7 Huge Financial Mistakes I Made During College

Curtiss Hall by SD Dirk on Flickr!Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on how many members of my rather close extended family are either near high school graduation or are in college right now. They have so many great opportunities ahead of them in the next few years – and so many chances to botch things, too. Stephen, Brittany, Robert – these are some of the stupid things I did in college that I wound up regretting financially for years. In some ways, I’m still suffering the repercussions. Don’t do the same.

One of the first major articles I wrote on The Simple Dollar was a ten-part series that amounted to my personal financial biography – if you’re interested, it starts here. Reflecting back on a lifetime of financial mistakes, I always come back to the idea that my college years were when things really went off the rails for me. Those first years of financial independence, where I had no idea what I was doing with money and no sensible guidance to help me out, caused me to develop a lot of atrocious money habits. While I covered a few of them in the biography, I felt that I only really scratched the surface when it came to the mistakes that I made.

Here, then, are the seven biggest financial mis-steps of my college career. I sincerely hope that you don’t make the same ones.

1. Going in the door without a clue.
When I went to college, I not only had no idea what I wanted to study, but I had absolutely no idea what the experience would be like. The end result? I wasted a lot of time in classes that I didn’t really need. I spent time blindly involved in activities and social events that never really clicked with me. I built at least three distinctly different groups of friends during my college years – and watched them all dissolve in a blink. I failed to really get involved with anything interesting until very near the end of my college years.

What I should have done More than anything, I wish I had spent my junior and senior year in high school doing some real soul searching to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I also wish I had asked everyone I knew that had attended college for advice on the experience just so I knew what things people consistently found valuable. I didn’t do either of these things.

2. Extending my stay for two extra years.
After four years, I had actually managed to complete a degree within the years covered by my scholarship. Sounds like a perfect time to start a second one, huh? I spent two more years in school – paying out of pocket via student loans – earning a second degree.

What I should have done Again, if I had properly explored my interests early on, I would have had a much better idea as to what I should have studied in college. Similarly, I should have ignored any and all advice relating to what major you should or shouldn’t have if you want to earn a good income. Earning a good income relies much more on building diverse and marketable skills, not what you majored in – what’s actually important is that you completed a degree and learned some generally useful skills along the way.

3. Failing to take advantage of all of the non-classroom opportunities.
I spent much of my extracurricular time in college wasting time. I played piles of video games, hung out with a lot of people that I barely saw again after college, watched piles of awful movies, and thoroughly explored the outer boundaries of wasting time. While “downtime” is a healthy thing in reasonable amounts, I certainly burned through more than my fair share of it.

What I should have done I don’t entirely regret all of the time I spent involved in such frivolous activities – some total leisure time is good for everyone’s mind. However, I should have spent at least some of that time involved in activities that were simultaneously fun and also enriching in some fashion, such as seeking out interesting organizations to participate in or getting involved with volunteer projects or actually building some connections and friendships with people on some version of my own career path. I didn’t do any of that, and it was a profound misuse of my time and also of my financial investment in school.

4. Signing up for a credit card – then using it with reckless abandon.
During my second year of college, I signed up for a credit card at one of those little booths that credit card companies like to stick up on college campuses. I don’t remember exactly why I signed up – it probably seemed like a good idea at the moment and I likely got a free t-shirt out of the deal. The real problem came later – I decided to start using it a little. And, rather quickly, a little turned into a lot. By the time I left school, I had thousands in built-up credit card debt.

What I should have done Signing up for the card wouldn’t have been a huge mistake if I had a plan in place for using it. I should have simply used the card to pay for textbooks each semester, then lived off of my stipend and the money I made from a part-time job. That way, I could have built up my credit in a positive fashion and not left college with a bunch of needless consumer debt that required me to keep writing fat payment checks for years.

5. Not taking my classes with enough seriousness.
For the first few years of my college career – actually, for all the years except for my last one – I believed I could coast through things using the awful study habits I had built up during my high school years. In other words, I believed that I didn’t have to study for tests and that I could handle assignments by doing them the night before. Both assumptions were absolutely ridiculous – and my GPA suffered greatly for it. My final year’s GPA was almost a full point higher than my cumulative one – and my final year was the only one that I used healthy study and assignment habits. That GPA turned out to be a barrier against getting into graduate school in my area of interest – and it also didn’t help with my initial job hunt.

What I should have done I knew from the start that my study habits were awful, but I was able to squeak by with those habits. Instead of just squeaking by, I should have put serious effort into picking up solid habits from the start – and there were certainly opportunities for it. Simply using better classroom and study habits would have substantially raised my GPA – and likely substantially raised my short term post-college earnings and opportunities.

6. Not figuring out how to manage my money right off the bat.
For my first four years in college, I used a check cashing service to cash my paychecks from my part-time job, and I used money orders to pay bills. Seriously. I would dock myself 4% for the check cashing fee, then I’d dock myself almost another dollar for each “check” I would write. Even when I finally got a free checking account at a local bank (with free checks!), I didn’t even try to keep the account balanced at all. Instead, I mostly just relied on memory and whatever balance the ATM told me I had in the account. The end result? Lots of ATM fees and more than a few overdraft fees during those heady college days.

