Wednesday, December 23, 2009

High School Seniors of the World, Relax

I was talking with a friend of mine about college as part of my ongoing plan to convince everyone I enjoy to move to my immediate area and I realized as I was talking to her that the bulk of high school guidance offices are failing students as they work to get them in to colleges. It's certainly not intentional and there is a lot of stuff that these offices are doing right, but I think high school kids are applying to colleges without really understanding what they do and don't need to have figured out, and doing so with far more anxiety than is necessary. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on college that I hope will help.

Not everyone needs to go to college. I hate this whole "Every Kid Should Go To College" culture for many reasons. Making everyone go to college cheapens the actual value of a college degree; as we learned in The Incredibles, "when everyone's one will be." Not everyone is cut out for college work and when you force everyone to go, it means that those people who can't hack it will need somewhere to buy degrees. A college education is not supposed to be on your schedule, or happen in your pajamas. A true education should develop your mind and consume your life - your life should be about your education, not the other way around. If you only want to apply your training to a certain part of your life, then you should go to a training program or vocational school to develop those skills, not waste your time, your professors' time and your classmates' time with classes you don't want or need. Secondly, the push for college makes high school be about college, which is insane. Memorizing dates and passages isn't the most important part of high school - the social development you learn there is far more important and will last much longer than most of what you do in high school - but you should be able to read, spell and add into the bargain. High school now is all about getting kids into college, and the bottom line is that not every kid is going to go to, need or want college. High school education should be appreciated on its own merits, not used as a stepping stone for some higher ideal.

Perhaps most importantly, you do not need to go to college right out of high school. I think that success in college requires at least one of the following things: an appreciation for learning qua learning, a career you have in mind and are willing to work for, or a desire to undertake an academic challenge. Without any of those, you're likely to be unhappy and to fall short of your potential. Go be amazing somewhere else, somewhere you can be who you are and be brilliant at it. College isn't a guarantee and it can't make you love it. Take time off, work, travel, figure out what you think you'd like to do or what you don't like to do. It's okay to do that stuff, and frankly a better use of your time if you're not sure about college.

All that being said, here are a few things to keep in mind if you do decide to go to college.

1. Pick something and go with it. It can be really daunting to look at those giant books of college listings. The analyses of the schools encompass so many things that it seems impossible to figure out where to start. Start with the one thing you care about and go from there. Remember that it doesn't have to be a Serious Academic Consideration...if you don't want to go to a school in a city, knock all the city schools off your list. Sure, there are great schools in cities, but there are great schools in East Jesus Nowhere, PA too. Yale might be one of the best schools in the world, but if you hate being in New Haven (and who wouldn't? Sorry Yale.) then you're not going to get the most out of your college experience. Pick something you care about and roll with it.

2. Finances should never be what stops you from applying to a school. Yes, college is expensive, but there are two things to consider. The first one is the staggering amount of money floating around out there to help you. What you need to do is find it and apply for it. Send in an application to every scholarship fund and grant program you can find. Make those applications great ones - edit them, take the time to format them, and let yourself shine through them - and ship 'em out. The money is out there, even if it's occasionally hard to find. It's worth the effort if you want to go to college. Second of all, you need to accept that debt is a part of life. Of course you don't want a lot of it, but you're going to have it for something, and it may as well be college. A friend of mine was telling me about how she wanted to go to Paris and teach, but she had student loans so she was thinking about staying and working for a while to pay them off. I pointed out that a year of work wasn't going to pay her entire college loan load off, and more importantly that even if she DID through some miracle manage to do it, there would be more debt someday. If it's not college, it's a house. If it's not a house, it's a car. If it's not a car, it's a credit card. Debt comes from everywhere and while you shouldn't carry a huge amount of it, you should be able to appraise the value of it - some things are worth eating Ramen as an adult, you know?

3. You do not need to know what you want to do for the rest of your life. A lot of kids wind up depressed in college, and I have to assume that it's connected to this pressure to know exactly what you want to do on the day of your high school graduation. If you do, great - a friend of mine who I have known since I was six months old told me in fourth grade that she wanted to be a physical therapist and that's what she's doing today. However, that kind of clarity is very unusual in an 18 year old. Here's something that you might not know: pretty much every college has a core curriculum that every student has to take. It's usually broken into subject areas and you have a couple narrow choices to fulfill a list of requirements. Those core classes will probably annoy you at some point in your collegiate career, but they can also help you try some things to figure out what you'd like to major in. You don't usually have to pick a major until sophomore or junior year, and even then, you can always change it. There's a trade off, of course - a major demands that you take certain classes and you'll need time to get them all in - but you should never feel locked in. Do your core classes first (this will also help you avoid being the Lone Senior in English Composition 101, a.k.a. "English for the Marginally Sentient.") and see what you like.

Just remember, it's never too late to try something new, and that can mean changing a major, changing schools, dropping out of school, working for a couple years, whatever. If you're not happy doing whatever you're doing - and that is a broad happiness; no one is happy during exams - reexamine it. I was at American University in a program that didn't resonate with me and left with a 1.08 GPA, which is about .08 above "narcoleptic." When I went back to school at Assumption, where their program is more theoretical, I knew I was in the right place and my GPA is currently a 3.45 (and 3.5 in my major). If you don't love it, you won't thrive, and everyone deserves to do well in life.

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