Monday, February 2, 2009

10 Common College Mistakes

10 Common College Mistakes

College is viewed as the key to advancement in our society. Statistics about college are batted about by people who flunked statistics in college. "If you go to college, you'll make 25% more than someone who doesn't go to college!", they will chirp. So we are all encouraged to go to college so we can "make it big".

As some have noted however, statistics can be misleading. The cost of going to college, plus the four years of income lost, are often not factored into the equation. Also, just going to any college and studying anything is not going to insure you have a higher income. Our nation is full of people who went to college and have no marketable job skills to show for it - or any education for that matter. We have college graduates who cannot read and write.

The following is a list of common college mistakes people make. How did I compile this list? Simple. I just added up all the stupid dumb things that I did, and added in the stupid dumb things my friends did. It came up to 10.

It is possible to really screw up college badly. And as a college dropout, let me say this is based on first-hand experience. I managed to do OK, but it could have been a whole lot worse. You can end up flunking out of college, with bad grades on your transcript, heavily in debt, your credit rating destroyed, with no prospects for a job or career as a result. In recent years, this scenario has been made worse by credit card and student loan debt. Starting out life this way is tough, to say the least. Take a moment to read this list, if you are heading off to college. It may help you avoid such pitfalls.

Here's my list:

1. Wrong School

Too many people end up going to the wrong school. By wrong school, I mean one that doesn't cater to their interests or needs, or costs too much for the education they receive. Reputation of a school is important, as people reading your resume will recognize the name of your school, even if it is from the sports team. However, sometimes spending top dollar on a "name" school education can be short-sighted. If you can get into Harvard or Yale, hey, that's great. That sort of provenance will enhance your career - plus I hear they are good schools.

But if you are a young person starting out, and don't have a lot of money to spend on college, you may be better off with a well respected State school. Plus, getting A's in a State School may be better than graduating at the bottom of the class at Yale. Although that didn't seem to hurt President Bush, did it?

Picking a major is often difficult for young people. Many will give you a blank look and say "I don't know what I want to do with my life, so I'll just pick 'general studies' for now". MISTAKE!

Everyone has talents and interests, and young people like to play the game that they have neither. You are better off picking a direction, ANY direction, rather than picking no direction at all. As we shall see, you can change your mind at any time (and most do) so don't worry if you pick the "wrong" major.

I started out wanting to be an Automotive Engineer. This morphed into Plant Engineering with a minor in Industrial Hydraulics and Pneumatics. Later, this changed to HVAC Engineering, and then later Electrical Engineering with an emphasis on instrumentation and control theory. Then.. whoops! I became a Lawyer.

Although I changed my mind several times in the process, each earlier coursework and experience lead to another, and enhanced the overall experience. College is a lot about learning what you DON'T want to do, perhaps moreso that learnnig what you WANT to do. Most of us end up in fields far from our initial goals.

But chosing the wrong goal is better than no goal at all. If it is the wrong goal, you can learn at least that you don't want to follow that path -and learn something in the process. If you choose no goal, you learn nothing.

And when choosing a major, pick something that will eventually lead to a job. Education for the sake of education is fine and all, but increasingly unrealistic in this day and age. In the structured class society of olde England, wealthy young men from proper families could afford to go to Oxford and study the "classics" because they had no need to make a living for themselves.

In America in the 1940's and 1950's a young man with an English Literature degree could find work in publishing and even business. But today, such degrees, while worthwhile for those interested in the field, are a dead-end for most people. It may sound crass and commercial, but you need to think about where this is going and what you are going to get out of it.

Pick your school based on bang for the buck. The end goal, after tens of thousands of dollars in spending, is to have a diploma that will do something for you. For those educators out there who think this is crass, blame yourselves. The spiraling cost of tuition has made a college education something that you have to look at very carefully, on a cost/benefit basis.

Now if you are the son or daughter of wealthy parents, none of this applies to you. Just go to college, party all you want. It's not really important. But for the rest of us, who have to seek our fortune, college is a square business proposition.

