Dear Graduate – Advice I Wish I Received After High School 

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In the last couple of weeks, several high school graduates have asked me for advice about college. They are facing their first life-changing decision and are rightfully concerned about making good choices.

So, here are all the things I wish someone had told me after I graduated high school.

Feel free to share this with the high school graduate in your life.  I hope it helps.

Make Friends With Similar Goals

Your life in four years will look a lot like the average of your five closest friends. If you want to be a world changer, make friends with other world-changers. This is not just avoiding the “bad crowd”, this is also about seeking out ambitious people. The friendships you build in college may last a lifetime.

If your friends all just want to hang out and play games, then don’t be surprised to find yourself working for the ambitious students on the other side of the class.

Also, college is a great chance to make international friends. The leaders of the rest of the world send their children to American universities. That international student with the thick accent may be president of her country some day. This is may be your only chance to become friends with a head of state.

Not All Colleges Are Created Equally

In terms of getting a job, there are three kinds of schools:

  • Tier 1 – Ivy League + Rice + Stanford
  • Tier 2 – Universities With Football Teams That Play on TV
  • Tier 3 – Everything Else

Tier 1 Schools are good for the obvious reasons. A Harvard degree really is worth all the money that it costs to get it.  People treat you differently once they realize you went to Harvard. Some jobs are open only to Harvard grads.

Tier 2 Schools are valuable because people have heard of them. Why is Baylor University nationally known while Liberty University is not? They are both Christian schools of similar size, but one is on ESPN and the other isn’t. There is a significant benefit of going to a school that people have heard of. It also often means a more useful alumni network.

Tier 3 Schools are schools that no one has heard of outside the region or subculture. This includes community colleges and that small Christian liberal arts school that keeps sending you fancy fliers in the mail. Employers don’t care how much you spent for your education. They only care if they have heard of your school before.

College is as much about who you meet as about what you learn. An Aggie Ring from Texas A&M is just as valuable as the diploma. Tier 3 schools just don’t have much punch when it comes to alumni connections.  I get more professional value from being a Patriot Academy alumnus than I do from being an alumnus of the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor. One is a small four-year university. The other is a one-week summer program.

Date (But Don’t Go Steady Your First Semester)

College is the best season of your life to find the love of your life. You will meet more people with similar interests in one semester  than you will in an entire year of post-college life. As someone who is no longer in college, I can tell you that just finding singles to interact with is a challenge in the professional world. In college, everyone is your same age. After you graduate, everyone is older than you.

One of my biggest regrets of college was that I avoided dating and girls semester after semester. But I have said more about that in another place.

Ladies, go on lots of dates with lots of different guys. Keep your relationships platonic. Avoid frat parties or really any party where drinking is the primary draw. This is the season to get to know guys, not a time to make out with them. The more dates you go on, the better idea you will get for what you are looking for in a husband.

While it is important go on dates, having a boyfriend your first semester can be a distraction. It takes time to adjust to college life and relationships take that time away. So, consider following my grandmother’s rule of not going out with the same guy twice in a row. Make the guys fight for you before you go steady with the winner.

Gentlemen, the same goes for you. Ask girls out. Keep it platonic. If you are broke, the dates don’t need to be fancy. Study dates can be legit dates. Get off the Xbox and ask that cute girl in English 1301 out for coffee. Treat the young women with honor. I know this is scary but remember, they want to be asked out and treated like the ladies they are. Most of them will say yes if you ask in person or over the phone.

If you need help here is a handy tutorial video from The Art of Manliness.

Do Extracurricular Activities, But Only Two or Three

There seem to be three kinds of people in college:

  • Group 1 Hide in their rooms doing nothing but academics and/or video games. The guy who gets the medal at graduation for a perfect 4.0 will probably be someone you have never seen before. That medal cost him four years of friendships. Don’t be that guy.
  • Group 2 Pick a few activities and focus on those activities. Very few students find this middle course, but those that do, change the world. With enough focus, you can become the leader of almost any on-campus organization.
  • Group 3 Do every activity that sounds interesting. You can tell who these people are because they look like zombies and yet somehow they are always running.

I fell into group 3 and between church and campus activities I failed to master any one thing.  I was also exhausted and miserable.

Also, it is a good idea to not take too many hours your first semester. It takes a while to adjust to college life.

Leave The House

I am a big believer of children leaving the house once they become adults. It is an important step of self-discovery and maturity. You need to find out who you are as an individual. This is your best opportunity to cut those apron strings. You can’t become a rugged American individualist when your mom does your laundry.

I understand that college is not the investment that it used to be. The price of college is going up while the benefit of a college degree is going down. But the fact remains that if you want to be a leader, you need a college degree.

I hear some of you asking about Accelerated Distance Learning. Why not just get a degree through Thomas Edison State College?

The downside of a College Plus (and other similar programs) is that you don’t get a chance to build the friendships that will be the foundation of your professional career. If you are going to do distance learning, at least move into a house with some roommates near a college campus so you can make a few new friends.

When you stay home, you create a precedent of living with your parents. That free rent is like a drug that can be hard to quit. You are not a true adult until there is no one to veto your bad decisions.

Give Financially

College tends to be a very me-focused season. My grades, my school, my girlfriend, etc. You don’t want to become a me monster.

I think the best way to fight your inner Me Monster is to sponsor a child through Gospel for Asia or Compassion International. Working to find the $40 every month to give away is a great way to remember it is not all about you. It is also a good reminder of how good you have it as a college student in the wealthiest country in the world.

Get an Internship

4 out of 5 college students will move back in with their parents after graduation because they can’t find a job good enough to support them in a cheap apartment. When I was going to college career fairs, the first thing every single employer asked for was my experience.

