Updated on 10.17.07

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

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. RV says:

    Great article. I did the samething. Went to Engineering School not having a clue and the only reason I did is because everyone else was going to an Engineering School.

    I think it is a great idea to take sometime off and explore and find out what would make someone happy by doing something for the rest of their lives.

    I am a true believer in Passion. One has to have Passion in life to not only be successful but also be happy, whatever that passion maybe.


  2. Lauren says:

    Definitely make the time count. I finished high school a year early and took that time until my formal graduation working in a grocery store, and not even saving any money because I threw it away on concerts and random driving. And I hated it. I rushed into college from there just thinking that it was my ticket out…out of my parents’ house, at least. It wasn’t. Now, 5 years later, I’m working my butt off to pay off my school loans and credit cards and I don’t even have a degree.

    Didn’t plan that one right, did I?

  3. Mike says:

    Its important to make sure that any scholarships you might have can be deferred a year.

  4. Andrea says:

    I definitely agree with the first point. I went to college right out of high school having no idea what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t take a year off or I would lose a $20 000 scholarship I’d received.

    Once I started toward a degree, I just kept going, knowing full well it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but figuring I might as well finish what I’d started.

    In the end, I spent 4 years getting my B.A., only to follow it up with another 3 years in a completely unrelated field once i figured out what I really wanted to do.

    Thankfully I only wasted time, and not money because that scholarship paid for my first degree, but most people don’t have that opportunity.

  5. Johanna says:

    The first semester of my freshman year, one of my instructors had us do an interesting exercise: Take the cost of a semester’s tuition. Divide it by the number of weeks in the semester, and divide that by the number of hours you’re scheduled to go to class each week. That’s how much of your (or your parents’) money you’re wasting each time you skip class.

  6. SJean says:

    Unique advice. I agree with some of it, not with all of it, but it definitely isn’t what you’ll hear in your guidance office

    Except, and it does seem that everyone says to “follow your passion”. This is true, but I also say, if you are going to major in something a bit impractical, you need to have a plan. It is ridiculous to go to an expensive school to get a low paying job that will never turn into anything more (unless your parents are willing/able to foot the bill… then, have fun!)

  7. Kris says:

    Don’t go straight to college unless you’re absolutely sure

    I’m not sure this advice is as sound as it appears. For one, there’s a lot more to college than the formal education. Much of the value beyond the book learning of my undergrad years has come from the network of friends I formed, most of whom have become high achievers working in places where they can make favors re: hiring, outsourcing work, etc. I know people who took time off and the went back in their mid-20s, never lived in the dorms, and met very few people. They don’t have the huge network to draw on when they need work or some sort of business favor.

    Secondly, you can’t anticipate what careers might exist from now. I have a BA in history; when I started college, the internet was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. Now I have an MS in information management, and manage a host of a huge corporate websites. And I love it. Could I have antcipated this in anyway? Not on your life. It took a crappy office job for me to be forced into the web world and down my current path.

    Which bring up my third point: who says you’ll ever figure out what you want to do? If you have no clue, going to college is as good a choice as any. Even if you end up in debt with a poetry degree, at least you’ll have the degree — and an entree into many entry-level office jobs, which might help you figure yourself out (as much as backpacking Europe will). Floating through one’s late teens and early 20s might be right for some, but it’s not patently good advice.

  8. james says:

    I completely agree. I graduated HS a few years back, was going to go to university (almost a requirement in my area), but canceled at the last minute for a very well paying dot-com job.

    Looking back, it was a great choice — not just because of the money — but because I completely changed what I wanted to do due to the time off.

    Considering that most degrees set you up for a handful of careers, and most people aren’t secure enough to change careers mid-life, you’ll probably be doing at 40 what you chose at 18. Put another way, I think this is the equivalent of a 40 year old (future-you) asking an 18 year old (current-you) what job they should take.

    On the other hand, I think that university should be seen as a given. I can’t think of many life choices that wouldn’t be helped with an educational background. So, if you’re going to go anyways, and you can’t take time off (scholarship or your parents threatening to dissolve your college fund), you should ONLY take very general, broad classes for the first two years. DO NOT start focusing on your “future” major or else, at the end of 2 years, you’ll feel like it’s your only choice.

    With that being said, Trent, I’m wondering what your demographics are. I can’t imagine a lot of high schoolers read personal finance blogs.

  9. Diane says:

    Trent you are dead on with the idea of delaying college. Our oldest child knew without a doubt that she wanted to be a teacher. She went to College right after high school and graduated in 4 years. Son #1 went right to college also and faltered and failed and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He dropped out and never finished. Now at 27, he has finally found his niche. Son #2 worked for two years at manual labor before college and absolutely KNEW he didn’t want to do that kind of job for the rest of his life. His poor grades in high school became A’s and B’s in college and he is driven and determined because of his post-high school experience. Who the hell decided that a person should choose their life’s work at 18?

  10. guinness416 says:

    I travelled internationally a lot as a high school student, before starting college, and as a college student. Most young people in my country do the same. The experiences were great – some funny, some scary, some boring – but I didn’t “find myself”. I would say when I “found myself”, to the extent that I have, was my first few years out of college. I wouldn’t imbue too much meaning into travelling – it’s great, but as a way to see cool art, pick up new languages, learn how tortuous air travel is and sleep with strangers with nice accents more than as a “here’s my life’s mission now I will go to college with a purpose” thing.

