What I Wish I Could Tell My 17-Year-Old Self About Choosing a College

What I Wish I Could Tell My 17-Year-Old Self About Choosing a College

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National rankings, campus tours and even family traditions might factor into a high-schooler's choice about where to attend college. As a parent, how do you help your teen choose what's most important?

The benefit of hindsight can make all the difference. But if you're helping your teenager choose a college, decades may likely have passed since you made the decision yourself. We've asked a mix of five recent college grads and young professionals to reflect on their higher-education journey. They had some thoughtful tips you can share with your kids as they weigh this pivotal life decision.

Be an attention hog

College is a time in your life when it's OK to be needy—at least with your professors, says Lance Gunkel, 36, a CFO and investment manager in Des Moines, Iowa. If he had the opportunity to sit down with his 17-year-old self and revisit the college decision, 'I'd focus on schools that provide individualized attention to help me navigate the college curriculum,' he says. 'The job market is so tight, you want every advantage you can as you enter the real world.' At first, Gunkel attended a larger state school before transferring to a smaller university with a more individualized program and a better student-teacher ratio. 'I was very tight with all the finance faculty,' he says. 'I lucked into a great decision!'

Don't play the name game

'I would tell my 17-year old-self,' says Rebecca Brick, 25, of Bismarck, N.D., '[do] not choose what college to go to because of the name or what the campus looked like.' For high school, Brick attended a respected boarding school in Minnesota. She says she felt pressure to then attend a big-name college. 'I was way too focused on getting into a prestigious school, choosing a career right away without any experience—and spending a lot of money in the process,' Brick recalls. Brick started out at a well-known private school in St. Paul where she studied nursing, but she later switched to a smaller institution with a focused vet tech program.

Think outside the major box

Selecting a college or university involves assessing what majors an institution offers. When it comes to your course of study, recent college graduate Kevin Gross, 24, of East Windsor, N.J., says to keep in mind, 'There is a lot more out there than the options high school listed.' Gross, a grocery store customer service rep and a novelist, knew all along he wanted to be a writer; according to his high school counselor, that meant he had to be a reporter if he wanted to make a salary. He says he regrets falling into journalism by default and not getting creative when thinking about actual career possibilities. 'Music engineering would have been fascinating,' he says. 'Public relations and marketing might have led to work doing PR for major-label bands; I could have gotten into the publishing industry, or the non-news side of television.' Gross' experience is a reminder to look at the concentrations listed under an institution's majors to see if that college or university has plenty of options. What's more, it reminds us to think twice before rushing toward a traditional career path when your passion can potentially take you in so many exciting directions.

Don't take the money and run

When looking at colleges, the one thing many graduates caution is to be careful of the costs, and to explore potential grants and scholarships. 'Try to save as much money as possible,' says Tonya Sigl, 36, a special education teacher in Oro Valley, Ariz. 'You don't have to take all of the financial aid available to you, because one day you will have to pay it back.' Sigl attended school in her home state, but costs were higher than she expected. She received tuition assistance from the National Guard, and a Pell Grant. 'I am still paying on my loans while raising our kids,' says the mother of two. 'Plus, I have some loans from my master's degree.'

Life plans are often works-in-progress

Figuring out the big question—What do you want to do for a living?—can feel daunting. But plenty of professionals in their dream careers say that teens don't need all the answers when choosing a college—and, subsequently, their major. The experiences college students gain while developing their interests will be valuable. 'At 17, I wanted to design cars,' says Jessica Adanich, 28, a creative manager who lives in North Royalton, Ohio. Adanich eventually switched majors to sculpture; she creates life-size replicas of sharks and operates her own ocean conservation business. To pay the bills, however, Adanich runs the creative and marketing department for a major product company—one with no connection to the automotive industry. 'The time I spent in industrial design prepared me for where I am now,' she says. 'I have full confidence that I am who I am now from the educational path I took and the experiences I've had.'

You can also find other college related resources like tips on saving money for college, and safety tips for college students.

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