Every once in a while, I’ll get an email from a high-school-aged reader – or the parent of a high-school-aged student – who is looking for advice on what to study in college and, to some extent, how to pay for it.
When I went to college, I followed the simple and straightforward advice of my high school guidance counselor. I majored in the subject that I liked most in high school.
Unfortunately, I figured out halfway through college that having that major alone wasn’t going to put me into a career path that I wanted, so I switched majors.
The problem? Well, there were a few problems, and I’ll discuss them below.
What Should You Study?
Without some sort of plan as to what subject you’re going to study in college, it’s very difficult to go through college with any efficiency, and without that efficiency, college becomes incredibly expensive.
The truth is that you want to minimize the number of semesters you spend in college, and the best way to do that is to settle on a sensible major as early as you possibly can – in high school, preferably. You can actually lay much of the ground work for a successful college run during high school.
Why minimize the semesters? Each semester you spend in college almost always means more student loans and it also means more interest on your previous student loans. In other words, extra college time eats directly into your earnings potential after college in a big way.
You want to avoid that. One big step in avoiding that is to figure out your major as early as you can and even start thinking about it seriously during your early high school years.
There are two main factors to be thinking about.
Factor #1: Do You Want to Do It?
Naturally, your own skills and interests need to be a starting point.
If you disliked a subject in high school, then it would be foolish to study it in college and start moving down that career path. You’ll be miserable the entire way.
Similarly, if you have no skill in an area, it would be foolish to focus on that area in college and start moving down that career path. You’ll guarantee yourself a competitive disadvantage throughout your career.
Instead, you need to look at the set of areas that you didn’t dislike and that you didn’t struggle with.
Note that this doesn’t mean you should restrict yourself only to what you liked and what you excelled in, though those can be good pointers if they manage to make it through the other factor.
Factor #2: Can You Make a Living with It?
So, you’ve got a list of subjects that you don’t hate and that you’re not really poor at. The question you need to ask yourself about each of those subjects is what kind of careers they lead into and whether or not you can make a living with them.
Start by talking to your teacher in each of those potential subjects. Ask what kinds of careers are available within this area of study, and what similar areas of study (and available careers) might be out there that you haven’t considered or heard of. Usually, your teacher studied their subject in college and knows about similar subjects and some of the careers available there.
Take some of those ideas and research them online. What kind of earnings come from those careers? What is the day-to-day working life of someone in that field like? Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics for information about expected earnings and growth forecasts for a given career.
It’s worth noting that some people will have higher expectations for earnings than others, even if that means a career where 60-hour workweeks are the norm. It has a lot to do with your individual values. Having said that, however, a higher level of earnings gives you a lot more opportunities down the road.
Bringing the Factors Together
If you take both of these angles seriously, you’re going to wind up with a rather brief list of subjects. Your area of study and your first career should come from one of those areas, and the earlier you can select that area, the better.
I’m going to use my own selection of a major as an example of how not to do this, and then describe how I should have done it and how I will guide my children to do it.
I didn’t really even think about college with any seriousness until my senior year in high school. I felt like I liked most of my subjects in school, so I didn’t really have a major in mind.
My senior year, my class load was basically designed to free up time for extracurricular activities while getting my remaining requirements out of the way. Since I didn’t really have a study plan for college, I didn’t have any focus for my class selection.
The college I went to offered a day for new students before they signed up to go to campus and talk to professors while figuring out a major, so I just went to the professors in departments that matched my favorite high school classes.
The English professor flat-out told me not to major in English. The math professor was extremely distracted. The only professor that was on the ball was the biology professor that I met, who was a charming picture of what you might envision a kindly professor emeritus to be like. So, I majored in biology.
I wound up double majoring and spending extra time in college because of that decision, not because I didn’t like biology as a subject, but because I didn’t really know where it would lead professionally.
Now, what should I have done?