  11. jmacdaddio says:

    Passion versus money? To the young I would advise choosing passion, combined with a realistic expectations of your lifestyle. Most passionate careers (art, music, academia) will provide you with enough to live on, provided your definition of “enough” does not include a leased BMW or a McMansion. There will be times when you have to choose money over passion, but when you’re young and free is not one of them.

  12. thisisbeth says:

    A couple of things:
    First, many people who decide to wait a year to go to college often never end up going. They end up working in a job, enjoy the money, and are never able to get back to the school lifestyle.

    SJean has it right: if you major in something impractical, have a plan. Everyone told me to follow my passion. I know now (less than ten years later) that while I liked it, it had very little career opportunity or worth in the business world, I’m not insanely talented at it, and I don’t think I’d enjoy doing it for a job. In that respect, listen to your parents. My dad suggested I take all sorts of classes I wasn’t interested in at the time. Now I’m interested in those, and wish I had taken at least basic level classes. I need to go back to college now!

    And definitely look into studying abroad. University is expensive–why not add a little more onto the price and study somewhere else? (I did that, although I didn’t research my program fully, and while the travel and cultural experiences were great, the program was set up very poorly.)

  13. Amy says:

    While I sympathize with a lot of what you’re saying, I really wonder how much self-knowledge it’s possible for an 18-19 year old to gain. I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was going and what I wanted out of life at that age, but eight years later, very little of what I thought I’d want when I was eighteen is actually what I want at 26.

    In my experience, self-knowledge builds through time and experience, and I doubt there are effective shortcuts to the process. Much of the time, I think the only way to learn whether or not a life path is for you is to try it, and see if it works out as you expected.

    Insofar as taking a year off helps, I think it does so because it leaves you a year older and wiser when you get to some of the important decisions you have to make in college. I don’t think it can really give you much insight into what you’re going to want out of life when you’re 30.

  14. MS says:

    I’d put some disclaimers on the “don’t chase money – chase passion” advice. While it’s important to do something you love (or at least like) with your life, you need to plan for life after college. If your passion isn’t a particularly well-paying one, you need to seriously look at how you’re financing your college stay. Going into 40k+ worth of debt for a degree that doesn’t increase your earning potential is a good way to get stuck in a job(s) where you’re doing it “for the money”.

  15. Eric says:

    “Whatever career you choose, don’t chase money – chase passion”

    My passion is to spend as much time with my son and wife as possible. My job is simply a means to that end.

    Maybe I just never had that passion for any type of work but I don’t really care what I do for work as long as I have enough money to live comfortably and it doesn’t require me being away from my family for any more that absolutely necessary.

  16. !wanda says:

    1) I’ve heard from many, many people that restarting school after having a taste of the “real world” is difficult. Even people who teched in a lab for a year between college and grad school find it so much more difficult to get back into the habit of studying and working odd hours. Also, when you’re in high school, you hopefully have a support network of teachers and counselors who will supply recommendations and keep you aware of your applications. That support goes away once you graduate. Deferring entrance for a year solves this problem, but it means you need to come up with a “life purpose” to put down on the application before you take the year to “find yourself.”

    2) I agree that the best way for a child to achieve independence is to let them go far away. I’m not sure that sending them to Europe alone is the best way to do this. (And why Europe? The people I knew in college who went to Cambridge for study abroad came back and bragged about how they never studied or went to class, and how nobody else did either!) Instead, if you can afford it, send your kids far away for college. The best thing my parents did for me that made them unhappy was to let me go to college 2800 miles away (at 16, no less). I was extremely naive and introverted, but living in the dorms while having no family nearby forced me to make friends and learn about myself and how I wanted to live.

  17. Kay says:

    I’d really like to agree with you. I think that international travel, especially on my own, has broadened my worldview and helped me understand people — and not just myself — better through the years. And, the 3.5 years I spent in college, starting at age 17, were mostly a waste of (my own) money. I gained my most marketable skills when I sat in the computer lab between classes and tried to find ways to amuse myself.

    However, I didn’t come into my own until my mid-twenties, when I had the maturity to take a look at myself realistically and say, “Is this who I want to be?” Another evaluation followed a decade later. In my late thirties, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been and I’m on a path I could not have imagined at 18, 21, or even 32. I’m glad that in the years before now, I was ambitious enough to work my way up the ladder in an accidental career and sock away a lot of money so that once I figured myself out, I had a cushion already established.

    Now, I have a stepson who is a freshman in high school. He has no ambition and few interests. Perhaps that will change as he matures; his father and I were both very different than him at that age and we can’t figure it out. Neither of us are huge advocates of mandatory college, especially if someone is better suited and happier at a vocational school or in an apprenticeship. But I look at my kid and think, “If he doesn’t go to college, he’s going to be working retail into his late 20s, with no other options, and playing video games all night.” I don’t think a year off to spend our money tromping around Europe would make much of a difference.

  18. dong says:

    College is a fantastic place to grow up in safe and fun environment, but as society we really need to move past the notion a college degree is required. There many bright individuals who don’t attend college. And many more even brighter individuals for who College is mostly a waste of time and money. There are other ways for people to grow up, and there are other ways for people to learn.

  19. Brett McKay says:

    I took two years off from college and served a mission in Mexico. The time off definitely helped me figure out what I wanted to with myself. Plus, I gained skills that I could never have developed in college. I also thought the two years away from home forced me to “man up.” Because I was so far away from my parents and had limited contact with them, I was forced to figure things out on my own.

