5 Steps to Prepare for College

Many high school seniors will soon be graduating and heading for college. Having traveled that road already, I feel it’s my civic duty to impart the knowledge that I have gained since being out of college.

1. Having a degree is important. Where it’s from is not. 

When it comes to picking a college, choose the cheapest option that still fulfills your needs. I paid good money to go to a private college in Virginia. Once I graduated, I returned to my home state of Tennessee. I have been able to get jobs because I have a degree, but the vast majority of people have never heard of the college I attended.

I could have gone to a smaller school in Alabama on a full scholarship and gotten the same degree and the same lack of name-recognition. Instead, I graduated with $24,000 in student loans and over $3,000 in credit card debt.

2. Avoid student loans.

Today, schools are more expensive relative to income than they were 11 years ago. It’s very hard to avoid getting student loans while in college. But do everything in your power to avoid them, because the more money you owe when you get out of school, the more ham-strung you’ll be by it.

I would have gone to Japan to teach English if I had not been weighed down by my bills; I simply couldn’t make enough money to pay those bills and live in Japan. (And, actually, my bills were so heavy, I had to live with my parents while I worked on paying them down). Many people find their ability to get married and start a family hampered by their loans.

3. Buy your schoolbooks online. (In fact, never go into you college bookstore for anything.)

I did this when I was in school and now there are even more options for comparing prices and getting the best deals. And, to that end, I can’t recommend AllBookStores.com enough. Just put in the title of your book and it will search all the major online bookstores and some independent and international bookstores. Results are listed cheapest to most expensive (it even factors in the added cost of S&H so there’s no guessing if this book is cheaper with S&H than that one with free S&H).

Also, you can almost always get away with buying the next-newest edition, rather the the most recent. Most college textbooks are updated every 1-3 years and have little in the way of major changes from year to year. If you ask your professor if there’s any noticeable difference, he or she will probably be honest and tell you that no, there’s nothing different, or they will give you a head’s-up on what has changed, and you can always compare that portion of your book with a classmate’s.

My roommate and I took a lot of the same classes, and we each bought half the course’s books, then shared them. If you have a friend in the same class, this can save you both 50% on the cost of your books.

Go back-to-school shopping for college just like you did for high school: hit Staples or Office Depot when they’re having big sales and buy enough supplies to last you for a year. Shopping at a big box store or Wal-Mart is always cheaper than your college bookstore. And if you’re going to a big college, don’t buy pens or post-it notes because you will get a lot of these for free from vendors on campus.

And I highly recommend the L.L. Bean backpack. I nagged my mother into buying this $40 backpack when I was a sophomore in high school (a regular backpack cost $15-$20 at the time). I carried it three years of high school, all four years of college, took it to Ireland for a summer, and I’ve still got the damn thing. When my husband and I go to the Nashville flea market for the day, I take it with me and put our purchases in it. I don’t think you can tear the things up. If you carry it for two years, you will break even on the cost. If you carry it more than that, you’ll save money. (And you’ll be that much more prepared for the zombie apocalypse, because when it’s weighted with rocks, it makes a devastating mace.)

4. You will have more reading than you can possibly do. So read smarter.

Most people will tackle a pile of reading head on and try to plow through it the normal way. This is very stressful when you can’t finish it or you have to give up all of your free time to complete it.

Instead of plowing slowly through it, try the following shortcuts:

1. Read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. This works best for text books and non-fiction because the first sentence in a paragraph introduces a nugget of information and the last sentence sums it up.

2. Remember learning to write essays based on the “keyhole” method? If you are really short on time, read the introduction and/or first chapter of a non-fiction book and the last chapter and/or conclusion (in the case of an essay, read the first and last paragraphs). You won’t pass a test with this limited amount of information, but it will give you a general idea of what’s being discussed in class (and it’s better than reading nothing).

3. Spend your summer learning to speed read. You can certainly apply this to your text books and non-fiction books, but this is the only way you can tackle fiction/literature.

4. Make friends with the table of contents and index. When you need to read a book for research purposes, look at the chapter names and/or look up keywords which match your writing topic. You can cut down on your reading greatly if you pinpoint and read only that which is relevant to your needs.

Also, if you have a big research paper, try reading an entire book or two which contains general knowledge on your subject and start to write your paper. As you find yourself needing information to back up a point, go to other books and use the pinpoint method to look up only that information which you need. This is actually how I write my historical fiction: I write it first, from a general knowledge of the time and place, then I confirm my facts. This takes less time than reading a bunch of information that I might not need.

An important note: while learning to read faster or smartly skip can help you through your piles of reading, make sure you don’t apply it to your writing. When you finish writing a paper, make sure you read it slowly so you can catch the grammatical mistakes.

5. Learn to think, and enjoy it.

When I got out of college and looked back at everything I had learned (and especially looking back a decade later), I realized I remembered almost nothing I had learned. For instance, I took a number of Asian history classes, and I don’t remember anything about Asian history. I wouldn’t remember any medieval history, either, except that i do medieval re-enacting and I’m constantly applying what I know and refreshing it with new information.

