College Preparation & Application Tips

by George Huang                          (C)2010 -- Redistribution in exchange for any type of compensation is not allowed

Please note: this page is no longer being maintained. For latest info, please visit College4.Us.

Starting college already?  Don't bother with this document.  The document you need is this one: Tips for New College Students

Table of Contents

The Very First Step. 1
High School Curriculum Planning. 1
   Math. 2
   Choice of Foreign Language. 2
   Advanced Placement Classes & Exams. 3
Other Standardized Tests. 4
   SAT Subject Tests. 4
   SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT?. 5
   An Extra Test for Non-Native Speakers. 5
Alternatives to High School Classes. 5
Extracurricular Activities. 6
   Leadership Positions. 6
   Work Experience. 7
Awards. 7
College Application Preparation. 8
   Personal Statements. 8
   Recommendation Letters. 8
   Interviews. 8
The Wait-List
Other Questions About Colleges that Should be Asked... 9
   Should I go to college?
   What do I really learn in college?
   What should I study?
   Does going to college guarantee a good job?
   If I choose not to go to college, how do I prepare myself for the real world?
   Can I go back to college later?
   Is it worth the money?
   Can I really afford it?
   Should I aim for public or private schools?

Many freshmen in high school make a fatal mistake in the first two years of high school – not thinking ahead about college application and thus not taking the necessary steps to prepare for college application.  With proper planning, you can save a lot of time, effort, and grief in the last two years of high school.  You can do better on standardized tests without studying more!

The Very First Step

Get a copy of a blank Common Application from .  Most colleges accept the Common App, which covers information that most schools use to evaluate your application.  Print out pages 3 (Academics & Tests) and 4 (Activities) of the Common App and stick them to the wall.  Your goal is to have something to fill out most of those two pages by the end of your junior year.  Almost anything you do in high school should be evaluated by their contribution to the completion of those two pages.  There should not be any empty spaces (except certain test scores) if you do your planning carefully.

High School Curriculum Planning

Counselors are there to help.  Don't be afraid to approach them.  Many freshmen make the mistake of not talking to counselors until their junior or senior year.  Unfortunately, in most high schools counselors are too busy trying to prevent students from dropping out.  Therefore, it's better to avoid talking to counselors near the end of the semesters.  Also, many teachers are glad to serve the role of counselors.

Summertime is a great time to get rid of some classes that you don't find too useful and whose content you don't need to retain for testing purposes.  Avoid taking any math classes during the summer.  If you can read very fast, then literature-heavy classes may be OK, but of course these are not probably honors or AP classes.  If you have something worthwhile to do in summer, then perhaps summer classes are actually not your best options.


Math classes should not be taken over the summer, ever!  You want as much time to digest and practice as you can.  This is especially true since there are no SAT subject tests to take right after your summer school.

Geometry is a very unique class in high school.  It teaches problem-solving skills not found in most other classes, and those skills extend way beyond mathematics.  Therefore, spend time learning to do proofs well, and even ask for tougher extra assignments from the teacher if possible.

Statistics is extremely useful in college for most majors, even those that may not seem to be math-related at first.  If your school offers this, you should seriously consider taking it.

Calculus is very different from most other math class, and many students struggle with it because their teachers fail to explain what calculus really is and what it tries to solve.  If you find that you don't understand why you are doing certain things, ask about it.  Having an understanding of "why" can really help you learn calculus.  Otherwise it becomes a whole bunch of memorization which is not how math should be taught.  Memorization may get you good test scores in class, but you will not do well on the AP Exam.

Choice of Foreign Language

Choose a foreign language with your possible future career goals in mind.  While the foreign language requirement is seen by most high school students as a nuisance, thoughtful choices may have great short-term and long-term benefits.  When asked what skills employers look for, "a second language" was on the top of the list.

If you have a native language to build on and it is offered at your school, naturally you should use it as a foundation.  Although most tests are written, being able to speak a language makes it much easier to learn.  Also your family may be able to offer lots of help if it's a language they use frequently.

What to take depends largely on your short-term and long-term plans, your access to the classes and assistance, and how much work you want to put in.  And to help you decide, you need to learn a bit about these languages:

Most high schools offer languages in the following groups:

If you are thinking of doing retail, wholesale, or service-related business in the U.S., Spanish is almost a no-brainer.  In some parts of the U.S., Hispanics are becoming the majority population.  For instance, Spanish-speaking nurses are highly sought after in southern U.S. because there are many Hispanics but not enough Spanish-speaking doctors.  And by most accounts Spanish is rather easy compared to other Romance languages and German.