  20. Peter says:

    I don’t know if I agree with Trent on much of this article. Of the people I knew who didn’t go to college, a number struggled a long time to “find” themselves, and most of those gave up the seach pretty fast. How many people are “absolutely” sure about anything at 18?

    My feeling is that as long as you have a general idea of the field you’re interested in (e.g. science, art, teaching, etc.) and you envision getting a higher education you should go and you can do some of your “exploring” at college. I always thought that was part of the college experience. See if you are really interested in a major and if not, switching may not be a large deal. I agree with following your passion, but that can be accomplished in school as you’re seeing what you’re interested in. How can you be sure your passion is physics, or dance, or business by vacationing for a year? You have three months in the summer to take your trips and broaden your experiences, and you’re much more likely to get an internship in an area of interest in the real world if you’re attending school.

    If you are totally unsure of any idea of a major or if you even want to go to college, then maybe taking some time to see what you like, and don’t like, could be a benefit. In which case, Trent’s recommendations do make sense.

    Trent, I really wonder if you would have honestly bothered going to college at all if you hadn’t gotten the scholarship? It’s twice as hard getting any degree after you’re married or after you have kids. Hindsight is always 20/20, and there are things I wish I’d done different back in school, but that was part of the growing pains.

    Finally, who’s funding the ATM card for a year?

  21. If they don’t go to college, what do you suggest they do to fill the void. I would be afraid of the golden handcuffs. This is definitely a question with varied answers depending on the student in question.

    I must agree on the chasing the passion part. You only get one ticket on the ride of life. You might as well enjoy it!!

  22. Meg says:

    I disagree that a person should know their passion before going to college. The whole point of college is to explore yourself and your interests. Even then you probably aren’t going to hit the nail on the head and find your life’s passion–and that’s why most people have 5 jobs before they’re 30.

    My advice is to use the first two years of college (including summers!) to explore all major disciplines. Take the general requirements in a variety of subjects. Study abroad. Get an internship or two. Then, when you’re at least a junior, pick a major and a minor (at least). And if your desire ends up being somehting in the liberal arts, I’d get a business major/minor to go along with it so you’ll be marketable for a variety of jobs.

    Putting off college isn’t going to help you find your passion, unless you think you’ll find it earning minimum wage at a retail/food service job. What you’ll end up doing is wishing you went to college sooner!

  23. Melody says:

    And how is the 18 year old supposed to fund the year off? Working at McDonald’s? My health insurance won’t cover my daughter unless she’s a full time student. And call me an uncaring mother, but I am not going to work just so she can “find herself”. I will pay for 4 years in college so that she doesn’t come out of school with a huge debt over her head, but if she doesn’t want to go to college right away, she’s not entitled to that same amount. I will sock those funds away towards my even earlier retirement.

  24. Debbie M says:

    Studies have shown that what a person majors in usually is not directly related to even the first job they get after college, let alone the jobs in the four other careers a person typically has in their lifetime. So unless you know you want to go into one of those few jobs that is directly related (engineering, nursing, etc.), don’t sweat the decision making. Start off general and pick something interesting.

    I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was five. By the time I was in high school, I knew I should look for something better. But I was wrong about why–I thought it was because of the money or the lack of power, but really I don’t have the right personality to motivate a large group of people who don’t want to be there. By age 43 I knew what I wanted to do. Let’s just say I was glad I already had my degrees (which helped me a bit) and that they were already paid off.

    More hints: Use college as a halfway house. Yes, this is a good place to figure out how much you can drink. But most colleges have opportunities to learn all kinds of things. Don’t focus just on what you already know, though you should spend some time doing things you are good at.

    Take interesting classes. Given a choice, choose courses and professors that are recommended by students (after finding out why) over courses that sound good. A boring-sounding course with a great professor is better than a great-sounding course with a bad professor.

    Talk to your professors, no matter how large the class. Visit them during office hours sometime other than right before or after a test. Just talk about some issue you’ve found interesting, or if nothing seems interesting, ask what attracted them to the field. If you ask questions, you will learn more. And a professor who has met you is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when grading. If you hit it off, you may be able to ask for references.

    Create study groups. They help whether you’re the most on-the-ball one in the group or not, so long as you all are trying to learn the material. I once heard a calculus professor say that it was impossible to excel in his class on your own–one brain is just not enough. You have to write up your own homework and take your own tests, but learning from each other’s mistakes and helping each other is more efficient than doing it all yourself. Find out exactly what constitutes cheating and don’t do those things, but otherwise, do work together.

    Try all kinds of activities. Join groups, take a leadership position, start your own group.

    Check out the resources your college has. It really is quite amazing what some colleges have. Low-cost tutoring and study classes, therapists, fund-raising gurus, legal advice, free classic movies. If you’re in a new town, check out what that town has to offer. Be a tourist!

    Read your catalog, including rules and degree requirements. See what all your options are for satisfying various requirements–there may be ones other than the obvious ones. See what your options are if something goes wrong–read about options for dropping courses, withdrawing, etc. You won’t remember all this, but if something comes up, you might remember that you read something that might be useful. Talk to your adviser about your goals, and about what you’re not sure about. They’ve seen a lot of students and probably have some helpful advice.

    Make friends. People moving somewhere new, especially a big school or a school in a very different place from where they came from, do much better and are happier if they can find some friends. This is easiest if you can live on campus, but there are many ways to get to know people.

