At the start of the last college semester, I provided ten tips for personal finance management for college students:
Get some free money.
Make it automatic.
Look for cheaper entertainment.
Don’t get any credit cards.
Eat in the cafeteria.
Look for free stuff.
Empty out your pockets at the end of each day.
When you go buy something, ask around and see where it’s cheapest.
Get an interesting job.
Keep yourself up.
If it makes you feel good, do it.
These ideas will help minimize the debt load that a college student will carry after college (and also make a lot of things easier while in college), but for the most part, they won’t help too much with maximizing your income after you graduate.
If you want to put yourself in a great position after you graduate, do as many of these ten things as possible:
Separate yourself from your parents. Even when I was in university, there were many “helicopter parents” deeply involved in their child’s life. If you’re a parent, back off; if you’re a student, work on trying to build some separation there. A big part of the university setting is figuring out who you are and what your strengths are; a hovering parent issuing phone calls to school administrators is a sure way to find yourself not growing as a person.
Don’t commit to a major too early; instead, find out what you’re passionate about. I found that once I had the time and freedom afforded to me in an academic environment, I discovered interests that I had never even considered before and eventually wound up switching majors even after completing a couple years’ worth of classes. Instead, my advice is to take very general requirement classes the first year and spend some time seriously considering what really lights your fire. A big hint is usually the topics that you find yourself thinking about regularly outside of the context of classwork.
Do not load yourself down with classes the first year. The first year at college is usually a giant culture shock – new people, new environment, new material, new challenges. Don’t take fifty credits the first year – in fact, don’t take much more than the minimum required to be considered a full time student. You can make up for it later when you’ve got your career directions and goals figured out. Even better, spend some of that time sitting in on a few classes. If you’re still figuring out where you want to go, take lots of little tastes of various directions and spend your time figuring out what you actually want. The first year or two of college will provide you with more freedom and opportunity than you’ll probably ever have again in your life – take advantage of it.
Find a job connected to what you’re doing, even if it doesn’t pay well. Once you’ve settled in on a major, find a job that relates to that major, even if it’s on a volunteer basis. So many students go work at Taco Bell for $7 an hour – it might put a few bucks in your pocket, but in the long term it’s a giant mistake. Once you’ve focused in, go through all of the professors in the department and find one or two that are doing things that really pique your interest (Google them and find out what they do). Then request a meeting, ask a lot of questions, and see whether they have a role that you could fulfill. In most majors, this will probably be nonpaying, but in some, you might get minimum wage if they have something available.
Obviously, during the summers, look for internship opportunities, but you can look at such a job as an “around the year” internship and, quite often, the professor can help you net a very good internship for the summer. A curious and intelligent student doing a lot of work will cause any professor worth his or her salt to lend a helping hand.
Sample some organizations related to your interests, particularly to your major. Most large universities are absolutely loaded with student groups and organizations. Find ones that match your interests and attend some meetings. Some will click with you – some won’t. If it doesn’t click, don’t worry about it. If it does click, though, make it a point to get more involved with that group. How will this help? A select number of groups that you’re involved with can be a real resume-builder.
Get involved in any general leadership organization. I also recommend finding an organization that focuses on leadership activities. Try to get involved with the student government, or be involved with general interest groups that focus on character building, public speaking, or other things that are useful no matter what you choose to do. Not only are these useful in helping you figure yourself out and learn how to work well in a team environment (which, in all likelihood, is where you’ll wind up working), but it shines on a resume.
Once you find an organization that matches you, get involved and become a leader. Once you’ve found an organization or two that really clicks with you, work hard to be a leader in that organization. Run for an office, then eventually run for president. It may seem like a lot of work that you really don’t want to deal with, but this type of activity not only trains you for later, but it also looks fantastic on a resume.
Keep your studies up. Note that I didn’t say “keep your grades up.” If you keep up with your studies, grades will follow. Attend every class, and in smaller ones ask questions if for no other reason so that you stand out to the teacher. Don’t hesitate to ask questions after class. Absolutely stop by office hours if you have any question at all. Get to know the teachers a bit and demonstrate that you’re working hard on the material – and actually work on the material – and you’ll do just fine. A 4.0 is only vital if you’re trying to get into an exclusive graduate school, so don’t be upset if you get a B. On the flip side, don’t just blow everything off and struggle to stay in school at all – your transcript will be a piece of the package that gets your career started.
Take every opportunity to speak, perform, or present publicly that you can. This is especially true if the idea of speaking in public scares you like crazy. I’d encourage you to take a public speaking class, read How to Win Friends and Influence People (if for nothing else the tips on how to speak to others), and then look for opportunities in your organizations to speak and present. Don’t worry about it if your first attempt is awful – keep at it and you’ll get better. You should also keep a list of your public speeches and presentations, as they can be useful to have as your career advances.
Build lots of connections. If you do nothing else in school, do this. Talk to lots of people and make an effort to keep tabs with them. Lots of students today use Facebook for this – make an effort to gain a lot of friends on there and leave lots of messages and wall scribblings. If you click at all with someone, make sure to keep in touch with them a bit. Find ways to connect people that you know – if you have a wide social circle, you’ll often find people that you can connect with each other for mutual benefit. I really recommend reading Never Eat Alone for a great introduction on how to do this. I didn’t make many good, strong connections in college, and it’s something I still regret.
College is both a time to figure yourself out and also a time to build up your skills and resume. If you work hard, you can easily do both, maintain good grades, and have a lot of fun. Most of my best memories of college were from moments spent being involved with groups and getting to know others that had similar interests.