If you really don't know what you want to do, taking time off might not be a bad idea, provided you do more than get a minimum wage job and your girlfriend pregnant. The fear parents have is that once you take "time off" the odds you will go to college decrease dramatically. As an alternative, consider a local school, perhaps part time or at night, where you can get basic course credits that can readily be transferred to a University or major College later on. Freshman English is Freshman English, no matter where you take it. Spending $4000 on such a course at a major university, when you are unsure of you goals, could be a mistake.

Also, College is not for everyone. Many folks graduate from lesser institutions, such as Community Colleges, with two-year degrees in things as nebulous as "general studies" or "political science" or worse. While it is good that you've demonstrated the ability to handle coursework, such degrees add little to a resume. What ends up happening is that you either go back to a "real" college or learn a craft at a Trade School.

You know, a lot of plumbers and electricians earn more than Lawyers. And the plumbers and electricians are on the golf course every day at 3:00, while the young Lawyers are hard at work until the late evening. If you really do not feel you are "cut out" for college, then cut to the chase and learn something useful. Better off learning to weld than wasting two years in "General Studies" (IMHO).

2. Too Much Debt

In the old days, the only way a student could end up in debt was through student loans. For undergraduates, the amount you could borrow was limited, based on demonstrated "need". For graduate students, this standard was based on ability to pay back. Today, they lend money until you can't find any more places to spend it. Student loans are like a crack epidemic. Many students are finding themselves saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after graduate school, sometimes with little hope of ever paying it off.

For many graduate students, life as a student is better than the subsequent life as an employee. I knew people in law school who used student loans to buy new cars and rent expensive apartments. They lived a great lifestyle, for a time. When they graduated, they found the pay for lawyers less than what they thought it would be. Suddenly, those loan payments kicked in, and they found themselves poorer as lawyers than they were as students.

If you can live on less as a student, do it. Every penny borrowed is a nickel you have to pay back. So don't borrow if you don't need to.

Since my college days a new trend has popped up. Credit card companies have aggressively recruited students on campus with credit card offers. They use tag lines and arguments like "now is the time to build your credit rating!" when in fact, what ends up happening is the opposite.

The typical student gets the credit card and quickly runs it up to the limit. A new sweater here, lunch out for friends there, and pretty soon, the student is thousands in debt. Late payment and interest charges accrue (often at 22.5% or more) and the student's credit rating is dinged - heavily.

The credit card companies count on Mom and Dad bailing out their kid, and paying off the debt, which is what happens to most middle class kids (along with a lecture from Dad). But now the student's credit rating is trashed. Upon graduation, you'll need that credit rating to get a job (yes, they check this) an apartment (yes, as a landlord, I checked this) and a car. With your credit rating shot, you are now behind the 8-ball.

Yes, it seems that "everyone" at school has a credit card. But don't fall for it. None of us can control spending with a credit card, even after years and years of hard experience. You think at 18 you can do better? The credit card companies are betting you won't.

By the way, with your credit destroyed, you will only be able to qualify for loans on the worst sort of terms. This is one reason they want you to have a low credit score. The credit industry does not make money on "good" credit score people - it rakes it in from those who have bad credit.

3. Party Hearty!

I dropped out of school in part because of drugs and alcohol. I at least lasted nearly three years before dropping out. I've seen friends drop out after their FIRST SEMESTER because of drinking and drugs.

Again, the game has changed since I was a student. Back then, the drinking age was 18, and most students came to college after the novelty of drinking beer had worn off.

Today, many students have their first drinking experience at college, and many go off the deep end. The social aspect of college can be overwhelming for many, and many lose track of the real reason they are there.

College for many is the first time they experience "adult" living. The limited freedom afforded in high school - being able to drive, experimenting with sex, having a part-time job, pales in comparison with the responsibilities of college.

Here, you have to be self-motivating and take care of yourself and think for yourself. For some, this aspect of living overwhelms the studies. Getting your first apartment, setting up house, perhaps with a significant other, living an (apparently) independent life, can be too much.

And to some extent, that is what college is partly about - the transition from childhood to adulthood. But if drugs or alcohol, or partying and socializing take up too much of your time, your studies can suffer, not to mention your emotional health.

Often drug and alcohol use is a cover for underlying emotional issues (next section) or perhaps your mind telling you that you are really, really unhappy with the school and the studies. If this is the case, consider changing majors, or perhaps changing schools. There is no point in staying at a school that isn't working out for you, and possibly flunking out, when you can transfer to another school seamlessly and start over.

