College and Post-College Careers 101 – A Letter to my Younger Self

First off let me say, that when I took up drinking as my hobby, I had one of the worst hangovers that I’ve ever had. I let go of the hard drinking for now, and just have a glass when I’m feeling really depressed. I was saving the bottle for a happy occasion, but as I feel myself getting slower mentally and my birthday is approaching, the hope for the happy occasion has long since subsided.

To be more engaged with others when I was in a happier place when I moved back in with my parents, I volunteered to interview high school seniors as a part of my college’s alumni association. Then I was excited for the students and really wanted to encourage them on their pursuits. Now I feel like I have nothing to offer. I have failed. How am I supposed to sit across from them and explain how invaluable a college degree is, the experience, blah, blah, blah? I can’t, but I can offer the truth. I can bring them back to reality and tell them what I wish I would’ve heard at their age:

1. Where you go to college and what you study matters.
People say it doesn’t matter in the long-run, but they completely skip over the fact that a recent graduate needs to first enter the workforce before they can even think about the long-run, not to mention the HUGE amount of debt everyone but the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor will amass. (Not $30K but more like $100K, but in my case $300K when you add graduate school.)

First, where you go to college…

If you want to be able to work in any state in the United States, you’ll need to go to a school that’s respected and known in every state in the United States. You will need to look at the university rankings on USNews, Forbes, etc. This becomes especially important if you want to work on Wall Street or in Consulting, or at any other well-known financial or business institution. If that is your goal, you’ll also want to stay away from getting a graduate degree from any school whose undergraduate program is not in the top 10, with some wiggle room given for the top 20, or top state schools since there is  bitterness towards people who go to top 10 schools and more recognition that the cost of college is ridiculous when compared to the returns. That will bring down your resume and remove opportunities that you could have probably had with just your undergraduate degree.

On the other hand, building off of the bitterness towards the top 10 schools, if you go to a top 10 school do not venture out of the major metropolitan areas. Outside of the major hubs, there is a preference for local candidates from community colleges or local state schools. This preference is very strong in places like Florida which is generally seen to have a weak educational system at all levels, and neither it’s state schools or private universities are highly ranked with the U.S. (In Latin America people will say MIT and FIU in the same sentence, but then people from MIT have no idea when an FIU is, but in Latin America, you get extra points just for attending school in the US.) So if you know you want to live in Florida, go to college in Florida. You must be sure you want to stay in Florida, because your chances of leaving Florida are slim. You can compare that to degrees from state schools in California, North Carolina, or Texas, which have more national regard.

Second, what you study…

Do not major in a qualitative area. People stay study what you enjoy, and follow your dreams. If your dream involves majoring in a qualitative area, go to whatever school you want, as long as you don’t have to take out any loans. The other option is going to law school, but you MUST go to law school. Do not do what I did and delay law school for a lackluster MA degree. If your focus is on law school, you’ll need to get into a top 25 school if you want to eventually work as a lawyer. You can go to a school not in the top 25, but you should NOT take out any loans to do so, because that would be a waste of money. Taking out loans for law school if you get into the top 25 is a safer bet. Yes, it is betting.

The place for your dreams in college, are the electives, minor courses, and you extracurricular activities. You also should not choose an “easy” major so you can get a good GPA. Your GPA matters, yes, but so does your major, not the courses, but your major.

So, major in a quantitative field, especially if you are a minority. Also, learn another language, but only one, so that people do not think you want to be a teacher or a translator. No one likes an overachiever. Top 10 schools generally do not offer a major in business, so if you are looking for national mobility, consider these majors: computer science, economics, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, math, finance, or statistics. You can double major if you want, but having a double major alone is not something to brag about. Do not worry about studying abroad, nobody cares. If your foolish like me and want to live in south Florida or such similar places know for its low intellectual capital thinking that it might not be all that bad, look at the market. The locals are only going to understand what the locals know. Here, the market is tourism, real estate, business, and sales. Majoring in business, hospitality, real estate, or finance is your only option. Absolutely do NOT come to Florida or similar places with a non-standard degree, meaning, at my college, you could create your own degree. That’s not useful for Florida, as it will not be understood. Stick to the basics and what is easily understood.

2. You cannot make an investment with loans.

Going to college is not an investment in your future, it is a necessary evil and a business transition. A friend’s mother when to MIT and I am pretty sure she did not pay more then $11K for her education. Overall, I believe back then, it was a couple thousand per semester. (That’s an amazing ROI for the baby boomers.) She graduated MIT and her starting salary in an engineering role was $20K. (Notice the specific and clear major leading to the job that had the degree/major in the title.) Her starting salary was higher than the cost of her education. That is not going to happen today. I think MIT is about $50K/year, and the starting salary is probably not above $70K with 70K being generous. Total college tuition will always be higher than your starting salary. Accept it, and move on.