What I should have done is sat down during my sophomore or early junior year and assessed which classes I actually enjoyed the most – or, more importantly, which ones I hated and which ones I just wasn’t very good at. I would have been left with a list much like what I had when I went on campus, which is fine for a first step.
What I should have done then is done some research into what careers are available in those areas of study, as well as figuring out what I needed to study for any careers that sounded cool. What were those careers like? What did they pay?
I am fairly sure, looking back, I would have settled on computer science as a major had I actually followed this path. I found the subject interesting and the jobs in that field had lucrative potential.
Then, I should have spent my last year or so in high school choosing high school classes that prepared me for that area of study – any computer programming classes I could take, as well as math classes, physics classes, and technical writing.
Would this have been a perfect preparation? No, nothing is, but it would have been far better than what I did.
Go Beyond Classes
One big additional factor to consider about the expense and length of college and the value you get out of it is that a large chunk of the value that you get out of college comes from what you do outside of classes.
If you go to college and just take classes, you’re not getting nearly the value that you should for that opportunity. There is far more value to extract from your college dollar:
Relationships with professors: The professors on your campus often have a ton of insight beyond what you see in the classroom. Quite often, they have connections to industries as well as (sometimes) their own research money. They can be incredibly useful sources of professional and intellectual advice, plus they can end up providing great letters of recommendation.
Jobs within your area of study: Many universities offer opportunities for jobs that are at least somewhat related to your area of study. At larger institutions with healthy research programs, there are many opportunities for undergraduates to work, often starting with very menial labor but often growing into something more. Even if those opportunities aren’t available at your school, you can often find leads through your professors and the university for work during the summer and even during the academic year.
Extracurricular activities: Most campuses are bursting with organizations of all kinds, and many of them are great for filling up a resume and also for expanding your knowledge in your area of study. Many opportunities allow you to expand your transferable skills, such as leadership and project planning.
Professional network building: You’re surrounded by people in your major who are headed to similar career paths. Get to know them and start building a professional network while in college. Try to know everyone you can within your major and even in related majors. Build a real connection to as many of them as possible.
How Should You Pay for It?
All of this sounds wonderful, but it all comes with a pretty hefty price. How will you pay for it? There are a number of strategies well worth thinking about.
Ask Yourself What Education You Really Need
Not all career paths lead to a four-year university. Some lead elsewhere.
If your goal is to become an electrician, for example, then you should be going to a trade school, not an expensive four-year university.
If you’ve researched your area of professional interest and found that it does not require a stay at a four-year college or university, then there’s no need to go. You’ll have the advantage of not having those crushing student loans.
However, those paths are definitely in the minority. What if your career path does lead to college?
Get General Education and Basic Classes Out of the Way Quickly and Cheaply
If at all possible, you should be trying to pick up a college credit or two during your final years of high school. Does your high school offer any courses that can be used for college credit? Are they discounted or subsidized by the school? If so, you need to be taking advantage of that savings, both in terms of money and of time.
If you’re not sure about it, ask your guidance counselor for help. Your guidance counselor is there to help you find classes like this.
What about after high school graduation? Remember, you don’t have to immediately progress to a four-year school. Instead, you can spend a year or two at a community college knocking off the general education requirements at a very inexpensive price.
Not only does a local community college offer inexpensive prices per credit, it also affords you the opportunity to continue living at home for a year or two after high school, drastically reducing the room and board costs you will likely face at university. You can often get through this period without any debt at all if you pair it with a job.
Minimize Your Student Loans. Period.
Eventually, though, you’ll likely end up at a university of some kind. Part of your goal while you’re there should be to minimize your student loans, and there are several ways to go about this.
Live super, super cheap: Don’t waste a dime. Get free meals everywhere you can – many on-campus organizations offer lots of free food. Look for free opportunities on campus for things like doing laundry. Live in a tiny apartment with three roommates (you won’t be there much anyway, so just look at it as a place to eat a simple meal, sleep, practice a bit of hygiene, receive your mail, and store some of your stuff) to reduce the rent to a pittance. Every dime you can save on your room and board means a dime less you have to take out for student loans.