What I should have done I should have signed up for that free checking account on the first day of school. If I were doing things all over again, I’d sign up for something like ING’s Electric Orange so I could do most of my checking account business purely online and have any paychecks directly deposited there. That way, I would avoid almost all of the stupid fees I paid, have access to all of the information about my account all at once, and also earn some interest on that balance.

7. Living large off of my stipend and student loans.
During my first four years of school, I actually had a surplus of scholarships that enabled me to receive a small living stipend while I attended school. Yet I managed to spend all of that, all of the money I earned from my part-time work, and built up some credit card debt as well. During my final two years, I took out the largest student loans I could so that I could continue to have that “stipend” money and keep living that lifestyle.

What I should have done I should have actually attempted to live the cheap college student lifestyle. There was always tons of free entertainment available around campus, and plenty of free food if you attended group meetings. I didn’t really need all of the electronics I bought, either – most of them were scarcely used at all. Instead, my focus should have been on trying to build up some savings my first four years so that my student loans would have been lower my final two years – or, even better, that saved money could have been a good start on my post-graduation life had I been able to actually graduate in four years.

What did these mistakes add up to? When I left college, I had over $30,000 in student loan debt (unnecessary), two degrees (one of which I didn’t really use at all), several thousand in credit card debt (totally unnecessary), a subpar GPA (easily avoidable), and only a few good connections and friendships that lasted into post-college life (although the few I had turned out to be very good ones). In many ways, I’m still paying for those mistakes, many years after graduation.

Don’t let it happen to you.

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  1. Joe Wood says:

    I’m actually in the same situation as you were (full scholarship). Looking back, I’m in fourth year and have avoided most of the traps you noted; except for the wasting time part. I really think wasting copious amounts of time is kind of just part of being in university.

  2. LOL! What you’re saying, Trent, is that youth is wasted on the young. :-)

  3. tjwriter says:

    You know, your first point is all well and good, Trent, but I did that in high school and picked a major for college that I thought I really wanted.

    It wasn’t until my second to last semester in college that I realized how much I hated what I majored in and understood the true nature of myself in such a way that I could have picked a major more suited to my newly developed self.

    I’ve already decided that if my kids want to take a year off before higher education to explore themselves and figure out what they truly want, they’d better do it. I sure as hell wish I did. I racked up student loans for a double major business degree that I could care less about.

    What truly mattered to me and affected who I want to be didn’t show up until I’d grown up a little. Now I’m stuck trying to fix it at this point rather than earlier.

  4. James says:

    Trent:

    Thanks for writing about the pitfalls of squandering time and money in college. While I did not squander a lot of money and leave my undergraduate life in debt, I certainly squandered time and effort. I look back on that time as lost opportunity. As for finances, unfortunately the youth of today all too often expect to not only maintain the lifestyle they had while living at home but that in college somehow the standard of living should improve. Sadly it burdens them for years while in repayment. I recently found myself cautioning a nephew about the dangers of attending a private graduate school while financing that endeavor with student loans (having yet paid off the first round of loans). Your article should be required reading for incoming freshmen.

  5. Rob says:

    Trent, except for the credit card, my college life was very similar to yours. Interestingly enough, my older brother gave me the much the same advice that you are giving us know. But as a know-it-all 18 year old, I did not listen to his advice. After all, I was not about to let him ruin my fun! I reasoned that I had the wisdom to balance fun with work. I did not. It was only as a junior in college that I came to see the error of my way. As an aside, It took me until the age of 30 to determine what I wanted as a profession (which required 7 more years of schooling). I finished paying off my student loans 4 years ago (I am 47). Now I admit, my profession has allowed me to make a considerable amount of money. But Trent isn’t just talking about money. It sure would have been nice to avoid some of these mistakes by listening to someone who was much wiser than me. So, if there are any of you who are about to enter college, I beg of you, please read Trent’s advice and give it careful thought. If you are already in college, it is not too late to change your way of thinking. It will safe you much heartache.

  6. I received advice from a few different people to “stay as long as you can” in college. Both were in school for 5 years.

    Both have decent paying jobs, but both are still paying on students loans from that fifth year. Had I stayed longer I would have had to take out loans as well. Plus the opportunity cost of missing out on a year or two of salary makes the advice ridiculous.

  7. aaron says:

    I’m just now planning on returning to college for a degree in music. . .your points are very good to read, especially as I’m now engaged and have a family to think of in the near future. I think the worst thing anyone can do at any point in life is assume that debt can be easily paid off later. I’ve seen a lot of friends max out credit cards assuming that with some work and saving later on, they can pay it off without too much trouble. Debt is always worse than people assume who haven’t been in debt before (which includes most 18yrold freshmen)

  8. Your “what did these mistakes add up to?” section sounds exactly like something I could have written. It’s kind of depressing, really. Nobody warned me about these things when I was in college. It all makes too much sense now. Thanks for this very informative article.

  9. stef says:

    I agree with tjwriter on a lot of points. I actually wanted to take a year off before college to try working and think about what I wanted to do, but my parents insisted I head straight to college. I think my mother had a fantasy about her daughter going to college right after high school, like she wasn’t able to. And so I went, with no clue what to do with myself and no plan whatsoever about what I’d do afterward. I ended up choosing a nice general degree (English) but graduated without any ideas toward a career. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I figured out what to do with myself, and went back to school and built up more student loans in order to jump start that career. And though I don’t regret my choices, I do regret that there was so much wasted time in my 20s.

