What I Wish I Knew As a College Freshman

This past Tuesday I graduated from Ohio University with my bachelor’s degree in psychology. People asked me how it felt, and since “graduating” was marked only by turning in a final homework assignment really all I could say was anti-climatic. Four years gone and my closing thoughts are that the experience was… anti-climatic.

Graduating during the coronavirus pandemic is of course a bizarre time to be entering the workforce or doing anything of significance in your life. But the strangeness of this time isn’t really what I want to focus on, I want to get away from all the pomp and circumstance associated with college graduation and give my honest thoughts on the experience. 

So, incoming college freshmen and graduating high school seniors who are on the fence this post is for you. My real honest opinion about college. Not from people who went to college decades ago when it cost less and wages were higher. But from someone who actually knows what it’s like out there right now, here’s what I wish someone told me when I was in your shoes.

  1. You Don’t Actually Need a Degree

There’s an old statistic floating around that college graduates make a million more dollars in their career than people who don’t get a college degree. Well, that figure is decades old and the value of the dollar is less than it used to be. If you’re from an area where going to college is strongly encouraged you ought to be skeptical about the hype. Yes, a college degree is generally a good investment but like all things in life it depends on what you do with it. If you get a four year art history degree and end up working as a barista you’re probably going to fall financially behind everyone who went to trade school. In short, yes a degree is a good investment most of the time, but that doesn’t mean you can get whatever degree you want and it will just “work itself out” and you absolutely don’t “need” a degree.

  1. Beware the Liberal Arts Degree

Be extremely cautious of majoring in something like psychology, English, history, chemistry, or anything else that doesn’t teach you practical skills without having a strong plan. If you’re going to get a liberal arts degree, make sure to get good  internships and jobs throughout college or are planning to go to graduate school. Because if you’re not going to grad school and you don’t have good internships I guarantee you’re not going to have any marketable skills or anything to talk about in interviews. 

  1. Understand Most Degrees Are Based on an Outdated System

When the majority of current bachelor’s degrees were being designed over a hundred years ago the job market was extremely different. Your degree wasn’t meant to teach you anything practical since it was expected that you’d go through a long training period with your company upon graduation, so the degree was meant to give you broad generalized knowledge. Nowadays, employees tend to change jobs more frequently so company’s aren’t as willing to invest in training. Additionally, work is becoming increasingly specialized so a broad base of knowledge is not as valuable as it once was. You need to actually have some job skills when you sit down for an interview, and the vast majority of those skills are not taught in college classrooms. Only a handful of degrees such as accounting or nursing teach technical job skills, as a result everyone else should be mindful to develop their skills outside of class. 

  1. Your Degree May Not Pay Off Immediately

To illustrate this point I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been applying for dozens of entry level jobs and the majority don’t require my college degree. However, the next level up positions I’d like to be promoted to in the next five years or so often do require degrees, or at least a degree is considered an acceptable substitute for experience in the field. When I entered my degree program I thought it would pay off in four years, but be mindful when planning that you may need to be even more patient with your investment than that.

  1. Be Engaged on Campus

This point is a broader form of the common piece of advice to get involved in clubs. However, I don’t  think it’s necessary for people to join formal clubs or anything like that. I personally  love being in student orgs but what is actually far more important is to make connections with other people. How you accomplish that doesn’t really matter. I made all my friends freshman year at a one off event, I didn’t need to join clubs to meet people (though they certainly are a good way to do so). Additionally, connect with and appreciate the broader community and campus culture. Explore the local businesses, go to open mics, visit museums, or attend community events. Especially if you’ve gone away for college it’s really helpful to learn about the local area and it will help you understand, appreciate, and feel more at home in your surroundings.

  1. Make Sure You Have Your Own Definition of Success

My freshman year of college I thought I knew exactly what I wanted and I carried my overachieving tendencies from high school right to university. So I set a bunch of goals that I swiftly proceeded to accomplish one by one. I had a 3.8 GPA, got the exact job placement I wanted, was accepted into a leadership development scholarship program, completed two leadership certificates, and had two leadership positions in student orgs all by the end of my freshman year. You know what happened next? I realized none of it made me happy or satisfied and the only way I knew how to judge my own success was by conventional external measures that didn’t do anything for me internally. You’ll learn a lot about yourself over the next four years and it’s important to make sure you lean into that, you need to find out what really will make you happy and satisfied. Don’t let the collective influence of parents, teachers, friends, and network cable run your life like I did.

  1. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously or Sweat the Small Stuff

As you’re graduating high school you’re sure to be realizing how little so many of the things you obsessed over actually mattered. Don’t lose sight of that once you get to college. It may sound strange but the specific degree you get or jobs you have aren’t that important as long as you’re learning something. I’ve watched students completely lose their minds over details like what residence hall they’re going to live in. Newsflash, no matter where you wake up in the morning you are still gonna be the same person inside and that applies to pretty much all of the weird details freshmen obsess over. If you’re gonna obsess over anything, don’t make it your room theme, the hall you’re living in, or the sorority you’re rushing. Instead obsess over improving yourself and growing as much as possible instead.

  1. Grades Still Matter

On the flip side of not taking things too seriously, your grades do still matter in college! I remember in high school I was so looking forward to college and not caring about my grades anymore because everyone said it didn’t matter. Well unless you’re completely made of money you should still care about your grades. You won’t be eligible for most scholarships or internships without at least a 3.0 GPA and it isn’t too uncommon for a good opportunity to request a 3.5. While when you graduate your grades won’t be too important in the job search, the internship your good grades got you will be instrumental. Plus, accruing as little debt as possible will give you more financial freedom, flexibility, and possibly allow you to choose job opportunities that pay less but align more with your desires.

Conclusion

I’ve been a bit critical of college in this post and it’s not because I hate it or think people shouldn’t go. It’s just because I feel that people aren’t honest about the realities of what college is actually like and what a degree actually does for you. I absolutely love my school and I can’t wait to be able to visit it again and give it a proper goodbye, but I realized halfway through getting my degree that I had let the dominant culture convince me I “needed” a degree I never actually wanted. Now that being said, I wouldn’t say I completely regret it either, but you’ll probably have to ask me and see where I am in ten years before I’m completely sure. 

Realize that a degree is a great thing to have in most cases. But on the other hand plenty of people live happy, fulfilling lives, without being completely destitute who don’t get four year degrees. There are a lot of other ways to make something of yourself.

What’s truly most important isn’t whether or not you get a degree. What really matters most is that you’re living life according to your own definition of success. Don’t get a degree just because you think you have to, get a degree because it will move you closer to achieving something that you actually want.