    Have goals. My goals were to learn interesting things, to graduate, and to learn how to talk to boys. This meant a party school or an all-girls school would not be ideal for me.

    Many people will advise you not to room with a friend. I would never advise such a thing, but I will advise you not to room with someone who would not be a compatible roommate. If one of you is a slob and the other is a neatnick, you might have problems. If one likes loud music playing and the other wants complete silence, you might have problems. Sometimes compromise works–you take turns studying in the library so the other person can have the room to themselves or you listen to your music on head phones or you’re only allowed to mess up your half of the room. At least discuss these issues before moving in with a friend.

    Oh, and your whole grade is usually made of hardly any assignments. You may have a single final. More likely you will have a mid-term test and a final. There generally won’t be little weekly or bi-weekly tests to keep you from getting too far behind like in high school. So try to get a little ahead so if something important comes up (like a trip to the beach the weekend before a test) you can still go. Many people cram for tests, but there is just so much to learn in most classes. And if you have any tendency toward test anxiety, go to your study skills center or find other ways to address this before your first tests!

    Finally, don’t accept credit-by-exam in your major or for courses that are prerequisites in your field. Sometimes those tests imply that you know more than you really know. For subjects important to you, it’s best to re-take the course in college. You will solidify the knowledge you do have and add more, and this will make your future courses much less crazy-making.

  25. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Trent, I really wonder if you would have honestly bothered going to college at all if you hadn’t gotten the scholarship” No, I would not have. I don’t think college is the be-all answer many people seem to believe that it is.

    Melody, why do you feel the need to pay for your child’s education at all? My parents told me good bye at age eighteen and I think it was one of the best things the could have possibly done.

  26. Anthony says:

    “Melody, why do you feel the need to pay for your child’s education at all? My parents told me good bye at age eighteen and I think it was one of the best things the could have possibly done.”

    Trent, if you feel this way, why have you set up college funds for your children? If it is the best thing your parents could have done, why not let you children learn the same lesson.

  27. Lauren says:

    I agree with your last point the most, about going with your passion. I went into college as a math/physics major and wanted to go into the sciences. I took Latin to fulfill a requirement and fell in love. My parents, who, yes, were footing the bill, flipped out, but eventually gave in with the “it’s your life…” speech. Lucky for me, there’s a vast shortage of Latin teachers (at least here on the east coast) and I managed to swing a well paying job at a fantastic school district right out of school. As for my physicist friends, the ones who aren’t in grad school now are either unemployed or working in a completely unrelated field.

  28. I completely agree that sending a 17-18 year old off to college straight out of high school is usually not the best idea. I did it – went off at 17, finished at 20 with a BA in Psychology and then didn’t have a clue what to do. I ended up going overseas to work as a journeyman missionary which was the best thing I could do. I was doing something I was passionate about (talking about Jesus) and got some life experience that I will never forget. I ended up living overseas for ten years and have just returned to the US. I think that Americans should adopt the practice of the English, which is to have a gap year after high school. It means when someone does go to university, they have a bit more of an idea of what they want to do.

  29. icup says:

    I probably wouldn’t advise someone to spend a year traveling abroad before they go to college on the assumption that they won’t be mature enough to get anything out of college.

    If they aren’t mature enough to get anything out of college, they probably aren’t going to be mature enough to get anything worthwhile out of travel.

    My advice would be to go to college right away, but plan on 5 years instead of 4. Spend the extra year studying abroad and pick up a minor or double major in whatever language that country speaks. That would be far more valuable than taking a year off to work somewhere.

    Another thing is, most kids graduate high school and are somewhat traumatized by the life change. They have been doing the high school routine for so long, they can’t imagine life any other way and some even mistakenly believe other people might actually give a damn about their high school, what they did in school, who their friends were, etc. Taking a year off (and not travelling) only serves to emphasize this reality gap, in my opinion.

  30. rita says:

    Here in my country students graduate from highschool at age 16-17 and are usually still living at home even while taking up college. So most would still be pretty immature to make major decisions. In my family it would be a unthinkable to consider stopping school even for a year just to think about what you want to do with your life. The only reason to stop in between hs and college is because you can’t afford it. People will save/borrow/beg money for a college degree.

    But I would have appreciated a year off, if it were financially practical. For most people, it is not. I ended up shifting majors in college so I graduated a year late.

  31. tom says:

    First off. I disagree with the wait for college. You will find it very hard to go back once you do. I feel if you dont know what you want to do career wise then go to college and take all gen ed classes. things like math a lab science. western civ. Any classes that will fulfill the gen edrequirements of any degree. This way you have about 2 years to decide on what degree you want and wouldnt have wasted your money.

    I was luck what I wanted to do after college and my passion are the same. I am in the computers field as a network tech at a library . I am in a well paying civil service job with great benifits doing what I love. Cant beat that.

  32. plonkee says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes.

    This is possibly the rightest (I’m aware that’s not a real word) you are ever likely to be.

  33. Jen says:

    I disagree with just about all of this. It’s just more of the self indulgent crap that they teach kids now-a-days.

    First, I disagree with the idea that you can’t go to college and find yourself at the same time. That’s kinda what it’s there for. You meet new people and try new activities and find out what you like to do, all while learning differential equations. I went in as I science major, came out as an engineer, met my husband, held a research job, met lifelong friends, stayed up way too late, drank too much, and don’t regret one minute of it.

