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5 Lessons On How To Be Successful In College


College can be life changing. But college is also really expensive. If you’re going to make that investment (or already are), you need to be successful.

Too often I hear horror stories from readers who spent a lot of money, buried themselves in a lot of student loan debt, and have failed to realize any gains from their college education. It’s heartbreaking to read and hear.

The hard part is, nobody really tells you what it takes to be successful in college. Is it about getting straight A’s? Is it about networking? Is it about getting a fantastic job after you graduate? 

Today I’m going to share my personal thoughts on what it takes to be successful in college, as well as leveraging some thoughts from experts who’ve been there.

#1 College Isn’t The Time To Find Yourself

There used to be a saying that went “go to college to find yourself.” That’s bullshit. College is way too expensive to waste time finding yourself.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Steve Jobs, when he gave his famous commencement speech at Stanford:

I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, don’t go to college yet. You can always start college at any time you choose! (Trust me, colleges will always be willing to take your money).

Why not work for a year, or travel, or be an intern. Just get some life experiences, try some things out, know what you like, what you hate, what you’re passionate about.

On the flip side, to be successful in college, you have to have self direction. You have to know what you want, why you’re doing it, and what you’re going to get out of it. 

J.D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly says, “the NUMBER ONE thing that leads to success in college is self-direction, being proactive.”

So, if you want to be successful in college, have a purpose for going. Have direction. And own it.

#2 You Need A Clear Path To ROI

When you’re going to college, thinking about the return on investment is usually not very high up on the priority list. However, it needs to be.

When you invest money in anything – real estate, stocks, a business – you expect a return on your investment. Paying for college is no different.

If you’re going to invest $50,000 or more, you should see a clear path to recouping your investment and more.

I’ve talking in-depth about calculating your college ROI before, but still too many people fail to do it.

Ashley says:

When I applied for student loans, I did my best to get as much as possible. Even if I didn’t need the additional funds, I would use them anyways. I had no concept of the amount of money I was spending until my Senior year when I realized this may have some extreme financial consequences. I also didn’t realize you could apply for scholarships. 

I’m a firm believer in the idea that you should never borrow more than you expect to make in your first year after graduation. If you want to be a teacher, that’s great, but don’t borrow more than $35,000 or $40,000 that you might earn as a teacher.

If you want to be an engineer, you might be able to borrow upwards of $60,000, as you could reasonably expect to earn that depending on what you want to do.

The bottom line is, there is a clear path to ROI. You just need to find it and not simply go to a school “because you like it”. 

#3 You Need To Get Organized

The habits you setup for yourself in college can make or break your life and career after college. Now is the time to setup solid time management and organizational strategies to help you manage your college life, and your career beyond.

I’m a huge fan of using Google calendar to organize my life. Aaron from Personal Finance For Beginners did the same. 

I relied heavily on two things: Google Calendar and the syllabus for each class. At the beginning of each semester, I would add each class period, assignment, test/quiz, and project to my calendar. This made it easy to look in one place to see what was coming up. It allowed me to take full-time classes year-round, work 25 hours a week, help run two student organizations, and do occasional part-time consulting work on the side.

If you can get organized while in college, you will save yourself a painful learning curve when you start working.

#4 It’s A Great Idea To Work During College

One of the best things you can do is work during college. A few years ago I wrote an article for Forbes where I surveyed some employers about what matters most. The two key traits that employers most cared about were communication skills and problem solving skills. And they consistently said that graduates who worked during college had the best skillsets. 

I completely agree with this assessment. When I would hire recent graduates, there was a huge difference in the communication ability of candidates who worked during college versus those that didn’t. Those that worked could communicate much better in a business environment. 

Individuals who worked during college also have the potential to earn more after graduation (at least in their first job). Being able to show the work history and experience can usually lead to more pay. I know that I would routinely see recent graduates with work experience start about $3,000 higher than those without work experience.

#5 Start A Side Hustle

I’m a huge fan on building a side hustle. Starting a business that you can leverage to make your own money is empowering and educational.

The great thing about college is that you usually have more free time than you’ll get when you graduate. Leverage that free time to create something meaningful.

Jim from Wallet Hacks describes his side hustle: 

When I was in college, I went the side business route by learning how to sell things on eBay, building software that helped me scrape eBay listings to find what to buy and sell, and then even selling the software itself to researchers so they could do the same.

It’s funny – I did a very similar side hustle in college. I was regularly buying items to resell on eBay and Amazon, and was earning about $2,000 per month doing it. It was a great side gig to earn extra money in my spare time.

Final Thoughts

When you’re going into college, it can be overwhelming thinking about the future. You’re just trying to get settled in your dorm room, get into your classes and figure out your schedule, and make new friends.

But it’s so important to consider what it means to be successful in college. There’s a huge overlap between money, educational success, and career success. In college, they are closely related and you need to weigh all the factors that will contribute to a lifetime of success.

The last thing you want to is to be burdened financially because of poor decisions (or simply uneducated decisions) you made in college. Trust me.

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