It used to be controversial to say that college is a rip off. At this point, I think the arguments have reached the mainstream. The problem is that, while some kids win the intellectual lottery, it’s too risky for most kids to skip out on the credentials.
So the question is: how can you make the most of the fact that you are going to college at a time when most people think college does not prepare you for the next step in your life?
Here are seven things you can do right now:
1. If you’re taking out loans, transfer to a cheap school.
Believe it or not, there is no undergraduate degree that is worth taking out student loans to complete. This is true even for the Ivy League: Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton, found that the indicator of whether someone will be a super achiever is not whether they attended Harvard or Princeton, but whether they applied. So the act of seeing yourself as a high achiever is more valuable than taking out loans to attend a high achiever school.
Here are many other arguments as to why you should not take out student loans for college. And Zach Bissonnette wrote my favorite book on the topic. But the bottom line is to figure out how to transfer to a very cheap school right now. Because the biggest thing you can do to preserve your ability to land a job in the future is to keep yourself debt-free now, so you can afford a job that does not pay well.
2. If you’re rich, get your parents involved.
For those of you who have rich parents, expensive schools are a possibility. I, for one, am a big fan of using the money you would have spent on college and instead, start a business. Even if you fail, the failure will do more to prepare you for your adult life than college will.
But if you’re not going to take that advice, what’s the best way to make sure you grow while you’re at college? The answer, according to the educators themselves, is that you need to rely on your parents. The value of college is personal growth, but that value is hard to get to, according to Richard Arum, professor at NYU and author of the book, Academically Adrift, He writes that “No actor in the system has the student’s growth as their primary goal.” So Arum argues that parents need to take a bigger role. Which, finally, is a seal of approval for helicopter parenting. (Which I have said all along is great for kids to have.)
3. Start looking for an internship.
Look, you can tell me you are at college for the love of learning. But if you really love to learn you can do it your whole life, every free hour you have. But not if you starve to death. Which is why recent grads say one of their biggest regrets about the time they were in college is that they didn’t get good internships.
According to Vault, 90% of students graduating from college have had an internship. So it’s not like a leg up on the competition if you get one. Getting one is just surviving.
If you want a leg up, you need to get a good internship, and most of those get locked up in the fall. That’s right. Before winter break, most of the people who are going to get great internships have already spent tons of time making the perfect application and sending it in.
So get moving now to line up a good summer job for next year.
4. Invent jobs for yourself.
Actually, you don’t need an internship to build a resume. Start and sell a company. That’s a great way to look like a college prodigy without even having rip-roaring success. Also, start adding bullets to your resume by making up projects for yourself.
You do not, for example, need permission from Nike to do a social media campaign. You can write a great tweet and link to a page on Nike’s site. Then you can count the retweets. And here’s what it looks like on your resume: Designed and executed a social media campaign for Nike.
In the interview, when you have to talk about what you did, talk about how you decided to drive traffic to that page, and how to quantify success by counting retweets. You’ll sound smart. No one cares if you got paid to be smart once they notice how you sound smart.
5. Understand yourself.
Take a personality test. Your score isn’t going to change anymore. So change your major to match your score. Because you are likely to discover that whatever your parents raised you to be — doctor, lawyer, artist — is not right for you. That’s okay. Better you should find out now, when you can get a grip on who you are and what you can expect from yourself in the workforce.
Also, while you’re being honest with yourself, now is the time to face the fact that you have been a depressive, or neurotic, or drunkard for too many years of your life. Because many mental illnesses are largely latent until one’s early 20s. So if you’ve got it, it’s probably going to get bad in college. Investigate mental illnesses, and get help for it in college, where there’s a built-in support system.
6. Read Lolita.
Reading fiction is a great way to understand yourself and other people.
It is not cool to say there is a western canon, but I think there is a canon, it’s just different. It’s not Harold Bloom’s list, because, let’s just all admit that we did not read Thomas Kyd and Charles Lamb. The list is not fun. It is tiresome. So don’t bother with it in college.
However the idea that we have a shared frame of reference is fun. And there is a group of books that so many idea-oriented people have read that the books become part of the fabric of contemporary thinking.
And, to begin the discussion about what is the new canon, I’d like to propose we measure literature by how many people have made entries on a book’s Wikipedia page. Lolita has 2,300 changes.
Note: While researching links to support my claim that Harold Bloom is a bore, I did come across Thomas Kyd, who is on the list for writing a grisly report of a wife who poisons her husband.
Now that I grow all my own food and cook three meals a day, I wonder why more women do not poison their mate. Surely this topic should be part of the new canon. So maybe we can each read Thomas Kyd, and make an edit to the Wikipedia page.