Alex wrote me this short and sweet email which I almost declined to answer because it was so brief and general. But then I thought, hey, maybe the high school folks out there getting ready for college need a little bit of a primer on what to worry about and what’s not worth stressing over.
So here goes.
I’m a junior this year and i’ve slowly grown to realise how stressful college pressure from parents, teachers, and also myself can be. i haven’t even completely decided what i even want to major in. i’ve taken multiple online tests and every single test i’ve taken has come up with either arts, media arts, or culinary. I’m officially stuck. what’s your greatest advice for where i go from this point now?? (help)
Succinct, but there’s a lot under the surface there.
Yeah, I know the process is much more stressful than it used to be, because it’s very competitive out there.
Competition is tough on parents, too, because of course they’re hoping you’ll get tons of scholarships and financial aid so that they don’t have to take a third mortgage on their house just to educate you. And if they’re like a lot of people with college-bound kids, they’ve still got a lot of debt of their own they haven’t paid off. Plus, their own parents are getting close to that nursing-home age and they’ve gotta look after them, too.
Stressful times indeed.
However, it shouldn’t have to be that way for you. I mean, for you, college is the fun part. Yeah, it’s hard work sometimes, but it’s still supposed to be fun.
It’s also true that the years leading up to college — your junior and senior years — are “critical” in that what you do during those years will have some impact on how your college life (and by extension, your career) turns out.
OK, so that’s the stressful part. Now, here’s the less stressful part.
You don’t have to know EXACTLY what to do right now. You don’t have to know where you’re going to go to school, and you certainly don’t have to know what you’re going to major in, and good GOD, you definitely don’t have to have your career chosen at 16 years old.
Let’s use a traveling metaphor, shall we? Let’s say we’re on a road trip across the country, starting in New York and driving to L.A. Some serious things are going to happen in L.A., important things.
But for now, you high school students — you’re in, like, rural Pennsylvania. You don’t have to white-knuckle the steering wheel and start having a panic attack in rural Pennsylvania about the highway exit you’ve gotta take in Los Angeles. JUST CHILL AND KEEP THE CAR ON THE ROAD. That’s all.
What does that mean? It means: Study hard and get the best grades you can. Don’t drop out of school. Don’t get a DWI. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone else pregnant.
On college applications, write the best essays you can. Don’t smoke weed (if you want to, there’s plenty of time to try it later, believe me. And who knows, it might be legal then.) If possible, get a part-time job and try hard to do good work while you’re on the clock.
Study. Get A’s and B’s if you can, and keep C’s to a minimum. Bring D’s up in a hurry and don’t get F’s. Don’t ride with your dumb-shit friends who drive drunk or high (again, if you insist on trying this, there will be plenty of opportunities to do so later).
Don’t get in fights (with fists or worse) if you can help it. Sooner or later, both the winner and loser of a fight regrets that the fight ever occurred. The relatively small percentage of people still gloating about fights they won in high school are some of the saddest and loneliest adults you will ever encounter.
If you can follow that general advice, you will probably get into college just fine. I haven’t studied this, but I think the things that most often derail otherwise college-bound students are pregnancies, car wrecks, and jail.
The hardest of these to avoid is car wrecks. We all get in them, and often they aren’t our fault. Drive carefully and you’ll minimize your risk. I’m not joking. As a father, I’m 50 times more worried about my kids being in a car wreck than I am of them not doing well in school or getting into college or whatever.
I think everyone reading probably already knows how to avoid unplanned pregnancies and jail, so I’ll skip a detailed description.
So, that’ll get you into college. Is it necessarily enough to get you into the most highly selective college? Maybe. Maybe not. Does getting into the most selective college make a giant difference in how happy your life will be?
Please don’t take this as a license to screw around and do nothing your senior year, because I don’t want to answer 500 emails from pissy parents. But honestly, no, I don’t think it does.
Are your chances of making a lot more money throughout your career increased by going to an Ivy League school? Sure. If you don’t go to an Ivy and opt for a state or even a regional college, alongside students who clearly couldn’t hack it at tougher schools, does that mean you’re bound for a life of unhappiness and depression? Of course not.
Don’t get me wrong — there are no absolutes in life, no guarantees. But almost every person I’ve ever known who went to school and worked hard and pursued something they thought they’d enjoy eventually ended up with at the very least a job, and often a job they enjoyed.
Some of the happiest people I know went to schools you’ve never heard of in majors that are considered “noncompetitive” (that is, easy). And I think we’re all already familiar with the thousands of hypereducated hyperachievers on, let’s say, Wall Street, making millions of dollars whose spouses leave them because they’re never home and whose children see their faces once a month for any length of time. And, consequently, they grow old alone and die miserable.
Nothing against hyper-achievement, folks, if that’s what you’re after and that’s what gets you up in the morning. I’m just saying, there’s plenty of room for everyone in the world to be happy, and that includes C students at state colleges. And everyone in between.
But it’s hard to let those plans develop and grow if you’re in jail or dead or raising an infant at 15.
Take care of those three, and you’re keeping your car on the road, steady as she goes, until it’s time for bigger decisions.
— That’s all I’ve got today. Comments? I’m sure there will be plenty today. Leave ’em below.