4. Emotional Health Issues

The late teenage years and early 20's are a time fraught with emotional peril. As I note in my blog, your emotional state is very important from a financial point of view, as depression and mental illness can make it difficult and expensive to live.

Depression is common among teens. Don't be afraid to seek help if you need it. Most colleges and universities have counseling departments there to help you. Seek them out if you are unhappy in your studies. You may find there are alternatives you never thought of.

More serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, manifest themselves typically at this age as well. Again, there is no shame in getting help for such illnesses. It is not surprising that students have emotional and mental health issues in college - it is the norm.

Many young people also have issues with their personal lives, struggling with family issues, sexual identity, and the like. This is not an easy time, and the added pressure of exams, living independently, and the like, can really crank up the stress.

Take time to be kind to yourself. If it all seems too much, try dropping your course load until you get your head in a place you want to be. Don't feel that you have to plow through this four year process under the threat of constant failure. You are in control of this process!

As we shall see, there is life after college, even if you drop out.

5. Summer Jobs

Some young people view summer as a time to party. School is out, and you might as well have fun. While that might work for High School, bear in mind that upon graduation, you will need to show some future employer that you have at least a modicum of ambition.

Thus, getting a summer job is pretty important. Getting one in a field you are studying in, or related to one you are studying in, is important as well. Even volunteer work or unpaid internships are better than nothing on your resume.

A "McJob" might be acceptable if you need to raise money for school. But as a career enhancer, working at the Hot Dogg Hutt at the Mall isn't going to help. Some jobs are obviously better than others, and an unpaid internship in a related field to your major is probably a better idea that some low paying teen job.

Co-op schooling is also an excellent idea. In the co-op scheme, you spend half your time working at a company, and half in school. You may be able to make enough this way to pay for a substantial part of your college costs. I co-oped with General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and it was a positive experience - which later landed me a job at UTC, even though I dropped out.

Also, it is possible to work full time and attend school at night or part time. I worked at United Technologies and attended school at night - and they even paid my tuition! Later on, I took a leave of absence from the job to finish my degree - and they brought me back as a co-op! The idea that you can't "afford" school is nonsense.

I also worked my way through law school in a similar manner - working by day and going to school by night - with my tuition reimbursed by my employer. It is hard work, but not unrealistically hard.

If you can't find a job (which might be the case today) consider summer school. If a future potential employer asks what you did in the summer, you are better off saying "I took additional classes to enhance my education" than to say "I bummed around at the beach".

Summer school is a blast, by the way. The whole college is deserted and everyone seems to be on vacation, even the professors, who seem to grade higher. Since you are generally only taking one or two courses anyway (which makes a part-time job feasible) your grades are usually higher and it is easier to study.

Lowering your course load during the year and taking a summer class is a good way to boost your grade average, cut back your work load, and improve your mental health in the process.

6. Knowing How to Drop Out

Many schools, during Freshman orientation, will say things like "look to the left of you, and look to the right of you, one of you won't be here in four years!"

Dropout rates can be as high (or higher than) 1/3 in some schools. Of course, as Freshman, we all like to think it is the "other guy" who is going to fall by the wayside.

However, given the odds of this bet, you should keep a dropout strategy in mind at ALL times. It is highly likely that you will not graduate from the school you start in.

There is NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS. People, like my idiotic Father, would say things like"once you start something, you have to stick with it!" and "no one likes a quitter!". This sage advice was from a man who could not keep a job more often than we change Presidents.

Quitting a course of study you find unpleasant and not to your liking is a GOOD IDEA. If you decide you don't want to be a lawyer or a doctor, QUIT! The last thing the world needs is some unhappy doctor or lawyer who is just in it for the money, struggling to pay off student loans.

You get ONE LIFE on this planet, make the most of it. Spend your life doing something you love to do. Don't squander it doing something that you feel you "have" to do to please family or expectations. (for those of you who believe in reincarnation, the same advice applies - you will come back as a sea slug if you follow a career that you dislike).