Don’t buy textbooks immediately. Some classes will really require them. Other classes won’t require them at all. You won’t know for sure until you go to the class a few times, so do that before buying books.
Take class-planning seriously and try to eliminate a semester or two through careful planning. This means talking to your academic advisor to plan out clearly what classes you should be taking each semester so you can finish up earlier. This also means registering for classes as quickly as you can so you’re not shut out of a class, which can really disrupt planning.
Keep your grades up. Failing a class and retaking it isn’t the end of the world, but if it’s a prerequisite for other classes, it can completely throw off your plan for getting out of school early. A single failure can sometimes cost thousands of dollars. So take every class seriously and do the hard work you need to do to pass it (at the very least) or, ideally, excel at it. Yes, studying isn’t fun, but studying can not only make the difference between thousands of dollars in student loans now, it can also help you with better grades and earn you thousands of dollars later on.
The Most Important Skill from High School – By Far
The most important skill you can take from high school – by far – is the ability to study effectively, which is inherently linked to managing your time effectively.
Not only will that skill serve you tremendously throughout college, it will be invaluable for the rest of your professional life in almost any field.
For many college-bound students, however, practicing those skills on the high school level can be tricky. The best way to practice those skills is to take challenging classes and push yourself to excel in them. Take AP classes and focus on getting good grades in them while also taking on some extracurricular activities.
The only way the vast majority of students can pull that off is by managing their time well and learning how to study effectively and absorb information and concepts in a relatively limited time. This is the single biggest key to success in college and in the information economy we live in.
If you can build that skill in high school, it will serve you faithfully (and continue to grow stronger) for the rest of your life. If you don’t have it, college will be incredibly challenging, as will the challenges you face in other avenues of life.
How exactly do you do this?
Start keeping a calendar. You can do this electronically or on paper. I encourage you to try both to figure out what works for you. Invest enough seriousness into the calendar so that it becomes an actual tool to rely on instead of a burden to fill out.
A calendar is one of those things that crosses what I call a threshold of usefulness. If you start investing any time in it at all, you’re going to find that the invested time is completely lost unless you raise the usefulness of that calendar to a level that you begin to really rely on it. So, either don’t bother at all or commit to it.
I use Google Calendar for my calendaring needs. It works perfectly for me, sending alerts to my phone to remind me of things and providing great views of what I need to know. It takes time to keep it updated, but that time pays off in having something I can rely on. If it’s a due date or another date worth remembering, I know it’s in there and I know I can trust it at a glance.
Figure out a system for keeping track of all assignments and their due dates. In other words, you need to figure out how to keep a running to-do list or your own version of it.
There are a lot of apps for this – I probably recommend Todoist for new users. Learn how to use your preferred tool and, as with the calendar, invest enough effort so that you truly trust it. You can certainly use paper, too.
Learn to work stepwise on larger tasks. For a bright student in high school, procrastination can be a very strong strategy. No projects or tasks are really that big in high school, so you can get away with putting everything off until the last minute.
College – and real life – doesn’t work like that. If you rely on procrastination in college, you will fail. The same is true in your professional life.
A much better strategy is to work on good anti-procrastination strategies in high school where the risk of failure isn’t as high. Rather than waiting for the last minute to do assignments or projects, do them when you have free time gaps that aren’t filled with anything worthwhile. Break down bigger projects into pieces you can do in a half an hour or so. Actually do the optional reading assignments (they help a lot in college).
College is expensive, particularly so when you make a poor choice for your major and invest years of tuition and time going down the wrong path. However, if you make some smart choices in the year or two before college – and during your college years – you can extract every dime of value from college and reduce your student loans and end up with a degree you actually want in an area of study you enjoy.
That’s how you win the college game.