Thinking About College After High School? Four Points of Advice That You Probably Won’t Hear From Your Guidance Counselor

When I think back to my high school years, I realize that I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I wanted to do with my life, nor many of the options really available to me. I had a sense that I needed a significant change of scenery for a while because I did not want to follow the paths of many of the people I saw graduating from high school and just sitting around their hometown watching the years go by. The problem was that I didn’t know what I should be doing instead – I was the first person in my family with an opportunity to go to college, thanks to scholarships, and that seemed like the obvious route to take, so that’s what I did.

I wish now that I had the chance to do some things differently, but such chances only come along once in a lifetime. Knowing what I know now, here are five pieces of advice that I’d offer to anyone in high school or fresh out of high school about what’s available to them.

Don’t go straight to college unless you’re absolutely sure
One of my biggest regrets in life was that I went to college directly out of high school. I didn’t have even the faintest inkling of the opportunities available to me, so I just followed the general advice of everyone around me, which was to go to college and get started on that career immediately. I went there without the maturity I really needed to make it work, nor a good idea of what I could get out of college. I treated it as an extension of high school – and because of that, most of my years as a student were largely wasted.

If you can’t explain clearly why you’re going to college (and the generic “to get an education” doesn’t cut the mustard), you shouldn’t go to college – yet. If you’re a bright person, the answers will eventually come to you and you’ll tackle it with the right mindset, but going to college without any real goal in mind, especially straight out of high school, is a waste of your time and money – and that of your parents.

Note that I’m not saying that one shouldn’t go to college – just that one shouldn’t go to college without a purpose.

Spend some time figuring out what you’re passionate about – but don’t waste time
A friend of mine took a “year off” after high school to “find herself,” but she actually spent it not doing much of anything at all. She worked at a fast food restaurant and apparently read a lot for that year, finally starting college fifteen months after high school graduation.

If you’re thinking of spending a year or two before college evaluating your life (something I strongly encourage), spend it doing something deeply fulfilling. Don’t just spend it working to earn tuition or spending money. Here are some things you can potentially do:

Volunteer Find a volunteer or other community service organization and get involved big time. Take ahold of a project within it and push it through to completion or some level of success – it will teach you a lot about people and leadership.

Work an internship Spend some time doing internship work for something you’re passionate about, even if it is just photocopying pages or washing dishes. You’ll get exposure and experience and you’ll also find out if it’s right for you.

Commit to a large-scale creative project If you’re musically inclined, write and record an entire album. If you’re a writer, write an entire book. Paint a set of canvasses. Whatever it is, if you’re passionate about it, do it on a larger scale than you’ve tried before.

Travel and experience new things
My plan for both of my children, provided they are interested, is to give them an ATM card, a backpack, and a ticket to DeGaulle Airport for their high school graduation. Even better, I’d like to do it in conjunction with the parents of a few of their closest friends. It is the absolute perfect time in a young person’s life to explore the world and figure out some things about themselves.

It took me a very long time to figure out who I actually was – I didn’t really figure things out until almost six years out of high school, and that was just the first revelation of many. Part of the reason is that in some ways I didn’t really escape where I came from, so it took some significant time for me to view myself independently and figure out who I really was.

Whatever career you choose, don’t chase money – chase passion
Lots of people will make statements like “you need to major in X because that’s the only way you’ll make $40K straight out of college.” Ignore it. If you’re truly passionate about your topic, you’re going to be among the top people in it simply because of the love and devotion you’ll show, compared to many others who are just there at the behest of others.

Not only that, your passion for the subject will continually reflect well on you. Think of people you know who are passionate about what they’re doing – almost always, you see them as a success or, at the very least, the passion is very clear.

The real key? Learn how to stand on your own two feet – and learn exactly who you are and what you’re passionate about. Do this actively, and with commitment. When you’ve got that figured out, the college decisions and what to do when you get there will become far more clear – and you’ll end up with a happier life over the long haul.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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