The key to dropping out in STYLE is in doing it right. Dropping out of college won't ruin your life. It hasn't ruined mine. And that Bill Gates fellow seems to be doing all right, in spite of dropping out of Harvard (OK, bad example, he saddled us with the worst OS known on the planet). But the point is, you will come out the other end unscathed - particularly if you do it right.

First, always keep track of DROP/ADD deadlines. If you see a course that you are not doing well in, try to DROP it before the deadline, and it will not appear on your transcript. You are better off dropping the course and getting no grade than getting an "F", which tanks your GPA. In addition, if you drop before the deadline, you can get your tuition refunded. Sweet!

Second, talk to a counselor or faculty advisor. Be frank. If you are not doing well in your courses and are unhappy with your major, tell them you need to change majors - or perhaps take time off. If you can drop out of college as a PLANNED EVENT, instead as a result of academic suspension, you will not only save money, but your grade average will be better too. Plus you will feel better about the whole process. You may even be able to take leave from college and return later. The point is, you have other options than drinking yourself into a stupor - or worse.

Every year, at nearly every school, some poor student tries to do himself in, thinking that he has no other way out - that his parents will be disappointed and that he will be marked as a failure for the rest of his life. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Did I show you my BMW collection? There is life after dropping out. Quite a good life, in fact.

If you can make a seamless TRANSFER to another school or another major, so much the better. But sometimes, it may be necessary to fall back and punt. I went to work for UTC and kept at my studies at Syracuse University in their night program. Funny thing - the tuition for the night program was less than for regular students. And the courses offered were the same required parts of the curriculum that I needed to take anyway. After two years of good grades in the night program, I was able to transfer in as a full-time student.

Many schools provide such "back door" methods of entry. Just bear in mind that usually less than HALF the overall credits needed to graduate will be transferred from the previous institution. Colleges have to make their money, and when they sell you a sheepskin, they don't want to discount it too much.

Keep your dropout strategy in mind at all times. If you do, chances are you won't need it, as you'll take corrective action in your college career before the worst can happen.

7. Frat Boy!

Fraternities bear special mention as they can be real time-wasters and also lead to drug and alcohol abuse, as well as emotional difficulties. For young women, these can be dangerous places, where date rape is all too common. Frankly, there is very little good to be had from the "Greek System" as many Colleges and Universities are discovering. At best, they are gathering places for elitst snobs. At worst, they are havens for abusive behavior, both to pledges and to others (e.g., young co-eds). Fraternities routinely embarrass and bring down the reputation of their parent institutions. Rarely do they enhance them.

Fraternaties like to sell the idea that being a member will entitle you to special benefits later on in life. That the secret handshake or frat ring will land you a job at a company, if the President also was a member of the same Fraternity at a different school, 20 years earlier. Sure, that makes sense.

The very notion, of course, is absurd. Yes, it is possible that some folks may use non-business indicia in selecting business partners or employees. However, in this day and age, this is becomeing less and less so. Companies have to compete based on performance. So the fact you are wearing the old school tie is of less importance than your overall competance.

To some extent, the Frat promise is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Since traditionally most frats drew their members from a certain upper class social strata, they members would tend to be well off later in life. But this is more an effect of the pre-filtering criteria than and effect of the membership in the group. If all the group members are selected from spoiled rich kids, it is not suprising that later in life they tend to be spoiled rich adults.

Some Frats would like you to believe that they have "Exam files" that have all the answers to exams from years past - and as a result, you can get an easy "A" without studying. In some cases this is actually true. However, professors do change Exams, and woe be to the Frat Boy who memorized the answers to last year's exam, only to find that the prof decided to change the test.

Also, this sort of "learning" is self-defeating. Knowing the answers in advance is just a form of cheating. You can cheat in life and get away with it - for a while. But it has been my experience that it never works for long. Eventually, that sort of activity catches up with a person one way or another.

I knew a girl in college for example, who used to use a fraternity's answer keys to get easy "A's" in classes. When the professor said he was changing the exam this year, she would cry "Foul!" and complain to the Dean (I kid you not). She managaged to graduate with a good grade average and landed a good job with a big company.

10 years later, I ran into her. She lost the job with the big company when it became abundently clear that she really didn't know anything (you can't fake Engineering for very long). She then went to work for her Father's business, which she inherited when he died. Last I heard, it had gone bankrupt and was a hazmat cleanup site.