  10. I can totally relate to this one Trent. I applied for credit cards just to get the free t-shirt. My intentions were to never use the cards but of course I used them and then applied for more when one got maxed out.

    I also wish I would have been a little more careful with my student loans. I spent this money like I never had to pay it back. Once I graduated college, I had over $25,000 in student loans.

  11. stef says:

    I would like to add that expecting someone to make such an important life choice at 18 is almost always asking for some kind of failure. And though a lot of people were quick to reassure me that the choices I made in college *would not* affect the rest of my life, many ultimately did, such as student loan debt that I feel I have little hope of paying off. I know that I will be raising my children to be a lot more involved in the family finances than I was so they do not make a lot of the mistakes I made in college and in the years afterward.

  12. SD: Great post. Number 3 was one of my worst mistake.

  13. Justin says:

    Great post. I would of done the same thing if I had stayed in school right after high school. I did one semester and found college wasn’t for me. So I went to work instead. Now at 23 I see collage for what it is. A job that you need to perform well at to go get a better paying job in something that I actually WANT to do. It took 5 years to find what I wanted to do, but it is perfect for me in almost every way. Time off is not for everyone, but it worked for me.

  14. Julie says:

    My college experience was quite different. I stayed an extra year, but didn’t take on student loans (it was only $3,000 tuition and I was living at home with my mom), had a very good GPA, did tons of extracurriculars, and even went on to do an M.A.

    My biggest mistake? Not keeping in touch with my friends after graduation. I had smart, ambitious friends who I’m sure would be great networking contacts, but I just haven’t kept in touch. Big mistake.

  15. Kay Em says:

    My experience was similar, if not exceedingly more wasteful.

    What I wish I’d done? Go to Community College for my first two years. Many of the same professors who taught at the four-year university would pick up a class at my community college for extra cash. The uptick was that I could conceivably have same professors in smaller classes; I could have paid for the first two years in cash, and I could have worked. As an added bonus, transfer students to four-year institutions are generally exempted from taking the “junk” classes that they make first-year students take (How to Use the University Website – at over $500 a credit hour, no less).

    I love your blog. Wonderful post – thank you!

  16. Jackie says:

    I also made the mistake of not taking advantage of all the great opportunities available on campus for organizations or volunteer work– too busy hanging out with friends, shopping, etc. I also wish I had done more internships, but it was hard to take on unpaid ones because I needed to work.

    If my own kids want to take a year off before college, I will definitely support them, as long as that year off is filled with experiences, whether that’s internships or travel, that will help them figure out what they want to do.

  17. Studenomics says:

    When it comes to school I’m good at saving money and I always come prepared with my own lunch. I know what I want to do in th future and I am very happy with my current program. One major issue that I have is that I do not do any extra curricular activities. I goto class, go study, go to the gym, then go home, get good grades but no volunteer work or anything. Maybe the problem is that I work full time while attending College full time but I really should try to get more involved.

  18. Andy says:

    I really liked my college experience, even though it sounds similar in some ways to yours. I had a few part time jobs, and used all of that money the first 2 years on buying fun things instead of saving or putting it towards loans. I had a credit card, but I only used it to “build credit” and never had to pay more than $200 or so in a month on that. My third year’s earnings paid for a 5 week trip around New Zealand with a close friend, working on organic farms (“WWOOFing”) and which was my final credit for my minor. I did just enough to get by in my classes: rarely studied, procrastinated everything, did the bare minimum – but I graduated just above 3.0 and that was my goal. I saw way too many people spending all their time on schoolwork to get 3.5 or 4.0, and it hurt their social lives significantly. I do believe people can mix the two, but I wasn’t willing to give up social time just for a higher GPA. Yeah, college is expensive, the degree is important, but I think the social part of it is much more important.

    Now out of college, I work for a non-profit company that pays $25k, and and will be paying off my $22k of loans in under 2 years. The math shows that buy paying it off fast instead of the 10 years, I’ll save about $7k that would have gone towards interest. I still keep $5k in savings as an emergency fund, and still have more than enough to pay off my living expenses as well as paying for the fun things I do. Although I live a frugal lifestyle, it probably doesn’t appear that way to anyone else.

    -Andy

  19. Chiko says:

    This is an advice well given. I am graduating college on January 11th this month and I must say that I followed these advice that you have laid out in this post. The result of following this advice put me in a position to graduate with no college debt and closer to future goals of retiring before 30.

  20. Onaclov2000 says:

    Trent,
    Do you know of any good sites or have any good tips on how to study, I have a feeling I have some sort of attention deficit disorder, I have a really tough time concentrating on studying, I tried looking a little before but didn’t come up with much, I have been coasting through my courses (after a 2 year degree and then having to start over and in my 3rd year of a BA) wishing I knew how to get my self in that mode, and actually sit down and study, I can go into the library to study and my mind just wanders like crazy no focus!!!

    Tips?

