Some Advice That’s Never Heard Nor Told

Rather than simply post a comment on PZ Myers’s post, “For all the 18 year olds anticipating next year”, allow me to hijack it with my own opinion.

When I was eighteen, I wasn’t ready to attend college. I was pushed into it for a year.  Never mind that I was still an unconfident and shy teen still living with abusive parents, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. It’s only fortunate that the sperm donor was paying for the courses, that I didn’t have student loans.

But I did pay for it later in other ways.

First, I resented being pushed into it.  This was the 1980s when you could still get a decent job without a college education, and thought I could do that too. I ended up wasting several years working low paying, dead end jobs before I was motivated and went back to college for my own reasons.  As said above about a lousy home life, I wasn’t a “know it all” teen, I was trying to demonstrate independence from them.

Second, I paid for the low grades of that first year. I had no choice financially except to attend the same college when I finally did go.

The college wouldn’t erase or delete those prior courses (none of which related to what I studied).  I couldn’t afford the time or money to retake them and get better grades.  With the unwanted albtatross around my neck, my GPA was barely 2.5. Without them, it would have been about 3.0, not bad considering I was living a 24 hour clock and on polyphasic sleep for years (simultaneously working and studying).  Imagine that effect if a scholarship is based on GPA, and you’re denied it because of a mistake you were pushed into making.

If I could have the ears of any eighteen year olds finishing grade twelve now and are uncertain about life, the one piece of advice I would give them is:

Don’t go to college.

Not yet, anyway.  At eighteen, few genuinely know what they want to do the rest of their lives.  Sacrificing one year now and learning basic adult life skills isn’t a waste of time, it’s better than wasting five years later.  More below.

If you’re fresh out of high school and fresh out of ideas, consider doing these two things:

1) Work for a year at a lousy minimum wage job.

Learn what is expected and required of you in a workplace.  Learn that you’re going to be amongst adults for the rest of your life and start acting like it.  And if you’re still living at home, learn how to handle and save money, get a bank account, ID and driver’s license, etc.  Just a few thousand dollars saved by next September (fourteen months later) could make all the difference in your life.

Almost everyone at eighteen has never had to “adult” before.  It’s better to make these mistakes at that age than to keep making them at twenty-two.  You’re much more likely to be forgiven or excused by a future employer when it was your first job, not your fifth.

I’ve seen coddled 24 year olds teaching ESL in Asia who had no clue about effort and discipline because it was their first job, ever.  You can’t just “show up when you feel like it”, you can’t talk back, you have to work with and be considerate of others even if you don’t like them.  Some never understood that work isn’t a paid vacation, you’re there to perform.

2) Go to the library and start reading.

It’s a free education.  A lot of what you’ll learn will apply and be useful in college when you finally do go.  But most important, find out what interests YOU.  Find your own motivation and passion.  When you’re curious and focused, you’ll put in the effort.

If the library uses Dewey Decimal System, start in the 000 and then move on to the 100, 300, 400, 500, and 900 before tackling the rest.  If it uses the Library of Congress System, start with “A”, then move onto “BA-BJ” (*), “C”“D”“G”“H”“J”“K”“P”“Q”“R”“S”, and “T”.  And read things you disagree with.

(* Avoid BK-BZ which are for religion.  In the LoC system, BS is where you find the bible.)

The world is no longer a distant concern (re: politics, the environment).  High school history and social studies don’t teach you everything.  And worst of all, schools “teach” for you to pass a test, they don’t teach you how to think independently.

I wish I someone had told me this when I was eighteen.  It would have made a big difference.

And yes, consider Community College, especially if you’re in the US. It’s a bargain compared to overpriced state colleges.  It’s the same education without the “connections” schmoozing.


  1. Allison says

    I went to college because it was a choice of going there or continuing to live at home.

    Fortunately, it wasn’t a disaster. Most of my courses were easy for me. The only ones that were hard were the ones that required writing essays. And at some point, I took a course that required essays on something I was interested in, and for the first time in my life, someone explained to/showed me that the point of an essay is to get an idea across. Up until then, my experience was that my grade was in direct proportion to the BS content (and in inverse proportion to how much sense my essay made.) It didn’t make writing any easier, but it did make what I wrote a lot better.

    (The next step in learning to write was the lesson that it’s not enough to express good ideas, you have to have a particular audience in mind and figure out what you have to write so that those readers will understand what you want them to. Even harder, but the results are a lot better.)

  2. lanir says

    I had abusive and controlling parents who sent me to religious schools where I was bullied all through grade school and parts of highschool. I got an academic scholarship for a state school on the other end of Illinois, a several hour trip away from where I grew up. I needed to get away from my parents and this was an escape, but I wasn’t ready for school.

    My parents had a pattern they fell into where we’d frequently do projects and they’d assign me and my sibling to do something, usually with vague instructions. No matter what we did or how we did it, my dad would come by later and tell us we were doing it wrong, yell at us, and hurriedly instruct us on how he wanted it done. To get it right the first time would have required mindreading. I talked about it with my counselor recently and I may not explain this well but when someone is usurping control so regularly like this it erodes the internal foundation you have that allows you to be a responsible person. Things feel like they just happen to you and then you just feel terrible because everyone tells you you’re responsible for the end result even if they’ve puppeted you right into it.

    So… I bombed out after a year and the university wouldn’t let me wipe the slate clean and start over some years later. During that year I learned a lot, it just wasn’t in the classroom. I found my people, I started gaining some self-confidence and basically started the long path to learning all the stuff I could have picked up if I hadn’t grown up surrounded by awful people.

    It would’ve been far better if I’d been able to take advantage of what the university had to offer. At the time I was also confused but I loved learning. So I was the only English major in my physics class. Yeah, the material would have been challenging but I could have handled it. I was only ready to learn, I wasn’t ready to deal with the classrooms full of other people and teachers. I’d had a lot of problems with both students and teachers before. This is oversimplifying things considerably but I think I was waiting for someone to step in and tell me I was screwing up and what I needed to do. What I really needed was mental health counseling but it would take me a long time to realize that and even longer to get it.

  3. johnson catman says

    In the LoC system, BS is where you find the bible.

    LOL!! How utterly appropriate!