Advice for College-Applying Students

Now that the college application process is in full swing for you High School Seniors out there, I thought I’d do a follow-up on my Advice for College-Bound Students and focus in on providing a few insights when trying to select an appropriate college.

For those that didn’t read through the prior post, here is a tl;dr version of my college experience from a decade ago:

  • Got accepted into a few top-tier universities (including Rice) as well as the usual lineup of Texas public universities (UT, A&M, and TTU).
  • At the time much to my regret (but in retrospect, probably the smartest thing I’ve done), I decided to attend Texas Tech University under a full-scholarship.
  • Had a pretty rough transition period where I was close to transferring, but ultimately decided to stick it out and get more involved with stuff outside the classroom.
  • Wound up with a handful of degrees (both Bachelor’s and Master’s) and some incredible life experiences that shaped me into what I am today!

As you can see, my college experience – especially the application and decision-making process of where to go – was a roller coaster of emotions. I only highlight this fact to show you that I’ve been through what most of you are probably starting to experience now and, through the lens of hindsight, I feel like I can give you a few things to chew to help with your own decision making.

(1) College is what you make of it. I harped on this point in my prior post, but it is true. Opportunities exist everywhere at pretty much every single college or university out there and it’s up to you to seek them out.

(2) Educationally speaking, Bachelor’s degree coursework is virtually universal across all accredited institutions. Regardless of where you go you are pretty much going to learn the same stuff in order to get your Bachelor’s degree. This is based off of a plethora of anecdotal evidence and the fact that universities typically structure curriculum to meet accreditation requirements. As a result, the stuff you learn is fairly homogenous across institutions.

(3) The true value of the Ivy’s and other prestigious universities is that there are more opportunities per student and there is incredible social value attached with a degree from there. This makes it easier to form meaningful connections with important people and “move up the chain” faster (whether that be starting off a career a ladder rung or two higher or gaining entrance into well-known graduate programs). Other would, however, argue about this benefit…

(4) Student loan debt sucks. I wish I could shake every incoming freshman and yell this fact to them. Although I was super upset at the time, one the best thing’s my parents have done for me is vehemently refuse to co-sign on any sort of student loans. This made it difficult to secure funding at reasonable interest rates and forced me to re-examine my decision under a more rational lens, ultimately leading to my making the financially prudent decision to go where I had a full-ride.

I know all of these crazy high tuition amounts ($20-$50k+ per year) seem like monopoly money. Eventually though, you actually have to pay it back. Even if you have an incredibly well-paying job, this debt almost never gets resolved under short timeframes. I can’t stress this enough: student debt incredibly stunts your financial trajectory and really does affect your long-term goals. Because you’ll be paying off student loans early in your career, this means that you won’t be saving up for whatever future big-ticket items you have in mind. This creates a domino effect: you’ll buy a house later in life, you’ll (most likely) be married and have kids later in life, and you’ll retire later in the life. This is a very real thing and has a very large impact on your future. (In fact, I plan on doing a more in-depth post about this very topic later).

(5) Once you have your foot in the door for whatever post-college endeavor you find yourself in, no one really cares about your Bachelor degree anymore. I subscribe to the screening theory of education that a college degree’s value is not derived from the curriculum but rather from the soft-skills – stuff like grit, time management, and prioritizing – that you gain over the four years of constant deadlines and projects. These are the skills that you take to your next step (whether it’s a job or a grad degree or whatever) and once you are jumping off from that entry-job or Master’s degree, no one really cares about where you did your undergrad from.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to see what the optimal strategy from selecting an appropriate college would be:

  • Go to wherever gives you the best financial deal to minimize your student loan debt. Strive to apply for any scholarships in order to lessen the financial hit.
  • Explore opportunities outside the classroom that that university has to offer that align with your interests and what you like doing. Ultimately, make a mark with those opportunities and connect with similar people. Basically, become that big fish in a small pond.
  • If you decide to pursue a graduate school, explore universities that are well-known in whatever sub-field you’re interested in (this is the time when prestige starts to matter). If you decide to enter the workplace, best of luck! Keep in mind that because of the extra-curricular and the informal networking you developed with others, you are a leg-up in getting hired!

Anyways, just some thoughts for you to consider. Of course, this approach isn’t for everyone and there are unique situations out there, but as a whole I stand by it being the best path for extracting the most value for the least amount of cost out of your higher education.