    Thanks
    Onaclov

  21. Karin says:

    Trent,

    This is a great post. I am a Scholarship Coordinator for a University in Arkansas. I have worked in the area of financial aid and scholarships for 13+ years. I have several nieces and nephews who are in high school, scattered all over the country. When we were all together for Thanksgiving, I talked to them about scholarships and financial aid. I am going to put together a mini-seminar for them and email them all each week. I am also going to start a simple blog for them and include some posts about how to apply for private scholarships, where to apply, how to write a decent essay, the importance of writing thank-you notes, grammar matters, using a google calendar, the do-it-yourself-plan (not expecting Mom or Dad to do it for you) time-lines, etc. There is so much they can do now and there is private scholarship money available. I have tons of useful (well, I think so anyway) information on the financial aid and scholarship processes. I would love to help my nieces and nephews avoid debt and be smart about their finances in college

    My position at work is fairly new and there isn’t a great website available for our students, so I am in the process of working on a new site. I have a passion for helping students finance their education–at the same time, I have a concern regarding the lack of financial literacy my students have.

    I read your blog regularly and would like to add your link on my website. Would you kindly give me permission to doso?

    Please do not post this comment for the public. I simply wanted to introduce myself, let you know that I appreciate your work, and request permission to add a link to your site.

    Please feel free to contact me at either email address below. I wish you and your family a healthy and happy 2009.

    All the best,
    Karin Bara
    Private Scholarship Coordinator
    UALR

    klbara@ualr.edu
    karinbara@yahoo.com

  22. southcampus says:

    my story, went to college on student loans,came out couldn’t find a decent job, went back and got a health professional deg, wasn’t satisfied and then went and got a dental degree and am glad bc of the opportunities that have opened up for me and the number of different people that I have meet. glad I did it, just wish I didn’t have the debt and hadn’t waited so long to make up my mind but this is LIFE and I have no regrets.

  23. Jackie says:

    Also wanted to chime in as a teacher of college students– I’ve taught at both a community college and a four-year public university, and the adult students are always more motivated, dedicated students (with exceptions on both sides, of course). They know the value of the degree they’re working towards, and they are prepared to work until they’ve achieved their goal.

  24. liv says:

    Those kids that try to get you to sign up for credit cards are ANNOYING (i’m sure they got a part time job trying to sell you, but still)…just tell them you’re late to class or a meeting. signing up just for a shirt. don’t do it!

  25. Anastasia says:

    They say hindsight is 20/20 for a reason. We live every day making mistakes. And we won’t know every and all repercussions of those mistakes until later in our lives. That’s how life works.

    I teach at a university as well. Having been a student myself, and having worked with many students, my main piece of advice is to find something you’re interested in first, then learn about careers and opportunities that overlap with your interests. I find that the students who are actually interested in the classes they are taking are far more motivated to participate in class, make connections in the field, etc.

  26. KC says:

    I think we were the same person in college ;) The other thing I would add (that fortunately I didn’t do and apparently you didn’t either) was choose a pricey school. I can’t figure out the advantages of a pricey school when it comes to an undergrad degree – just makes no sense unless we’re talking Harvard or Berkley here. Even if you know you’ll come out with a high paying profession save the money on undergrad and use it for grad school.

    My husband is a physician who went to undergrad and med school at a prestigious state univ. He graduated with no debt. Some of his fellow residents picked private undergrad and private (or out of state) med school. Many were over a quarter of a million in debt as residents (making $36k/year). That was just foolish on their part.

  27. Battra92 says:

    I hear you on the staying more years. Had I decided earlier on that Computer Science wasn’t for me and instead that Business Information Systems was more my kick I could have saved 3 years and a few depression fits.

  28. I’m right there with you on #3. I thought doing all the activities and things on campus were “lame” and that I had better things to do like drink beer and cause trouble. It’s funny because now that I’ve graduated I’m using the alumni services more than I ever used the stuff they offered me as a student. Dumb!

  29. Tom says:

    I read this list with some pain as I made the same mistakes, especially signing up for the credit card and not taking advantage of out of classroom opportunities.

  30. Anna says:

    onaclov2000 (#12) Most colleges have a learning center, or something similar, where you can get tested for ADD and other difficulties and then receive help with an individualized study plan that specifically addresses your situation. If you can’t locate such a place on campus right away, start with the counseling center and describe your situation to the people there, and let them guide you to the appropriate resource. Help is out there — you just need to go out and get it.

    Don’t forget to do this! (I’m ADD also and know how easy it is to forget critically important things and let them slide.)

  31. Shevy says:

    I have to say that I *don’t* support the idea of taking a year off before going to college or university.

    I wanted to work for a year and then go. At the end of that year I married my first husband and lasted one semester in college before discovering that I had a serious back problem (brought on by a bakery job) and was pregnant. I’ve since done a lot of continuing education courses but am only now (at age 50) seriously looking at the idea of going back to get a degree.

    None of my adult kids wanted to go straight to college and only one of the 3 has completed a post-secondary program at this point.

    My mother had 2 degrees, a BA with double honours in French and German (straight out of high school) and a BSW that she went back for after the war ended. Was she smarter than I am? Smarter yes, though probably not more intelligent. She had the self-discipline to go to school and finish, not once but twice!