What I learned in college was how to think (which is a much more valuable skill than memorizing names and dates anyways) and how to live as an independent adult. So, to that end, I recommend 1) at least one philosophy class, and 2) living off-campus at least one year.

I have thought, more than once, that college is wasted on the young. I would very much enjoy going back to college now and learning for the sake of learning–not for the sake of pleasing my parents, getting a diploma, or making good grades.

Which brings me to another point: my GPA has been of no use whatsoever since I graduated. Unless you’re planning on going to graduate school, your GPA won’t matter either. If I had it to do all over again, I would take all of my classes pass/fail and not give a shit about my grades. Learn because you want to learn, not because you need to reach some arbitrary metric or compete against your classmates. College is pretty much the last time in your life where you will have intellectual discussion with reasonably intelligent people; enjoy it while you can.

5 comments on “5 Steps to Prepare for College

  1. Wallace says:

    I agree with most of what you said, good advice for the college bound. I would disagree, in part at least, with the first thing you said. It does matter which college you go to. I agree that the difference between an unknown small private college that charges tens of thousands of dollars to attend and an unknown small public college that only charges thousands of dollars to attend is insignificant. Far better to go to the college one can afford that to go to one that puts you in debt for a decade or more. But all colleges are not the same.

    I’d advise everybody to avoid all the commercial “colleges”, like the ones that advertise on TV so much, that just take your money and then give you a degree that most accredited colleges and corporations don’t even recognize as a real degree. If the “college” is not recognized by a national board of college accreditation and doesn’t give you an actual bachelors degree, then you are pretty much wasting your money.

    Also, if you can get a complete scholarship, or close to it, at an accredited college, go there. With the high cost of college today, any college that will pay you to go there has got to be on the top of your list. In this case it doesn’t matter if it is public or private, it’s the actual cost one should consider. The only downside to this is if the college is closely aligned with some particular religious or political position. If you agree with that position, then it’s not a problem, but if you strongly disagree, then it’s better to not even consider it since you won’t be happy there and they won’t really want you either.

    But the real point I want to make has nothing to do with small colleges, but with the big major universities. I live in Tennessee and I’ve gone to three different universities here. At first to Austin Peay State University, then the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, then the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. There is certainly a big difference in how the degrees at the different universities are looked at.

    A degree from UT Knoxville is far more prestigious than one from APSU or UT Chattanooga. UTK offers more courses, more majors, more advanced degree programs, more research facilities, and has a high ranking when compared to other national universities. It also has a high name recognition nationally, more so than almost any other college in the state. If one had a degree from UTK and applied for a job any where in the country, the potential employer would not have to do any sort of checking to see the standing of the university. About the only university in Tennessee that has more prestige would be Vanderbilt University, a private and very expensive university that is in the Ivy League category.

    Which brings up the actual Ivy League. A degree from Harvard or Yale or MIT or Stanford would be a virtual guarantee of a job in almost any company. There is no small unknown liberal arts college that can compete with a degree from an Ivy League school. Besides the top quality education, there is also the invaluable contacts made during the years there that can open doors, both immediately to get a job and later in life during the course of that job. If you can get into an Ivy League school and can afford it, go for it, it will be money well spent.

    Of course, most people can’t afford an Ivy League school, and fewer still can get in. If you’re one of those that don’t make the Ivy League cut, then your next best choice is going to a major state university in your own state. Out of state tuition is always higher than in state tuition, and there are lots of grants and scholarships given out by home state organizations to highly placed HS seniors that go to instate universities. Round up all the free money you can and then go to the biggest and most prestigious state university you can afford. Contrary to what Keri said, name recognition in colleges does matter, and the more name recognition your college degree is from is a step up in getting the job you want after college.

  2. Jim Maher says:

    Out of all the points, avoiding student loans is the one I wish I could impart on high schoolers. Save up, as much as you can, work your butt off, get scholarships, because the shackle of that debt will be with them for a long time. I graduated in 2004, and I’m still paying mine off.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      It took me 6 years to pay mine off. I did it even though people were telling me not to because it was “good” debt because it was at 4.25% and I got a token tax break on it. Thank God I did, because I lost my job about a year later and we would have never made it if I had still had that $220 a month debt hanging from my neck like an albatross.

      • Jim Maher says:

        Good for you! ‘Good’ debt is such an insulting term. ‘It’s okay that you owe us this money, don’t worry about it, it’s good debt!’
        Well done. Did you hear about the young man that walked into a bank and paid off his entire student loan in cash? http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/the-hot-button/toronto-man-pays-off-114460-student-loan-in-cash/article2443002/?from=sec434

      • Keri Peardon says:


        I can’t believe there are people who are complaining about it. Yes, he’s bragging, and he has every right to brag–as much right to brag as someone who’s bought a new house, had a baby, or gotten married. Share the happy moments in life, people! That’s why people call into Dave Ramsey’s show and scream “Freedommmmmmm!”

        I had a four year loan on my first car, and I buckled down and paid it off in a year and a half. I went to the credit union in person and wrote my last check for it and all but danced out the door.

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