10 Do’s and Don’ts for Choosing a College That No One Ever Tells You
Around this time each year, an old person who attended college in the 60’s or 70’s will fart out a column or a list of advice telling you how to pick your school. These columns are normally woefully untethered to reality—they don’t address the biggest issue affecting kids considering college right now (more on that later), and they typically place an emphasis on things that sound good in commencement speeches, like choosing a school for its recreation programs, or its study-abroad programs, or its willingness instilled in graduates to sound smug when giving the name of your SWEET DEAR ALMA MATER in 30 years. Etc.
This year’s offender is Frank Bruni of the New York Times. Bruni’s column on Sunday turns the college search into a subjective choice based on being “yanked” out of your comfort zone. And I’m paraphrasing here, but he says that traditional “factoids”—like percentage of applicants a school takes, which school has the best alumni network, and how much money graduates make on average—matter; just not as much as studying abroad, or finding a college in a big city if you’re from a rural area. (No, seriously, that’s a criteria.)
The dumbness of the column isn’t his fault, really. Bruni is just regurgitating the same list of advice which comes out every winter and which is only applicable to, maybe, 1% of the high school student population. This 1% is wealthy, very intelligent, typically has gone to a competitive prep school, and has the luxury of picking from a wide variety of out-of-state schools. For everyone else who wants to be set for the job search after school and kill it socially while there, being asked to take into account things like what guest speakers schools attract is utterly asinine.
This is where we come in. The deadline for many schools came last week, so the choice near for a lot of high school seniors. And as an appropriately irresponsible bro just out of school who saw and made my share of mistakes in the college search, here’s the advice you need:
DO: Make debt one of your primary concerns.
This is the main gripe I have with Bruni and other writers of that ilk, so this will make up the largest part of this column.
Picking a school based on your feelings as you walk around campus is all well and good, but the reality is that if you don’t consider the finances of the matter (if your parents aren’t covering it all, that is), then you’ll be screwed in your 20’s—stuck under a mountain of debt that is fucking crippling the lives of people I know who are just out of school. The average student debt is $26,500. There are 64 colleges where 90 percent of graduates have debt. The numbers on the matter are staggeringly high. (I would make a joke here, something like, “Hey, they’re higher than Snoop Dogg on 4/20!” but I won’t, due to not being able to afford to take an extra class on creative writing which caused me to never learn to write a decent metaphor. Maybe this is Rick Reilly’s problem.)
Then, after you’ve collected the bills and written a document signed in your blood to that strumpet Sallie Mae, you make the choice to go to law, business, or med school? 1. Your next few years are really going to suck, sorry. 2. For law, at least, there’s no real guarantee that you’ll have the job you want waiting for you when you get out. 3. You’ll find yourself crushed by even MORE debt. I have a friend who is paying $2,500 a month just for the pleasure of getting his JD. That doesn’t include what he still owes for the undergrad education.
People unfortunately can’t overlook this anymore. It has to be a top priority for picking a school from now—just as much, or higher, than the touchy-feely crap. Your 20s and 30s are at stake here. How else are you going to be able to afford all the fun shit everyone is else is going through at that age, like overpaying for dates and buying Advil in bulk for the increasingly brutal hangovers?
Bottom line: the expensive school you got into may not be the best bet.
Which goes hand in hand with…
DO: Strongly, strongly consider your state school.
Thought experiment: You’re a high school senior and you consider yourself a good writer. (Dork.) You’d like to do that one day. So you look at schools nationally recognized as places where aspiring writers go—Brown, liberal arts schools like Williams—and you decide to go to one of the 50 grand-a-year spots because they’re the best, and they’ll really further your career.
Then, you get to the college and its writing classes, and you immediately smell the heaping piles of horse manure that waft from its ivory towers, and you want out. A new degree, a new career, whatever…. You just can’t take one more hipster saying “I feel Walt Whitman actually meant this…” while picking at an arugula salad. But the problem is, you’re stuck in this school that you solely picked because of the career you wanted when you were 17.
Herein lies the appeal of the state school. It’s large enough that odds are, if you pick a new major, it’ll have a program that is quality and that fits your needs. And if you’re smart and at least make an attempt to do your work, you’re not really screwing yourself over long-term by choosing public over private. Princeton economist Alan Krueger has now conducted two studies that prove that students with similar characteristics who went to an Ivy League school versus a state school ultimately earn the same amount. And like I said before, you won’t be stuck with as much debt.
Plus, let’s face it: Girls are WAY hotter at state schools. Krueger hasn’t run the numbers on that yet, but BroBible has. Informally.
DON’T: Care about the tours.