    I think taking a year off has a lot of appeal. You can “find yourself”, take a break from the grind of school, earn some money (which you’ll almost certainly spend rather than save) blah, blah, blah. But it’s much harder to go back than to keep going. There will always be so many other things you could be doing than going to school and spending all that money on books and tuition.

  32. Julie says:

    I went into college knowing exactly what I wanted to do. Close to graduation, I realized I did not want to do that anymore. I finished that degree, and I am lucky that I work at a university now and can take classes for free.

    I would suggest doing an internship while in college to see if that is what you really want to do. Many schools will give credit if you do an internship.

  33. iddy says:

    This is great stuff to be watching out for as i head into college in a month or so.
    sure, i’m not entirely sure what to expect, but i’m sussed on how i learn best (notes + pictures in the column :))and know study is where i fall down, study and lack of sleep..
    I might have to limit what i take down with me to avoid too much distraction, and get a good sleep routine before then..

    thanks again for sharing your experiences trent!

  34. Marsha says:

    Interesting article & comments here. Based on Trent’s post, I pretty much did things right during college – but I got derailed after college. What’s my takeaway from this? (1) Having a good financial situation requires a lifetime of diligence; and (2) career choices are always subject to external economic and technological changes, no matter how wisely an individual makes her initial choice. JMO.

  35. Sara says:

    My biggest regret from college is not working hard enough. I had a 4-year academic scholarship that required me to maintain a 3.5 GPA, which I did freshman year, but not sophomore year, so I lost my scholarship after 2 years. It wasn’t even because I spent time partying and having fun, but, like you, mainly due to poor study and work habits. I also spent an extra year in college, but I don’t regret it because it was to do a co-op (working in my field of study for a semester instead of taking classes), which paid enough to cover 3 semesters’ tuition.

    The worst part is that I found out later that I could have appealed and probably gotten an extra year of my scholarship (I was under the impression the appeal process was only for extenuating circumstances such as serious illness or death of a close relative, but apparently they routinely granted scholarship extensions for just about any reason). I kick myself every day for not appealing because it cost me almost $10k.

    On the positive side, though, I did get a credit card to build credit and I used it wisely, paying the full balance every month, so to this day I have never paid a cent of credit card interest.

  36. A Girl says:

    Trent: you have done a valuable service for my family. I am printing out this post for my four children. My oldest is now 14 and we are all actively talking about college. My husband and I have not arrived at a vision for the best way for our kids to “do” college. Your post presents some interesting lessons:
    1. You did not pay for any of your education since you were there on scholarships. I wonder if you would have worked harder if some of the tuition was coming out of your own pocket? Lesson #1 might be that the student should pay for some of their education themselves, which means working while going to school and saving money for college while working during high school
    2. You weren’t sure about your major. I think that varies from person to person. Right now all four of my kids have told me what they want to do when they grow up, but through high school, how will they demonstrate that commitment? How can I expose them to related career options so that by the time they get to college they are a little more clear? Perhaps if any of my kids are not clear, they should attend a community college for a few years until they feel more clear and try to expose them to their chosen field in other ways. But one of my kids wants to be practicing psychologist and I think she has the persistence to do it. She should go to a traditional four year university with a plan for the advanced degrees needed to get certified in our state. I think community college is not needed for her.
    3. You admitted to credit card debt and student loans. What if your family had made a commitment never to borrow money except for a mortgage on a house? Would you have looked at offer for a free t shirt in exchange for a credit card differently? Would you look at the cost of school a little differently? Would you have worked more hours to pay for the additional years of school? I have friends who said they didn’t want their children to work while they were in school, but my husband and I both worked while in college and still had time to party and do some extra stuff on campus. So the Life Lesson I see here is that working while going to school is essential and attending a university you can afford without borrowing money is also essential. A state school in Pennsylvania costs about $3,500 per semester. In theory, you could work and attend school and pay for the tuition from your paychecks.

    Trent, you have the best money blog on the Internet. Congrats.

  37. SwingCheese says:

    I attended a private college for my undergraduate degree, and loved every minute of it. I had smaller classes and the chance to do graduate level research as an undergraduate, something that rarely happens at a larger state university. I attended a public university for my graduate work, and ended up with far more debt from graduate school (which I attended for only 3 years) than from that private college.

    If I had known what I wanted to do as an undergraduate and had pursued that degree, I would be very close to being student loan debt free. This brings me to my next point: the “gap year”. I took off a gap year between college and law school, due and ended up forgoing law school for an education degree. I don’t know if I would have come to the conclusion that I wanted to be a teacher if I had waited before beginning college or not. It was really dependent upon an experience that I had during my gap year, and I don’t know that this experience would have been available to me without a BA. However, my husband took gap years (10) off, postponing college until he was ready and had an idea of what he wanted to study. For him, it was a good idea, though I know that he kicks himself for not returning sooner. There is always the risk that one won’t go to school at all, or that life will take them in a direction they weren’t planning on going. However, as a high school teacher, I can attest that there are some kids who simply aren’t mature enough for a traditional, liberal arts college experience. Taking a gap year is really something that should be decided on a case-by-case basis, and it should always be recognized that a four year school isn’t for everyone. Professional degrees usually work out better for students who are looking to get the knowledge they need and leave, not students who want the liberal arts experience.

