What I Wish I Knew Before I Went To College

Alumni Perspectives on the College Experience

A few weeks ago, I polled a few family and friends about their college experience. Let’s call them Erika and Yvonne.

What should new students know about saving money in college?

Erika: Numbers are black & white, but living is not. Part of the college experience is the social aspect, including parties, joining certain organizations, taking extra classes, traveling, studying abroad, etc.  These are the hidden costs of college that most people aren’t prepared for.

Yvonne: I think I’d just recommend balance and moderation. Stay in the moment, but do your best to set your future self up for success too.

Would you do it again? 

Erika: Yes, I would do it again. I enjoyed school and learning, but I would definitely change some things like securing an internship and studying abroad.

Yvonne: I’d definitely recommend living on campus the first two years if you’re able. Even though I hated college, living on campus was hands down the best experience I’ve had. 

Would you attend the same university? Why or why not?

Erika: No. I liked where I went to college, but I would’ve gone out of state.

Yvonne: I still would’ve gone to the same school even though I didn’t like college. I wasn’t ready to move out of state quite yet. 

Would you approach college the same? 

Erika: No. My knowledge about college was very limited. As a first generation American, having parents from the islands, and as the first in my family to attend college, I didn’t have any insights about college. You were just supposed to apply in state and go if you got in.

Now knowing the ways some employers only recruit from top tier schools, and knowing that sometimes just having that specific college on your resume may give you a leg up, I would have made different choices.

Yvonne: No. If I could do it all over again, I would have challenged myself to take classes outside of my comfort zone, my initial interest, and my existing skill set. I would’ve devoted more time to STEM-related and money-related (Economics, Finance, Accounting) classes. 

Also, I also would’ve found internships in different career fields so I could have more experience in different industries, but also so that I could determine which field best fit my long-term goals and personality. 

Finally, I would’ve researched graduate programs more carefully and would’ve been more strategic about specific programs and the physical location of the schools themselves.

Are you satisfied with your degree (in terms of career trajectory, professional experience, etc.)?

Erika: Yes and no. I am glad I have my degree, but I’m unhappy with my career trajectory. I wasn’t prepared or didn’t utilize my career center enough in college to seek out better professional opportunities.

Yvonne: No, but that’s my own fault. I just wasn’t career-focused. I blindly assumed that because I was a good student, I’d just always be successful.

I never decided on a career plan or a career path. I just jumped from job to job. Looking back, I definitely should’ve partnered my degree with something more practical, done more exploration, and developed a more marketable skill set. 

Did you attend graduate school? If so, when and why did you choose to?

Erika: No, I didn’t attend grad school and wasn’t quite sure if I fully understood the benefits of it.

Yvonne: Yes.

My parents didn’t go to college, so I didn’t completely understand what I was supposed to actually get out of it, and by extension, when or why graduate school would be necessary. My family really wanted me to be a lawyer, so I thought I’d eventually go to law school (which I did for a short while, sadly), but that was the extent of my preparation. Long story short, I didn’t have a clearly defined plan.

What are some skills, programs, or courses, etc. that might have saved you money in school? 

Erika: I think learning how to save at an early age at home is a skill most people entering college should know. Also, applying only to schools they truly want to attend so they are still happy with whichever school they attend, if it’s based on how much scholarship money is being offered.

Yvonne: First, I would’ve taken more Advanced Placement (AP) exams in high school so that I could earn more college credit before I enrolled. I only took one test, but was able to earn 3 college credits. Believe it or not, those credits saved me about $3,000- $4,000 during college.

Second, I should’ve taken financial-literacy related courses. I just assumed that because I was responsible, I’d have nothing to worry about. I assumed I’d get a decent job after college because I was such a hard worker, and things would be fine. I had no idea that I’d struggle so much professionally for more than a decade after graduating.

Finally, I would’ve spent more time meeting and working with professionals in different industries so that I wouldn’t flounder around afterwards, enrolling in expensive, unnecessary programs. 

