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Pitfalls to avoid in your college search

It was only five years ago that I was a first-semester freshman, bright eyed and ignorant of most of what gets me through the day anymore. College is a glorious time of personal growth and leaving your parents and hometown behind to start living on your own. And if you’re calling mom or dad twice a day, hey, it still counts.

There’s no right way to do college, but there are a bunch of wrong ways. I write here to help prospective students avoid a few pitfalls that could turn the college years into a steaming pile of regret and sadness.

1. Don’t follow.

This applies to everything other than this advice. You may love your friends, you may love your siblings, but don’t go somewhere for the purpose of following them. The friends you make in college are fundamentally different from those you’re used to having in high school — nostalgic time-forged bonds where you’ve grown together. In college, you’re presenting yourself as a finished product, and that will match with some peers and not others. The challenge is not to fit in but to find where you best fit in, because you will fit in somewhere. Probably.

Don’t go somewhere because somebody else is going there, or because your parents went there. Don’t even mark it as a perk. The odds are it will prove irrelevant to your actual college experience. Not that you’ll disown your high school friends. You’ll still have that, but you’ll have competing interests, and those should get priority. After all, high school already happened.

2. Don’t choose just for academics.

True, you’re going to college to learn, but most of what you learn in college comes outside the classroom. If you can’t grow as a person living in a community, your academic benefits will be cheapened.

When you’re visiting schools, look for recreation. Ask what the students do when they’re not in class. You should have a few outlets you’re comfortable choosing from. The wrong few people could sour an entire organization, so don’t bank on just this or that club to fill your spare time.

Also, a school may not be financially feasible. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Affordability is real; don’t ignore it.

Nothing like starting life carrying thousands of dollars in debt. Student loan profiteering is a joke that borders on criminal levels of exploitation. Such is life, though, and relief isn’t exactly on the way.

There’s a sea of scholarship opportunities out there, but it’s as easy to navigate as the actual sea. It takes lots of training. Regardless, search and apply. Even $500 in scholarships saves you about $750 in the long run, by the time your loan interest rate has its way with it.

At the end of the day, cheaper options may be better. A degree from a less prestigious school that can save you thousands of dollars in debt will give you a higher quality of life post-graduation. You can prove yourself no matter where you are. Going to community college for general education courses before enrolling at a four-year school will give you a more affordable path and afford you greater flexibility in scheduling classes. Anything that saves you money is worth considering.

You don’t need to know much about the mountain, only that there is a reason to climb it. Save every dollar and penny you can. Accepting a life of debt sounds fine when you’re young, but it follows you as you get older, wiser, and more frugal.

Anyway, there’s a zillion advice columns online that are worth taking note of, and I’m sure most of this you’ve heard already, because college preparation is nearly as viable a business as college itself is, but I figured that, as illustrated in item No. 3, having two more cents wouldn’t hurt.

—Eliot Sill

Last modified Nov. 24, 2015

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