  38. Melissa. says:

    I went to art school. I did so by default, as I liked to draw and it appeared to be the least-demanding college option that was still acceptable to my parents. I also had terrible grades and never bothered to take the SAT, and art school was the only place that would take me.

    I ended up dropping out after two years.

    Would I do things differently, given the chance? Oh, yes.

    Since I didn’t have any sort of focus, and was perpetually-undecided on my major even in art school, I would have been better off getting a job and taking night classes at a community college–classes that would have gone toward an Associate’s transfer degree, ideally with a much-improved GPA over the 2.0 I graduated high school with. I would then have been able to transfer into a decent state college or university.

    Also, doing that would have exposed me to classes in subjects I’d never considered before, that would have helped me choose a useful major. And the tuition at a community college would have cost me much less than what a state school would have–and far less than what art school did.

    There’s so much pressure on many kids to get into a four-year school right away, when they just aren’t ready for it. Maybe they’re immature. Maybe they need remediation in certain areas, or they need to bring their GPA up to get into a better school. Maybe they just don’t know what they want to do. Maybe money is a huge issue. And while a gap year might be a good idea, so might getting a job and taking community college courses for a couple of years.

  39. steve says:

    @onaclov2000: if you have a true desire to concentrate and can’t, I would suggest seeing a counselor or therapist (check with student services). The reason for your current inability to focus could be related to psychological issues that you need to explore or resolve, as well as a lack of practical study techniques. It could also be an attention disorder that is treatable with medication.

    My own experience with these issues in college provides me (in hindsight) with the perspective that I had serious emotional issues that I was unable to confront at that time, or was even aware of. My counselor at the time was apparently not skilled enough to perceive this or help me to deal with these issues. As a result, I found the last 2 years of college very very difficult and went from being an honors student to graduating with a 2.1 gpa.

    It seems like you are frustrated with this issue, and I suggest starting by seeing a counselor or therapist (perhaps through your school) and laying out your concerns and these three possibilities for him/her, as well as asking his/her opinion as to the best way to proceed. Take this problem by the horns and use find resources to help you. If the first person you see doesn’t get you result within a month, consider reevaluating and trying someone else. Ask yourself if it seems that the person you are getting “help” from has a plan and a clue.

    In any case, you won’t regret pursuing this issue and getting outside help and consultation.

    Good luck and have a great year in 2009!

  40. steve says:

    I think “finding oneself” is overrated. Coming from my own experience, you find yourself by applying yourself to what you are doing and at the same time taking a realistic look at 1) your past 2) your present and 3) the possibilities for the future.

    As to “youth is wasted on the young”, that really comes down to “if I had more wisdom and perspective, I would have done some things differently”. Coming into adulthood is a journey with many pitfalls, and it helps if you have and seek outside guidance (a mentor or two). Unfortunately, many young students don’t have this and don’t realize how useful it can be.

    Mainly I don’t think there is a formula for all this beyond *paying attention* and doing your best work. Having a successful adult that you can model yourself on is a big help. Reading the biographies or memoirs of successful and happy people can be a big help as well. Make a list of them and read one per semester and try to distill what you can out of it–if you have happiness and success as a goal, there really are certain traits and attitudes that result them.

    Good Luck to all the youth!

  41. ElizabethG says:

    I would also recommend that students get involved in opportunities that they may not have again. For example, many internships and study abroad programs are only available for college students. I wish that I had taken part in many of those, now with 20 years of hindsight.

  42. steve says:

    @ julie

    I’m sure that some of those contacts could still be fruitful, particularly if there was a strong personal connection and there is something in common for you both professionally.

    If I were you I would drop a casual email to some of these folks. You may find that they are excited or at least open to communicating with you, even after years of no contact. It sounds like that would actually be good for you too–at least the results would let you know whether there is still something there between you (mutual interest and compatibility) and whether it could be developed further, or whether to look elsewhere. I would say, stop wondering and reach outward. I think you will be pleased at the results, whatever happens. Taking definitive action when you have been passive can be very energizing.

  43. steve says:

    @ julie 2

    just for perspective, about 17 years after school, I got in touch with an ex-college (and, o.k, childhood friend) who had contacts in a field of business (different from my own) that I had an idea for. He was very interested in the idea and was helpful in helping me find funding and further connections to develop the idea as a business. Plus we had fun just reminiscing and talking about our lives.

    My point again is, just because you haven’t talked to people in a long while, doesn’t mean that there may not be mutual interest. while being in touch more continuously is probably better, most people understand that “life happens” and not everyone can be in touch, or wants to be in touch, all the time. A judicious email or short phone call can be fun for both parties as well as potentially being useful.

  44. Scordo.com says:

    Hi Trent,

    I recently wrote about tips for recent college grads that I think are relevant to your post:

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/2008/12/ten-tips-for-recent-college-gr.html

    Best,
    Vince

  45. Juliska says:

    I didn’t get a major credit card while in college, and I did open a student checking account, but aside from that – – Trent, stop reading my diary! And where did you find it, anyway? I thought I threw that thing out . . .