On one beautiful spring day, my school had a concert. I got drunk on our quad and bonged a beer while some washed-up ’90s alternative band played in the background. I think it may have been Sugar Ray. After I finally completed the bong, I looked up, holding back the slightest urge to vomit, and noticed a tour group had stopped five feet in front of me. The parents looked horrified. A couple of high school bros, though, had that look that you see in pretty much every college movie ever when a younger kid comes to visit his older brother. The one that’s always accompanied by that conversation: “This is CRAZY, man!” “Nah, dude. It’s just college.”
There was nothing special about our drinking or even our school hiring Sugar Ray to come play the school. (Sorry, McGrath.) But the awesome scene on campus—from the girls in sundresses, to the perfect weather, to the music, to the casual debauchery—could have been more than enough to swing the high school bros’ decisions. Which is an unfair bias, because the week before, they would have visited when it was snowing and everyone looked pissed off about midterms.
Don’t place a lot of stock in what you see on tours. They screw up your decisions, and you always want to go to the school that you toured first, or, better yet, got drunk at first. You should even feel comfortable applying to some schools without visiting them.
DON’T: Worry about the big size of a school.
College is much smaller than you think. Freshman year, your social circle is people you interact with in class (very few), people who live near you in your dorm (a few more), and people you meet out (a number that shifts constantly based on the largely incorrect whims of your alcohol-soaked memory). Your friends and acquaintances grow each year, but ultimately, unless you’re Van Wilder, you’re not going to know or want to know a massive number of people just because you go to a big school.
Basically, if the idea of going to a place with 50,000 people gives you pause, remember that it can be as small as your antisocial tendencies want it to be. Plus, the bigger the school, the less chance you have to run into THAT girl you never want to see again. You dog.
DO: Keep the party scene in mind.
Unless you’re going to Liberty University, you’re going to be able to find a party. But what kind of party scene are you looking for? Exclusively Greek? With an emphasis on the bar scene? Freshman friendly? It’s really not hard to find this information, and if you want to be socially active, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. If you don’t want to go to a Greek-heavy school, don’t go to Vandy or many of the other Southern schools for that matter. If you can’t take the thought of going to a school without an active ganja scene, go to Colorado, or whatever. Because, like it or not, this does matter.
An addendum: Don’t be that asshole who talks about what fraternity he’s going to join on Day 1 of school. Really, don’t do this. Just keep your findings hidden, Bond, and go with the flow when you get there.
DO: Resist the message board temptation.
There are many, many message boards that claim to have current students giving the lowdown on what their college is like. These boards are heavily, heavily trafficked by high school juniors and seniors. The problem, though, is that none of them paint an accurate picture, because, let’s be honest—who, really, cares enough to go on College Prowler and forcefully tell a 16-year-old what the top five fraternities are of his school?
I guess these boards tell you what SAT score to shoot for… But I can’t see many uses besides that.
DO: Consider how your personality will take to this school.
Colleges like to say that you go there to change your personality for the better—that you’re matured and molded by the campus, the faculty, and your esteemed peers. The reality, for the first couple of years at least, is that the freedom and opportunities it provides will bring out your better qualities and really, REALLY bring out your worst qualities. If you eat shit in high school, you will gain 30 pounds in college. If you’re an irregular gym guy in high school, you will not go to the gym in college. Without any of the constraints that kept you acting like a normal human being when you’re 17—7 a.m. wakeup times, sports teams, etc.—it’s up to you to know how to keep yourself functional. J. Camm went south because he knew he was lazy and wouldn’t get out of bed to go to class in cold weather. A friend went to a military school because he knew he couldn’t handle literally always having a guy willing to get blacked-out with him. Another went to school at the beach because he knew the weed would be cheaper there. (I guess that applies.)
Know yourself, and choose accordingly.
DON’T: Go to the same school as your parents, friends, or girlfriend.
This should go without saying, but no one really cares that your alma mater parents made sure you were a ball boy for the basketball team when you were 8. In fact, they probably think you’re a douchebag. And if you’re going to a college to be with your girlfriend, I hope she somehow hooks up with Johnny Football. Even if he has to fly out to meet her.
DO: Go somewhere you can major in something you’re good at.
This is only going to get more important for guys in high school now, but the only majors that seem to be paying off are STEM majors. FUCKING LAME, I know, but it’s important to note: If you’re good at science now, you’ll probably not suck that much at it in college, so pre-med isn’t a bad idea. If you’re good at math, there’s plenty of engineering spots for you. And if you’re just okay at math, there’s economics.
If you’re not good at any of the above subjects, fine. Get a decent GPA and make sure you know people by the time you graduate. But the bottom line is that it’s going to start to get harder and harder to take jobs in desirable fields unless you’ve shown some sort of competency in numbers. If you’re good at them, don’t just immediately turn your back because you burned through “The West Wing” on Netflix and you’re now convinced you’re the next Josh Lyman.
DON’T: Worry about your decision after it’s done.
90 percent of all people who go to college fucking love it. Once you make the call, don’t question it. Because you’re a lucky bastard that you’ve got those four years in front of you.
Post-Sad appears every Tuesday.