    Second, “don’t chase money, chase passion” is just a good way to end up poor. Yes, you have to be interested and well suited to what you do in life, but you also have to do things that people want to pay you to do. Work is work, there’s an element of the mundane no matter what you do.

  34. db says:

    I also disagree with waiting a year to start college, unless you really seriously doubt that you even want to go to college.

    First — what are you going to do with that time? Not everybody has the luxury of taking a year off to travel — most people would likely end up working some grunt job and get themselves stuck there. Travelling the world after school seems more suited for somebody at age 21 or 22 after graduating college than it does for a freshly minted high school graduate, who really isn’t all that self-sufficient unless they’ve had an incredibly unpleasant childhood.

    Second — how many kids fresh out of high school really are mature enough to handle themselves alone out in the cruel world? I think most kids that age still benefit from the structure of school or work in their lives and being reasonably close to family rather than off travelling the world at 18.

    Third — well I just don’t think it’s a good idea to lose the academic momentum. Compared to what I go through at work, being a high school or college student (and an honors student) was a piece of cake.

    And it’s still true that even “frivolous” degrees can lead to jobs, assuming the person is industrious enough to persist. I myself got a BA in Philosophy and English Lit, and managed to work my way into a career in IT with that degree. I got a masters in the field only after I’d already started working in it.

  35. buffalo says:

    Reading through everyone’s responses, I can see that there are 101 ways to live your life. And maybe that’s the point, just live your life. You’ll learn as you go along. Things will happen that at the time, or maybe even sometime later, seem to be a mistake on your part. Then, as time passes, you discover that the mistake was actually a blessing.

  36. twins15 says:

    I disagree with some of these suggestions, but the one about travel is great. After my senior year of high school I went (along with friends) to Europe for about 2 weeks… definitely an eye-opening thing, and easily one of the best things I have ever done (20 yrs old right now).

  37. !wanda says:

    @buffalo: That would be good advice if this post were genuinely targeted towards high school students. It’s actually targeted towards parents, the likely readers of this blog and the demographic that Trent is part of.

    Regarding whether to pay for your children’s education: Many parents, including mine, demand that their children go to college. I was raised from an early age with the expectation that I would go to a prestigious university. It would have been cruel to demand that of me and then to expect me to fund it by myself.

  38. Bob says:

    I am confused Trent, on the one hand you talk about funding your children’s education on your blog, and in this post about how you are going to give them a free vacation out of high school. Yet, you then say in a post in the comments that the best thing your parents did for you was to cut you off at 18, and that you wouldn’t have gone to college if it wasn’t for your scholarship and that it isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. If that is how you feel, then why not give the kids the boot at 18, and roll the college fund into your retirement?

    I enjoy your blog, and you often have really good advice, but I am going to have to strongly disagree with this one. As many people have said, it is a bad idea to take a year off of school, or as it seems by your attitude, blow it off completely. I went to a great high school where the vast majority went to college after graduation, but of course some chose to take time off. Those who took that time off from school, I would say that ALL of them fell into crummy jobs AND debt never mind the ones who didn’t ever planning on going to school. There are those that will say well it works for some people, or I know that my ____ took time off and they are a ___ and doing well now! Well yes, there is an exception to every rule, but for the majority, it is a poor choice to take a year off, and an even worse one to not go (once again, for the majority of people this is true).

    College is a time where you still have a buffer from the real world. You have structure, advisors, freedom to explore classes, and for many people you get to sleep in late and meet lots of new people. One year at college is going to teach you more than a year farting around “finding yourself” when you are still a snot nosed 18 year old, you just started driving a year or two ago and you’re suddenly going to be mature enough to find yourself by taking a vacation? You have four years to grow as a person, learn more than you ever dreamed of, and have a ton of great experiences in school. College, if nothing else, is a buffer from the real world while you establish yourself and grow as a person. And to those worried about college debt, do well in high school to get scholarships, go to a state school, apply for random scholarships, and work when you can even if it is only on breaks. If that still isn’t an option, go to a community college for as long as possible and then commute to university, you will still get some great experiences, and save a TON of money.

    Also, if you think exploring your self and vacations will be a good learning experience, Great! Do them WHILE in high school, why do you suddenly have to graduate and then take a year off? During your summers off volunteer somewhere where you can get a lot of cool experiences like habitat for humanity, get a cool job not just ringing up customers at Walmart, do all of those in the 2 months you have off in high school, and then when you graduate, you can go right to college and be vastly more experienced and mature than your peers. Do these things when you’re a minor and aren’t going to do anything than sit around in the summer and work a crummy job making minimum wage anyway. One example of a great thing to do in high school is that my bosses son (15) is signing up for some trip where him and a group of students are “ambassadors” of America’s youth and go on a two week trip through Europe and its capitals where they get to see their governments in action. You want more opportunities, then try taking community college courses while in High School. For example I know a 16 year old girl taking summer courses at a community college and you know what? For less than a grand a summer that girl is going to have tons of experience, a great application for a university, and go into her first year of college with a huge buffer of credits to really explore what she wants to do. There is a huge array of opportunities to those in high school, waiting until you graduate just makes it harder to get back to school, easier to make life altering mistakes in the “real world”, or the pitfall of getting trapped into the working lifestyle.