That being said, without a college degree, in most places, you will not even be able to be an administrative assistant. I say most places, because in south Florida, you can have a MA and work for some of the best companies in the country and be under-qualified for the role of administrative assistant. Then, in DC many interns are recent graduate school graduates.

I am not going to say do not take out a loan. (shocking) I have $300K in loans. I applied to 9 schools, and got into 8. None of the schools offered me a scholarship, and so I still got to go with my first choice, which happened to be the best out of the ones that I got into. I could’ve gone to a state school, but then my options would’ve been limited as they are now. You can decide whether you prefer to be debt free, or disengaged and always the smartest person in the room. (There’s a saying that if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.)

If you take out a loan that is greater than your expected salary, you have no choice but to major in a quantitative field as mentioned above. After all, you are also getting hands-on financial experience. (That’s a joke, no one cares about how you manage your personal finances expect for when there’s something negative in your background check. I mean, I’ve traveled all around the world, but yet I’m somehow not qualified to arrange other people’s travel… I digress…) Also, BY NO MEANS, should you be taking out a loan greater than your expected initial salary to attend a school that is not ranked in the top 50. I thought this went without saying, but from recent experience I guess it doesn’t, your starting salary will vary based on location, industry, degree type, major, and school.

So schools will tell you that college is an investment. Not true. I thought maybe it could be true, because you invest a little bit now for much more later, but if you personally have nothing when you’re 18 and are relying on credit, you’re gambling, not investing. I’ve made investments with cash, from a part of my actual salary, not based on an expected salary that was not guaranteed. Gamblers use credit to roll the dye and see what happens. With college financial aid, you’re using loans to gamble for and with your livelihood. Also consider mortgages and the housing market… With loans you are gambling. Do NOT get caught up in the word investment. Accept that the loan is a gamble, the Department of Education and Sallie Mae are loan sharks, and move on. (I mean, explain why I can still qualify for an educational loan, although I won’t qualify for a personal loan until I am 60 at the earliest??? I wouldn’t want one by then anyways…)

3. GPA might matter, but it depends.

If you want to go to a top-ranked consulting firm, you will need at least a 3.7. Go anywhere but a community college, and get a 3.7 and you will be fine. Overall, you do not want to get below a 3.2. Do not stress over the GPA, but focus on the coursework, as going about it that way will probably help your grades. Grades are about 50 percent what you actual do and 50 percent what your teacher thinks about you. Attending office hours and getting to know your professor goes a long way. Try to be genuine with it, and you might also want to get to know them a little bit more before you start speaking up more frequently in class less they view you as a challenge or a brown-noser.

For graduate school and professional school: the lower your GPA, the better your standardized test scores have to be.

4. Graduate school.

If you go to a top 10 school, do not go to graduate school right away. If you have undergraduate loans, do not go to graduate school unless they pay you. When applying to graduate school, the ranking of the undergraduate institution matters as you consider wether or not you want to attend. The same principles regarding location and major mentioned above apply to graduate school as well. You can use graduate school to relocate and enter a different field. Unless you are a business or prelaw major, only get a graduate-level degree that COMPLEMENTS your undergraduate degree.

If you go to a top 10/20 undergraduate school, your graduate school should be in the same tier otherwise your skills and aptitude will be questioned. If you attended an undergraduate school that was not ranked as high, attend a graduate-level school of a higher rank to increase your options. Especially, now, doing so will make you appear wise, as it will be assumed that you attended a lower ranked undergraduate institution to save money and that is one instance where what you do in your personal life matters for your career. You will also appear to be a hard-worker who persevered despite less opportunity, etc., etc.

 

So, to wrap this up, college is not about you finding yourself and exploring your interests, it’s about being employable. Some people are lucky enough to go to those places that allow them to be universally employable, but if that is not you, you’ll still have to strategize to make sure that you are employable locally. You’ll need to look a college as a business and adjust your mindset. My “friend” called me a “free spirit” because I said I was moving again even though I said I was moving for a specific job. I was offended, because I think that all she hears is that I am traveling to another location, not relocating to work. But, she was probably right. I had dreams like her and was going by my feelings, which led to ruin. She was the smart one who had dreams and married up. Being practical is all there is, and dreams will follow, maybe. That is the status quo. That’s what people understand. Accept it, and move on.