes in mind can be great, but if not prepared, reality can hit students a little harder than they expect. From overestimating their enthusiasm for school and healthy eating to finding a reliable listening ear, graduates share the best college life tips nobody told them.

  • Find a mentor. It was nice to have a couple professors who could give me details that academic advisors and other students couldn’t.

    Wes R.
  • If you’re moving to a new city or state for college, get an on-campus job. You will meet a lot of new people and depending on the job, it can also help pay for tuition.

    Kim W.
  • My big one was what to do the summer after freshman year. I didn’t know that literally everyone who lived in the dorms with me planned on moving home for summer. That wasn’t an option for me. I ended up enrolling in summer courses and upped my hours at my job from part-time to full-time, moving in with my old high school boyfriend and his roommate who lived an hour away (would NOT have been my first choice!) temporarily until my fall apartment lease kicked in. Had I been more prepared, I would have checked for sublets, where people in off-campus housing who were going home for the summer look for someone to pick up their lease for the three months of summer.

    Diana Z.
  • No, you won’t go to that 8 a.m. class.

    Shelby B.
  • Discover the balance between work and play. Independence and making your own choices can be intoxicating, but too much intoxication can lead to stress, poor grades and weight gain. (Boo, pizza, wings and beer nights!)

    Katrina R.
  • The most valuable things you can get out of college are: relationships, experiences and exposure to new ideas, ways of thinking and learning.

    Greg H.
  • It’s OK to go to community college or junior college first.

    Kristin M.
  • Call your parents. Tell them you love them and be honest about how you’re doing, what’s challenging, what’s amazing and what you could use their support with.

    Katrina R.
  • Ramen isn’t terrible, but splurge for veggies.

    Kim W.

Hawkins’ advice for tackling college life? “Give school a chance and give yourself a chance.”