    And on the topic of degrees, the majority of you won’t use your degree in the field that you choose, but it is important to have. You’re statistically likely to earn more money, it is easier to get a good job, and it is probably the best four years you’ll have, even those students who I have met who were working fulltime and going to school full time had a great time.

  39. Michael says:

    Don’t declare a major the summer before college – the economy was lousy, my father worked in employment services for a state agency, the economy was lousy and I was hyper-aware of “employability”. About 15 months out from graduation I realized I probably should have majored in something else. I got a job in my field fairly quickly but eventually more coursework and a masters took me to a career that is more fulfilling.
    There is the danger of never going to school at all if you work a year after High School but hard work can also make you appreciate school. Doing your first year or two in a Community College can do the same; you will be attending classes with young people as well as older folks who have been kicked in the teeth by lack of education or marketable skills, or who just made bad choices or got a late start. This will definitely give you an appreciation for the value of an education. CC tuition is also a good deal cheaper than 4-year colleges or universities.
    If you can, do a co-op term while you are in college. I did three for a total of 11 months. After actually working for a corporation on some major projects, college seemed so easy, and my grades really improved after the co-op experience.
    “Follow Your Passion” is good advice with this one caveat – if you grew up middle class or better and your passion is something creative like poetry or art, don’t expect to live like you did in your parents home for at least several years!

  40. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The problem is actually that many parents demand that their child go to college. To me, that’s just making decisions for your adult child, and that’s about the worst thing I can do for him because that removes the child from the decision making process. How is my child supposed to be an independent thinking adult if I’m already decreeing decisions for his adult life?

    I’m saving money in a 529 for my son – when he’s 18, the account becomes his to do with what he pleases. If he chooses to take a year off to join a volunteer corps, I’ll be the first one to applaud his decision. If he decides to go to college, I’ll applaud that, too. The point is, the decision is his, not mine – all I want to do is point out to him the benefits and drawbacks of different paths and let him decide. College is not the path for everyone, and it’s irresponsible parenting to tell your child from day one that they will go to college, period.

  41. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “If they aren’t mature enough to get anything out of college, they probably aren’t going to be mature enough to get anything worthwhile out of travel.”

    That’s completely nonsensical. Most children in America are deeply sheltered – an independent experience can be incredibly valuable at bringing who a person is into full blossom, without the pressures of college life and the requirements of good grades in a program of study that you’re not committed to.

  42. J. says:

    Corollary: don’t go to graduate school unless you have a very good reason — “the job market looks bad” doesn’t count. Also, “I’ve had plenty of summer jobs so I know what the real world looks like” doesn’t count either.

  43. Sarah says:

    I think I get what Trent is trying to say here — college is not, and should not, be the end-all and be-all of a young adult’s experience of growing up and learning more about oneself.

    I did the backpacking around Europe thing at age 20. I did it on my own and it was a wonderful experience. I did it then because I was uncertain at the time where I wanted my education to go. I was going to be making the community college to four year university transfer soon, and I was hesitant about my majors and goals. So I took a break. I got a lot out of that trip because I had studied quite a bit of European and art history, and I understood the significance and context of much of what I was seeing for the first time. (Since this is a PF blog, I should also mention that this trip was primarily self-funded and I had been working during and since high school.)

    The “break” extended when I ended up living and working in another country for three years. I saw an opportunity to live a different sort of life and I grabbed it. That was far more meaningful than any trip (and ultimately far more meaningful than my university experiences, before and after).

    If it were my kid … I’d encourage them to follow their dreams but also provide some guidance to them. Volunteering or some special job situation would be best if they feel ambivalent about starting college right off. But I don’t have kids, I don’t know what they will be like, so I’m open to what comes.

  44. !wanda says:

    You can raise your child with certain expectations and aspirations that include college. My parents would have felt like failures if their children hadn’t wanted to go.

  45. louiuse says:

    AS a guidance counsellor all I can say is ‘hear hear! Well said.

  46. Lisa says:

    I completely disagree with putting things off for a year. What can you find out about yourself or gain that you cannot find out or gain in college? Simply make sure you move away from home so that you learn how to do your own laundry, meet Lots of new people, etc. One can volunteer and travel while in school and there is all summer to try-out passions and aspirations. There is simply nothing more sheltering than being at college to “find yourself” and it can easily be cheaper than a year in Europe!
    Trent, have you been to Europe to see the American kids backpacking? It is embarrassing and frightening. There sure are a lot of drunk and stoned ones “finding” themselves (could be true in college too).
    My child will know before spring her senior year of high school if she is going to ever go to college or not. If she is college bound, I certainly hope she does not waste a year. She could get all C’s & D’s at college for a year and still wouldn’t be a waste with the education one gets “outside” the classroom (and C’s are passing!).

  47. Mariette says:

    “Most passionate careers (art, music, academia) will provide you with enough to live on, provided your definition of “enough” does not include a leased BMW or a McMansion.”

    Unfortunately the above statement is not necessarily true. For years I tried to make a “living” as an actress/writer/performance artist and it only rarely worked – I almost always had to do other jobs in order to pay my basic expenses (like eating.)

    However, that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t try to pursue their passions. The starving artist in a garret trip can be fun when you’re young, it’s an experience anyway, and I’m glad I did it (even living in an artist’s squat in Amsterdam with only a space heater and no hot water – imagine the winter – it was a very creative time though.) Most of us grow out of that though, you can only live that way for so long, then you move on.