  46. libraripagan says:

    While my mistakes didn’t cost me *as* much, my conclusions were similar. The problem is that, coming out of high school, you really don’t know what college will be like & you may not be sure what you want to major in. My best advice to someone who isn’t sure is to go to a two year school and dabble on the cheap. (As college goes anyway.) Unless you have all of those scholarships to cover your full ride, it just doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money exploring. Particularly if your high school didn’t have the classes you would have wanted to try out.

  47. Ben says:

    Trent, I agree with this post completely. I graduated college about 3 years ago with a marketing degree, and am still deciding what to do with my life.
    Changing the subject completely however, I notice that you have an advertisement on your website of Robert Kiyosaki’s new book Rich Brother Rich Sister. Just wondering what your opinion of this hack is or if you have done any research on him. In my opinion (and many others), he wrote one fairly decent book on “mental finance” years ago and has simply rehashed the same principles about 12 times. So basically he is ripping off the same people he pretends to be imparting so much financial knowledge to. Anyway, good post and hope you don’t waste too much time on Kiyosaki.

  48. DR says:

    Been there, done that!

  49. bliss says:

    My daughter is only 11 but I’m e-mailing this link to her today. Then I’ll do it again next year. After that I’ll send it every six months or so.

    Coupled with our lifestyle, by the time she gets tired of reading it, she’ll GET it.

    Thanks much!

  50. plonkee says:

    In England, it’s very difficult to enter university without a clue as to what you want to study as we are forced to specialise early (3 or 4 subjects after 16, 1 or 2 at college). Most people pick a subject that they are fairly interested in and manage to graduate on time. This helps avoid mistakes 1 and 2, although it has it’s own disadvantages.

    I too spent hours playing video games with friends that I haven’t spoken to since graduation. For me, however, times like these were some of the highlights of my college life. I have a lot of time to be worthy, and I managed to get an excellent degree classification. Wasting free time at uni helped me become more myself, which in turn has helped me into a career that I really, really love.

    I think if you can avoid most of these pitfalls, the rest might not turn out to be really mistakes.

  51. Balfour says:

    Hindsight is 20-20 vision. Fortunately, when I was in college, they weren’t handing out credit cards–it was before the credit card boom. That should definitely change and shouldn’t be only dependent on the self-control of 18 year olds on their own for the first time.

  52. Onaclov2000 says:

    First I would like to say thank you to those who pointed me in a direction, I hadn’t thought to actually check with the school about my problems concentrating etc…
    and second
    A Girl @ 6:29 pm January 4th, 2009 (comment #26)
    with regards to your 1. statement,
    I suppose some people might consider having to pay themselves enough of a incentive, but I would have to say that with student loans you don’t feel like you’re paying until when you do you realize “CRAP What have I done?!?!?!?”
    I am working on paying off about $18K in student loans, you can over “fund” and get “free money” only it’s not free money, you do have to pay it off.

    Long story short, even with student loans you don’t feel like you’re paying, especially if no one is really reminding you (constantly)!!!

    my $.02

  53. Andrea says:

    The thing I wish I had done in college was having a true emergency fund. I had just enough in loans to pay my tuition and living expenses, but if something unexpected happened, I had no safety net that wasn’t my parents. Which meant that when my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for something, I had to put it on a credit card. Those unexpected minor emergencies during college and the lack of a true emergency fund are the only reason I still have any credit card debt at all.

    I did work part time through most of college, but very few hours at a crap job because my parents frowned on working while studying (especially my first year) and because I had some health problems and actually took a semester off because of it. But looking back I would have made a huge effort when I was healthy to save every penny of my part time income so that I could have paid for life’s little surprises in cash, rather than accumulating more debt on top of the student loans.

  54. kck2780 says:

    Story of my (and husband’s) life…

    One could argue you are wiser and more knowledgeable because of your experiences. Hard lessons learned.

  55. SwingCheese says:

    @Melissa:

    Very well put. Taking courses at a community college can be a great way to discover what truly interests you while avoiding the debt of a traditional four year school

  56. Amateur says:

    Some advice I could give to those entering college:

    1) Treat it as a job, your job as a student is to learn, publish, and push out a grade for each class.

    2) If subjects are hard, which they will very well be depending on major, find others to study with and seek free tutoring on campus.

    3) You don’t have to declare a major right away, but do take core subjects like math up to Calc 1, and Physics with lab studies. They will be useful later as padding for required courses and specialized degrees, as well.

    4) If you commute, you can always split core classes for a cheaper rate (check for transfer requirements) at a community college and only take the required specialized classes at the main college. The savings are literally in thousands.

    5) Do take on internships, it offers a way to see how professionals work and you’ll need the contacts some day.

    6) Do not laugh off C grades, it won’t be as funny 5 years down the road when you decide you need a graduate degree and doors aren’t as wide open as you imagined for programs you’d like to attend.

    7) Lastly, the most uncommon advice, if you start dating someone while in college, do not follow them around or cater your courses and studies around them, it usually won’t do you any good in the grand scheme unless you are both majoring in the exact same thing with similar life goals.

