What They Don’t Tell You About College — From A First -Gen Grad

The classic Expectation vs. Reality

Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

I’ve never been one to dream about going to a specific college. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school when all of my peers were one upping each other in SAT scores and sharing acceptance letters on their Snapchats and IG stories that I followed the herd mentality of needing to get accepted into the best college in my state to be validated. That all my hard work of studying and succeeding in the same classes as my classmates was worth it because if I ended up at a “lesser” college than them, what was the point.

Well, I ended up going to a way lesser known college in my state and with one of the years being during a pandemic, it really surfaced the value of a college education without all the fluff that is marketed to students to justify crazy tuition prices.

Here are some of the things that stuck out to me from my college experience ⬇️

If you didn’t know what your life calling was when you were 18 (literally this is normal, but for some reason at the time it was the root cause of all my stress) and had to decide as you filled out college applications, you might have just picked one because you thought you wouldn’t hate it and the loose promise of a satisfying paycheck when you graduate and land that job. I ended up sticking to my business management major for 2 weeks-ish before switching to information systems. But, its really nerve racking to be asked what I liked or was interested in when my education thus far had not encouraged me to steer away from the pack. It encouraged me to take classes that I need to graduate, do well in them for the approval of colleges, and stay in the box.

Learning 💡 : Don’t worry too much about keeping up with your peers. Look into hobbies or careers with an experimental mindset to see what you like and most importantly do not like.

A great transition from the previous. Most students have 0 say into what classes they want to take and there isn’t pressure to make any separate decisions from your peers up until college. Having a lot of agency in college can be a good or bad thing for some people. Aside from choosing what you want to study, college allows you to choose your own class schedule! This is completely bizarre from the back to back 7 classes schedule and consistent 8am — 3pm Monday-Friday I had been used to. With all these decisions, it can be tiring to keep up with everything that college life makes you accountable for, but it is a great gateway into developing an identity that is of your own accord.

Learning 💡 : Embrace the independence and new responsibility because it only increases from here.

Not counting in living expenses because I didn’t experience that, taking 2 years of pre requisites and not getting into the meat of your major until your last 2 years is a fine print that I didn’t see coming. So, I was taking electives for 2 years, which is about $12,000 worth of credit hours (this is on the cheaper end too). Most expensive trial of an experience I had ever signed up for.

Learning 💡 : Take those college level classes in high school with the goal of passing to save time and money for future you. Get internships and have them count towards elective credits. Study abroad and use the elective credits. Apply for FAFSA early and annually. Apply for specific grants from your school. Budget!

If college is worth anything, its from the alumni network and free on-campus resources you can take full advantage of. That might be a bold statement, but to gain an edge in interviews and the work place you have to have a strong grip on soft skills. It can be practiced and strengthened, but there usually isn’t a class for it in school. You really have to seek it out on your own.

It’s a bit nerve racking to go up to someone much older to ask for advice, but with LinkedIn, these days its more relaxed and doesn’t have to be as formal to strike up a conversation someone. There are do’s and don’ts of virtual and in-person networking, but the most important is probably not to make it obvious to the potential mentor you aren’t genuinely interested and are just trying to talk to them for a quick transactional ask. Its from my early priority of networking and ENTJ nature that I didn’t trail through college without influence from the real world and what the expectations and realities outside of the college bubble were like.

A huge oversight in my college education was the lack of personal finance lessons taught. As someone getting a business degree, I had figured it’d be a priority to teach all business students how to invest their money properly, save for retirement, negotiate job offers, and budget. Instead, the two finance and accounting classes I took prepared me to audit, balance, and calculate the check books of large corporations and businesses. Go figure. 😕

A lot of what was tested and learned was also theoretical and couldn’t apply to my reality. It was not focused on being tactical and feasible in the moment. In some classes it felt like it was prepping me to get some random questions right in a Jeopardy game show.

Being the first person to go to college in my family was super humbling and a huge shared milestone. I am thankful for the experience to better see college more objectively after. If you’re in college now, take the time to have fun experiences outside of academics and have good balance between both.

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Katie Hoang

Self-taught product designer | Creative person practicing problem-solving technology skills