Would you approach financial literacy and money management the same? 

Erika: Yes, although I got sucked into the credit card trap, I paid my bills and was decent with my money.

Yvonne: I’m pretty responsible with money, but I did use a credit card to pay for unexpected expenses every now and then. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have gotten a credit card at all.

I had no idea that textbooks would be so expensive! If I could do it over, I’d never buy the newest edition of anything, and I’d always get the syllabus as early as possible to start hunting for discounts.

I remember taking a religion class where the textbook itself cost $160! I had five other classes back then and my textbooks for that semester were between $1,500-$2,000! My lord!

What are some things entering college students should know about the costs of college?

Erika: New students should have a mindset for the long run/bigger picture that they may have to sacrifice going out in order to save for studying abroad, e.g. They should look at how to cut costs, rent textbooks instead of buying, and only use their car for off campuses runs. Things like this. 

Yvonne: Hidden school fees and “associated costs” come out of nowhere and add up fast! Before you enroll, figure out how many credit hours you need to graduate, and see if you can earn college credit (either before you enroll, or at another—cheaper—university) while you’re enrolled in college. 

Save as much money as humanly possible, and create a budget from day one. Your future self will thank you. I also recommend starting an emergency savings account, especially if you won’t be able to earn much money during school.

If you have a specific talent or marketable skill, start a side hustle and save any money you don’t use on tuition or books.

In general,what advice would you give to new college students about the overall college experience?

Erika: Live it up! It will be one of the best times of your life. Take advantage of everything: study abroad, travel, and join different organizations and clubs. Get an internship or two before you graduate; this is so very important! Get to know your professors also.

Yvonne: Everyone’s college experience is a little different. For me, the academic coursework (at least during year 1-2) were very similar to what I learned in high school.

In college, most of my classes had less students than my high school classes, so we were all able to have a little more individual attention from the professor—if we wanted it. I remember having a Latin III class that only had 4 students in it. FOUR! I dropped that class in a heartbeat. LOL. 

For me, the living experience was also drastically different. I lived on-campus and had never lived near or with so many people my own age, which was a really fun experience! I also had more responsibility over my own schedule, work, and time—which was a new experience for me.

Things that were the same? For the most part, a lot of the coursework and the look and feel of many classrooms (but definitely not all) were the same. 

Things that were different? The way professors interacted with students, how serious students were about learning and how much they already knew before they came, the level of individual responsibility (housing, paying bills, creating my own class schedule, etc.). These were all really different. 

Any other recommendations for high school seniors and new college freshman?

Erika: With today’s technology and social media, you have a lot more power in creating your destiny and you need to utilize this more to your advantage.

Yvonne: First, talk to as many people as you can, but try not to get overwhelmed with all the feedback.

Second, if you’re a first-generation student, seek out professionals who’ve had a similar background. If your family has university experience, try to specialize early (to the extent that you want to or that you can).

Third, respect your family, but know that your professional and academic journey is your own. You need to be willing to take chances and calculated risks, but it’s good to have a clear plan in place.

If they’re paying for college—listen to them! Try to find a happy medium between satisfying their goals and appeasing your desires.

If you’re responsible for college yourself, learn as much as you can. Study abroad, do internships and externships. Make colleagues of your professors, and figure out early whether graduate school is for you. You can save yourself a lot of headaches, stress,and money if you know this early on—the sooner the better. 

It’s definitely who you know. Develop meaningful relationships with as many people as possible. 

Get organized NOW. Develop a system for keeping important documents, managing expenses, and saving relevant data.

Thanks for sharing!

What was your college experience like? Any tips for current students? Let us know in the comments.

Author: Anj.

Hi! I'm Anj. Thanks for visiting my page. I'm an aspiring writer, former teacher, and Houston native. I've worked in education for more than 15 years. This blog was inspired by (1) my first year teaching experiences and (2) my lovely student loan debt. Feel free to connect if you'd like to guest post about personal finance.

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