Now as a CEO I sit on the other side of the table. Do you know what question I ask in interviews? The exact same question! Experience really is that important. I want to see that they have worked in an office before and won’t have to learn everything on the job. Training new employees is expensive and risky. The more you know coming in, the more attractive you are to an employer.

A good internship can be the difference between having a wife and family in seven years and living in the corner of your parents’ basement.

As my dad says, “College is the season to work to learn, not the time to work to earn.” The best learning experiences in college come in the form of unpaid internships with real responsibility. An unpaid internship is cheaper than a semester of college. So don’t tell yourself you can’t afford it. If you can’t afford a free internship you certainly can’t afford to pay for college.

The internships I had as a student are the only reason I was able to start a company right out of school. By the time I graduated, I had several years of “work” experience, including being the volunteer coordinator for a congressional campaign.

Find Your Sabaoth Rest

Rest is as important to your success as working hard. Red Bull is not a suitable replacement for sleep when it comes to learning. Red Bull turns the lights on, but that doesn’t mean anyone is home.

The semesters I got straight-A grades were the semesters when I didn’t do homework on Sundays. This sometimes meant waking up early on Monday mornings, but I found I had a much clearer head to learn when I had a day to decompress each week.

After a while, I also made my dorm room a study-free zone. That room became my place of rest. When I needed to study, I would find a coffee shop, computer lab, or empty classroom. This way I had a clear separation between work and rest.

Don’t Go Into Debt for a Useless Degree

Not all majors are created equal.

Some don’t help you make much more than you would with just a high school diploma. Two students can both pay the same amount of money at the same school, and it can be a good investment for one and a waste of money for the other.

It makes sense to get a loan for a nursing or engineering degree. Those degrees dramatically boost your earning potential right after college. They also virtually ensure a job as soon as you want it. Better to pay for the degree with your bigger post-college salary than to slowly crawl through school with a minimum wage college job.

Psychology or communications, on the other hand, don’t boost your income enough to justify the interest on the loan. If you are passionate about history, go to the library and read a book on history. Don’t spend $50,000 for a history degree.

When in doubt, get a business degree. You can do pretty much anything you want with one. Business majors are attractive to most employers. There is a 90% chance you will work in a business after you graduate so a business degree is a no-brainer.

Liberal Arts Majors fit into three camps:

  1. Those who move in with their parents
  2. Those who are able to get a part-time job at Starbucks
  3. Those who go on to get a graduate degree.

Unless you are already willing to pay to be in category 3, don’t get a liberal arts degree.

Here is a chart of the top-earning degrees and the bottom feeders:

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Image Source: NPR.

Consider Trade School

If you are bad at math, or the high earning degrees don’t appeal to you, consider trade school. The reality is that professional electricians make more money than a lot of college majors, and are rarely unemployed. They also have more time off and more job flexibility. They also get through school faster and are less likely to die early from sitting in a cubicle all day. People need the lights fixed, even in a bad economy.

Trade school can be a much better investment in terms of ROI. It costs less and pays better than college in many cases.

Don’t Follow Your Heart

The common advice that graduates get is, “Follow your passions. Do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life.” This may sound good on a poster, but it is a recipe for being homeless after your parents kick you out of the house.

The reality is that you can’t just look at what you are passionate about. You must also look at what you are skilled at and what other people are willing to pay you to do. Yes, your calligraphy is beautiful, but how many people are willing to pay you to address their wedding envelopes?

Ideally, you want to find the sweet spot in the center of the following chart:

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You want to find the place where your passions and skills overlap with the needs of others. College can give you skills. It is a very expensive place to try to find yourself.

Have Fun

I took college so seriously I often forgot to have fun. I killed myself for a GPA that no one ever asked about after graduation. If you leave college with a high GPA but are burnt out, you risk depriving yourself of the ongoing adventure of lifelong learning.

Don’t let school get in the way of your education. Fall in love. Fall in love with learning. Have fun. Learn something useful.

You are young and full of life. Enjoy life!

“Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do.”

Ecclesiastes 11:9 (NLT)

What do you think?

What advice do you have for high school graduates?

Thomas Umstattd Jr. is the author of Courtship in Crisis, the former head of PracticalCourtship.com, and co-founder of the Austin Rhetoric Club, a homeschool speech and debate club in Austin, Texas. He is a professional speaker and CEO of Author Media. He sits on the board of directors for several nonprofits, including the Texas Alliance for Life.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Dear Graduate – Advice I Wish I Received After High School 

  1. Disagree with your comparison between Baylor University of Liberty University as I have close friends who attended both.

    Yes, both are Christian universities, but Baylor was founded in 1845 and has a rich tradition and history, while Liberty was founded in 1971 by televangelist Jerry Falwell, with a very fascist-like code of conduct with their dated, archaic and way-too-out-there rulebook, “The Liberty Way”.

    I’m all for strong morals, ethics and one’s faith—but you cannot draw an apples to apples comparison between Liberty and Baylor and acknowledge that BU is better-known simply because of its athletics programs.

    Also, disagree that smaller schools will provide better networking opportunities. Do you really think that someone who attended Liberty will be more dialed in with contacts and connections than someone who went to the University of Texas, Southern Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, etc.? Zero chance.

    That said, I have to give credit for a great point you made regarding unpaid internships. Very on point and should be a top the list. Your dad was right, college is a time to learn and a small, valuable window.

    Kids are MUCH better off with an unpaid internship in their respective field, or a field they think they want to be in, opposed to making $8 an hour at Subway.

  2. Great article man, I’m glad you’ve found a platform where you can make your voice heard.

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