    So passion is good, travel is also good and it is unfortunately not encouraged enough in this country. The “gap year” is an important institution in most European countries as well as Israel and some others. Taking a year out between high school and college or between college and working life is an invaluable time where you can grow as a person and really begin to understand the world in a visceral way, immersing yourself in other cultures and world views. I highly recommend it, particularly traveling beyond Europe to Asia, Africa or South America – learn other languages, other philosophies, see what it feels like to be a minority.

    Lisa, drunk and stoned backpackers are not limited to Americans, nor is that behavior limited to backpackers – ever been to a frat party, or been on the beaches of Florida or Galveston during spring break? That’s far, far scarier.

  48. Marcy says:

    Start by traveling with the kids to other countries. It will teach them how to be smart while abroad. It’s a scary world out there and you nevewr know what a group of 18 year olds are going to get themselves into. I went overseas by myself for the 1st time during my mid 20’s. But my family went on several trips to mexico, europe, etc. beforehand. It really taught me how to be a savvy traveler, how to comunicate with people who you can’t understand, and they are probably calling you a stupid American (believe me on that on. I have talked to many people fron other countries, in other countries, who resent our influences such as mcdonalds and think we are a bunch of spoiled brats). There are gypsies, who will rob or scam you, and men that will try to get young girls to go hang out at their flats, etc. Don’t just thow them in and expect them to sink or swim. A year in Europe is a long time anyway. Why not find a university in Europe so they can find themselves while working toward their degrees? There are some fairly inexpensive institutions where they could live in a dorm, spread their wings in a slightly safer environment.

    I think the main thing here is providing an environment that will foster their self actualization or “finding themselves”. It’s really a much more complex process than backpacking across Europe. This gives them life experience, and may indirectly lead to finding themselves. Depending on various psychological factors, many people never really find their true self. Exposing them to culture, giving them oportunities to explore areas they are interested in, and encouraging them to do what they feel is right will be more help than anything. On the other hand, many kids who are not expected to continue their education see it as a ticket out. I would not hand them the account at 18to do with it whatever they want, the things that are important at 18 are not important at even 20 or 25 and so on. They may go for years and then decide they have found their calling. And then what? You need to expect something out of them, just don’t try to make the choices for them. I was lucky to have a college fund set up for me and at 18 I was living on my own and more responsible than some @18 but decided to take a break and a few years later, found there was no chance without a degree. I went back and struggled with that 1st semester. decided to take less classes and it was much better. Belive me, it’s hard to take time off. I think this can actually be less helpful in the long run. And for some, it’s better to wait until they are independant students, espeically if their parents make too much money.

    And there are other things to consider. Encoraging them not to sow their wild oats is important. I know so many girls who got bogged down because they had children before they were really mature enough, had the resources to support children and other issues. A lot of times they just don’t realize. And a lot of young men end up fathering a child, and are stuck with someone they were only looking to have fun with and vice versa. And then they start to realize that their morals and goals in life don’t line up. But what do you do? Live off the state? Say “I love my kids…I hate my kids…I love my kids…” It hapened to just about all my friends and they are stuck in poverty when they could have waited a few years. There are so many things to consider, and it’s going to be different for every young adult. However, college is really the way to go. Even many entry level jobs that don’t pay much more than minimum wage want a degree and some experience too. This is why it is wise to let them decide what they want to do, but if you don’t expect them to do their best, they might not. And at 18, they really can’t decide for themselves, they are just not mature enough, they don’t understand the realworld.

  49. Lisa says:

    Mariette, I did point out that drunk and stoned happens in college too. My point was that it is ‘safer’ too be drunk and stoned in Iowa City rather than Mexico City. I know well that juvenile behavior is not limited only to Americans, but since I am American, they are the ones I find embarrassing when I am overseas.

    I like your idea of traveling after college & before work. That added maturity and knowledge one gains from putting travel off till after (or during) college has value.

  50. sdf says:

    wut a terrible post

    1. you should go to college right out of hs if you can get to any respectable college, if not, putting some joke state school, community college on ur resume will get u no real value in the future, just something to put my coffee on. make urself useful and go work in construction or some other blue collar job.

    2. finding urself is a joke, this pt should only apply to people who are smart enough to go to a good college but need money to do so. highly worth it, it’ll pay dividends your whole life. ur family wont likethat u went to ‘find urself’ if they have to chop firewood to heat their home

    3. “you need to major in X because that’s the only way you’ll make $40K straight out of college.” it really sucks if you picked something u didnt like in college to make 40k, 40k is sad. do something u like but be smart cuz you can’t live w/o money, or start a family, or save much like this site tells u to.

  51. Dan says:

    Wow, I gotta agree with “sdf” – who apparently went to a “joke state school”.

    “Finding Yourself” is a joke. This is not 1969. At best it is self-indulgent BS. At worst it is an excuse for sloth and failure.

    When my kids graduate they have 2 choices – the military or college. If they want a trip to Europe on me it will be:
    1. After they accomplish something – like graduating from college or finishing an enlistment.
    2. Well after they are 21 – American kids leaving the country before 21 is pretty much certain to be several weeks of binge drinking.
    3. Mature enough to fully enjoy their trip – and this is not 18.

    Even if you don’t know what you want to major in, taking 2 years of math, english, and speech won’t hurt you.

    As far as looking for something you are passionate about…That is the best case if it makes you money, but there is nothing wrong with going after more money and less passion. I could introduce you to a bunch of art (photography, music, drama, etc)majors who, in their mid 30’s, wish to god that they had got useful degrees when they had the chance.