  57. My biggest piece of advice: find someone who’s where you want to be, 5 or 10 years from now, and evaluate how they got there, what they did right, what they did wrong, and how you can apply that (or not) to your own situation. Look at career path, lifestyle, personality type… and see if you can picture yourself doing that. It’s not important what your degree says if you can demonstrate a passion and a genuine interest in the field.

    College/grad school is great because it exposes you to a wealth of people who have highly varied experiences; but in the end it is what you make of it.

    @Amateur: great advice, and I would highlight #7 as well. I consistently propped up my college boyfriend academically, and when I went to medical school I decided to focus on myself and consciously stayed away from serious relationships. Even if you date someone who has similar life goals, what happens if they get a promotion and need to move across the country, and you have to choose between your career and going with them? Do things for yourself first, then get serious when you’re a little more settled. It’s ok to be selfish sometimes.

  58. I agree with many of your points, and many of the individual comments. Unless a person feels quite strongly about what he is entering college for, and is very confident that it is a lasting choice, I think that it can be a gamble. And even if he does feel he has it figured out, it is quite likely that, after graduating, he may have difficulty finding a job in the field, may be losing the passion for that area, or may decide that another field is more appropriate, thereby requiring further education.

    As a manager, I have seen so many resumes come across my desk from people with degrees in totally different fields that are essentially irrelevant to the job they are applying for, aside from the general skills they may learn from just going to college. It could be because of some of the reasons above, or a myriad of other explanations.

    College education is extremely important, but I agree strongly Trent with your conclusion in your previous post “Is College Really Necessary For All High School Graduates.” I feel that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to college education is not appropriate for all people, and can be limiting one’s true passions and abilities in many circumstances.

  59. Nick says:

    As a person currently in college, I think I do the best I can right now. I attended community college for two years, transferred to a university where my tuition is only $3k a year, get good grades, and keep my spending under control. It’s just good to hear things from another person’s perspective. Thanks for this article.

  60. Tabiji says:

    Are you stupid? I am.

  61. Alex says:

    Congratulations, Trent — you’re an idiot, just like the rest of us. You’ve made the same mistakes many of us make, whether enrolled in college or not, during our first few years away from home. But let’s start at the beginning, prior to your number one: You went to college with no interests. (It’s not without its own bit of humor that we find you now in the business of being a miser.) Given the occasion to return to your pimply, awkward, teenage self, you’d spend every moment the same — BECAUSE YOU WOULDN’T KNOW ANY BETTER. Isn’t this what it means to be young? I’m quite proud of my many fuckups, and there’s truly no reason we can’t all embrace our screwed up pasts with the wonderful sort of comedy that nostalgia can induce. Lighten up, you’re allowed to laugh at yourself. Gauging your current tone, you’ll inevitably flagellate yourself again in a few years. Repentance for your countless sins of today. Get over it.

    Should a young student happen upon this article, take note: Do what you want to do. Consider college as but one VERY expensive option among many. There are others available to the self-motivated. If you’d like to learn any skill, craft, or trade, apprentice yourself to a master. You’ll find it is possible, even in our modern era. Believe it or not, you can even be paid while you learn — quite the opposite of paying college tuition.

    Alternatively, bag groceries and spend your minimum wage earnings on drugs or drink for a few months. Whatever you do, at least let it be your decision. You wouldn’t want to regret it like this bitter old troll.

  62. M.K. says:

    All valid points, except I know a good number of people who knew exactly what they wanted to do, got the degree they needed, with excellent grades, etc, got out and went for it and 10 years later realized they were *miserable* in their lives, my own husband included.

    I got out of school and realized I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up and ditched whatever plans I had. My career path has evolved, based on what I’d studied (engineering), what I like to do (writing), and how our family has grown. It’s a process, and it helps tremendously not to be in debt (no way in the world could my husband have changed careers from lawyer to math teacher and coach with the traditional law school debt) but even if you do everything “right”, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for you in 20 years.

  63. Cindy says:

    Wow, this whole article was almost like what happened to me, except I feel worse about my situation. I went straight to a university right after high school thinking film was for me. It wasn’t. Neither was the school. I spent 3 semesters there forcing myself to go on and I just couldn’t. I wasted 30K of my parents money (and I was commuting!) when I could have just gone to a community college or a public 4 year college and spent 4K a year instead. I agree with what Melissa said. There is too much pressure on high school students to go straight to a costly 4 year college when they’re just not ready for it. There’s so much pressure on many kids to get into a four-year school right away, when they just aren’t ready for it. A gap year and public colleges are really what kids these days should be doing.

  64. Cindy says:

    Wow, this whole article was almost like what happened to me, except I feel worse about my situation. I went straight to a university right after high school thinking film was for me. It wasn’t. Neither was the school. I spent 3 semesters there forcing myself to go on and I just couldn’t. I wasted 30K of my parents money (and I was commuting!) when I could have just gone to a community college or a public 4 year college and spent 4K a year instead. I agree with what Melissa said. There is too much pressure on high school students to go straight to a costly 4 year college when they’re just not ready for it. There’s so much pressure on many kids to get into a four-year school right away, when they just aren’t ready for it. A gap year and public colleges are really what kids these days should be doing.

  65. jejar says:

    Thank you for elucidating some difficult financial concepts. I enjoyed reading your article

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