What was the point of her college career? Her short career? Her life? At the time in college, I was chagrined that people like her "got ahead". But with the benefit of time, I see that she never got anywhere. I feel sad for her, if anything.

I pledged a frat in college, and it was mildly amusing for a while. However, despite the pledges of "brotherhood" and "fraternitity", many of the members actually hated each other's guts. What it really boiled down to was sharing a large apartment with roommates you didn't like. For example, one "brother" routinely beat his girlfriend black and blue. The other "brothers" refused to intervene, even after the Police and Ambulances were called - on several occasions. I guess Fraternaties are like a family - a severely disfunctional one.

I was pretty disgusted by the whole deal, frankly, so I walked away from it.

8. Extracurricular Activities

Like Fraternitites, extracurricular activities can be real time bandits. While some extracurricular activities can be useful on your resume, if they are related to your field of study, it is possible to get involved in too many non-academic activities that add little or nothing to your educational career.

Yes, some are fun, and they can be a great way to meet friends. But try to pick a few or one that is most important. If extracurricular activities are cutting into your studies, your grades will suffer. Glee Club ain't worth it. I enjoyed some organized student groups in college, but they took up a LOT of time, and in the end, cut too much into my studies. They did nothing for my resume later on.

As a student, it may seem like all the other students are out partying and having a good time and never studying. And if you study, they will mock you and say "come on, let's go to a frat party and drink beer!" See my article "They're BAITING You!". Many people like to drag others down to their level - don't be tempted by it. Yes, a lot of freshmen are party animals. But remember, a lot of freshmen won't be graduating in four years, either.

9. Taking the Hard Courses

This topic should be addressed while you are still in High School. For many students, shedding hard courses begins in the 9th grade with math. Many schools do not require it after the 9th grade, so many stop taking it.

And some students will willingly take "B" or "C" level courses and get "A's" rather than take the harder "A" level courses and merely get "B's" or "C's".

For example, when I was in High School, I always was in the "A" level courses, but I never got very good grades. Meanwhile, other students who were dumb as posts were getting straight A's taking remedial Math and English - and making the Honor Roll! It did not seem very fair.

But "Dumbing Down" is never a good idea. When you apply for that first job, your college transcript is the only thing they have to go on. If your courseload is all junk courses, it says a lot about who you are and how you treated the college experience.

For example, my Brother once spend his Junior year at a very expensive University taking courses like "Drugs in Perspective" and "History of War in Films". They sat around and talked about Drugs and watched old John Wayne movies. He thought this was a riot, at $10,000 a year of my parent's money (they ran out when it was my turn for school, but that's another story, not that I'm bitter or anything).

The problem is, his college transcript read as follows: "Party boy, took easy courses that were fun, avoided all hard work and hung out instead". As a potential employer, I would look at that resume and say "this guy is a SLACKER, no thanks!" And employers did just that. He ended up having to go to graduate school in order to get qualified for a job.

And that is the tragedy of college today. For many youth, it is little more than an extension of High School, with partying and the social life taking prominence over the course work. As a result, many are graduating with no job skills or abilities, or even a basic education. Graduate School has become the College Education of today. College is the new High School.

10. Grades & Course Load

Grades are important, but not the end of the world. If you get good grades, you might qualify for a scholarship, as I learned. Taking a heavy load of courses and getting poor grades is often a bad idea, when you can take a lighter load and have more time to enjoy the course work and get better grades.

As noted above, summer school can be a good way to spread out your course load over the year and get better grades as a result. Once I discovered this trick, I was able to get nearly straight A's and also a small scholarship from the University.

Unfortunately, Universitites have these silly rules on how long it can take to get a degree, and how many courses you HAVE to take to be a "full time" student. Rules can be bent in many cases, so don't be afraid to ask, if you need the additional time or space.

Like I said, be good to yourself. No one else will.

* * * *

Again, most of these mistakes I made myself in my college career. College is important in teaching you how to think, not just what to think. It can help you land that first job and launch your career.

But frankly, just as no one cares what you did in High School once you are in College, no one cares about your College grades once you've been out in the field for 10 years or more.

Good Luck!