    While it is a diminishing effect – money does indeed buy happiness, or at least lack of money buys unhappiness and stress.

  52. sdf says:

    dan, if i had those views that you agree with there is no way i went to a joke state school, or a state school for that matter. I’m sure you can also deduce i didn’t study a bs major like photography, music, liberal arts

    regardless i agree w ur parenting technique.

  53. Thomas says:

    Interesting comments! Perhaps it’s apparent we all have opinions about how life works, but this post has given me confidence in my direction…

  54. Juliska says:

    I agree with most of what Trent said. I was the first college student in my immediate family. I had no idea what I was doing, and no one to talk to to. The school counseling (both in high school and college) was not set up for someone like me. I wish I had taken a year off to really think about what I wanted to do, and had worked in the meantime – I got to college with a dim plan for my life, and went about it all wrong. More travel, more play, more experimentation (with classes and majors, silly!) would have done more for me than grimly sticking to my nebulous “plan.” I went to college because I had been told by teachers that’s what I should do – once there, I wasted a lot of time and overlooked many opportunities. Now there is support for “first generation college students,” but I was very much on my own. I have a respectable job, but not really the life I want. That’s why I read this website – to make the leap from where I am to where I want to be, decades late.

  55. Mule Skinner says:

    How long should you wait? I discovered my passion at age 27.

  56. Career changer says:

    I took some college courses at age 19. I was bored and it did not interest me. I worked my way through a few jobs and then through a mediocre successful sales career because I valued income over education or pursuing my passions. I was married, had a nice house, a surprisingly high net worth for being in the mid-20’s and was miserable.

    I got divorced, sold the house fro a nice profit, then spent 3 years of my life in some more sales jobs and was at ground zero in life. I went back to school at age 29 and finally figured out my path: exactly what I was taking classes for at age 19.

    I needed to learn a lot of things before I got back to my real path. I have the insight, maturity and skills I did not have at age 20.

    College wasn’t for me at 20. It is for me at 34 and looking forward to finally finishing my degree and doing something I enjoy.

  57. Eli A. says:

    One of my chief complaints with college was the bitterness that seemed to affect a large part of the student body, and some of the (younger) faculty. Yes, I do mean bitterness. A large part of this was financial–Berkeley (the city) is prohibitively expensive, and there’s frankly a glut of well-educated professionals who are underpaid. Many of the students were incapable of deep thought–unsurprising because of their age–but I think that led some of the more introspective students to feel isolated. Imagine being the only student in your psychology class who read Dostoevsky–or Stendhal, or James Joyce, or so on–for pleasure, at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. Imagine if, after film or literature class, you catch up with one of the other students and attempt conversation–and get an earful of jargon or an almost mind-boggling shallow comments like “I thought it was cute!” Imagine trying to express these feelings, and getting the inevitable comments like “Oh, you think you’re so great!” and so on. Meanwhile, everyone is telling you these are “the best years of your life.”

    I think that college is a good idea if you’re in the right program, or, barring that, that you’re clear about why you’re going. If you don’t really want to be there, you’ll subtly sabotage yourself. I saw lots of students acting like they were in “Thirteenth Grade,” and others wasting the best years of their life in soul-draining minimum wage jobs. There are other options. Wouldn’t it be better to take an internship, or a series of internships over a year or two-year period, and listen to online lectures in your spare time?

  58. Brittany says:

    Save that backpacking trip until they have a year or two of college or living on their own under their belt! I (a single young female) took a few months off of school and traveled around Europe alone during my junior year of school and had zero problems–but everyone I met who was traveling just out of high school had horror stories right out of a “don’t let this happen to you while traveling” essay. That year or two of learning to live alone BEFORE being thrown into the stress, difficulty, and utter aloneness (and amazingness) of traveling alone makes all the difference in success levels.

  59. steve2567 says:

    Hi everybody,

    My name is Steve and I thought I would just take a minute to tell you about an amazing opportunity that I had. I’m a young high school student from Manchester, England and I wanted to continue to study in a University. Though I didn’t know where I should go, or what I should do? Then I heard about a company from Canada called Loons Can Learn. It is a company that knows of all the University and Colleges in Canada and worked with me to figure out which Universities I should apply to. It was amazing! They had a small question sheet where I told them all about my schooling plus everything that I liked and didn’t like about all the provinces that Canada has.

    After a very short time they wrote back to me and gave me a suggested list of which Universities I should apply to and which province they were in with the information of the land to go along with it. Once I had applied to all of my Universities I chose one of them and it was in the province of Ontario. I thought that I would be finished with the Loons Can Learn Company, but boy was I wrong. Once I had picked a University they came at me with advice on Immigration, where I should live, when I should take my flight, and get this; when I came over on the plane they met me at the airport and gave me a welcome package! A package which had information on Canada and the provinces, about the residence and area that they had helped me choose, how to get around the city I had picked plus different ideas for seeing it and Canada in general.

    They provided more and me with all the help that I needed. I can’t thank them enough! If any of your are even thinking of what to do after high school or where should you go I have a major push for Canada because it is the most diverse country in the world and it has every thing imaginable in Universities and Colleges. If you want to check out the website that helped me I’d be glad to give it to you ~ http://www.loonscanlearn.com ~ or if you want to contact me for a bit more information about anything I would be glad to give you my e-mail. It is steve2567@live.com

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