French, though considered the language of the upper class, is seen by many as somewhat illogical and unnecessarily complicated.  A group of scholars work hard to preserve its ancient practices.  But if you want to be in international politics, speaking French is a sign of sophistication.  (Don't believe me?  Read your passport – it has only English and French.)  Also, want to have a future in Africa?  Then French should definitely be in your consideration.  It's also good for impressing your dates at French restaurants.  You sure don't want to order 5 bowls of soup.

German is more closely related to English than other foreign languages taught in high school nowadays.  After all, English and German share the same roots and both are "Germanic languages."  German is very logical and analytical, but that does not make it easy.  If your school does not offer Latin, some believe German should be the language to study to help you with the SAT verbal test.

Both French and German are major languages in Europe but these people do not appreciate people who clearly know only a little of their languages to be insulting to them.  Interestingly, in Germany many people know English well and would gladly talk to you in English.  In France, they may also know English but would still force you to speak French.  It's a cultural thing...

If you are into art, then Italian should be near the top of your choice.  Enough said.

If you want to be involved with international trade, then knowing Mandarin Chinese could be very helpful.  Chances are many of your suppliers will be Chinese.  But it is also one of the most difficult languages to learn because of the complexity of its written language – it's not based on a system of alphabets.  If you do not have a Chinese background, I suggest you learn some basic spoken words just to show friendliness.  Most Chinese nowadays know some English anyway.

If you go to a private prep school or take classes at a local community college, you may have the opportunity to study Latin or Greek instead.  If Latin is offered, take it even though it likely has no practical uses in the business world.  It does have major uses in academia, medicine, biology, and even law.  Someone who knows Latin can avoid a lot of memorization associated with anatomy and biology, for example.  Here's a short argument in favor of studying Latin: .  Latin will likely help you dramatically with your SAT verbal preparations because "about half of all English vocabulary comes from Latin and another 20 percent from Greek." (taken from the above website).

A good website to help you decide is

I recommend you take as many years of a single language as you can.  Generally you cannot achieve any real proficiency in a language without at least two or three years of intensive studying in high school.  If you have the opportunity to travel abroad (e.g., through a student exchange program or missionary work), you should take it because you can learn a lot more through immersion.  And you learn a lot about their culture that you cannot learn in these language classes.

Advanced Placement Classes & Exams

Contrary to public belief, you do not have to take insane number of AP courses and tests to get into the top schools.  Doing so, and not getting good grades in some of them, is actually a sign of bad planning.  Also certain AP classes are more worthy of pursuit than others (e.g., calculus, sciences, and English).  For most people taking two per year during the last two or three years of high school is probably the limit.

Which ones to take can be tricky.  Ask around those experienced upperclassmen.  If you go to church youth groups or other similar activities, you have easier access to these experts.  In general, since you do not know many of the subjects, you cannot really know which ones you would enjoy or not.  In the absence of other influencing factors, the keys may be 1) the quality of the teachers, 2) the records of students at your school passing the AP exam, and 3) your current long-term career plans.  A good teacher can make a subject very interesting and easier to learn.  A good teacher usually has many students passing the AP exam also.  And since your long-term career plans are likely not settled for years, the quality of the teacher is therefore perhaps the most important concern.

There are some AP courses I would personally avoid: 1) fields that you do not enjoy (but how would you know?!) and 2) history (unless you really enjoy this subject).  The reason for avoiding history is simple: without a least basic foundation in economics, you cannot really understand history.  But you usually don't get economics until your senior year.  This means that your ability to analyze the real causes behind certain historical events is greatly compromised, and you end up with a limited understanding of why things transpired the way they did.

Another major debate is what to take first, chemistry or biology.  If you take geometry during your freshman year, then go after chemistry in your sophomore year.  Chemistry is also especially useful if you want to do AP biology.  Without a basic understanding of chemical reactions, you will have a hard time understanding certain parts of biology (e.g., metabolism, energy conversion, etc.).  If you rely on memorization to get through biology, it's a lot harder and very frustrating.

Here's one rarely known fact: you don't have to take an AP class to take the AP exam.  This is intended to help home-schooled students, but it indirectly helps non-native English speakers (i.e., take the test of your native language), and those who take classes at community colleges where credits may not transfer to the top universities.  However, this means that you should buy some books to help you prepare for the AP exams.  There will be some mismatch between the curriculum and the AP exam.

Conversely, you don't have to take the AP exam either.  If you don't feel confident about scoring a 3 or above, it's better that you don't take the test and have a bad score.

Other Standardized Tests

A key to doing well on standardized tests (i.e. SAT Reasoning, SAT Subject Tests, and ACTs) is timing.  Great timing can reduce the amount of studying needed and even ensure better scores.

SAT Subject Tests

First, these tests can be classified into two groups – those that are very class-dependent and those that aren't:

Non-class-dependent tests:

Class-dependent tests:

Here's one simple tip: time your SAT Subject Tests wisely and you can cut your studying time drastically.  Basically, take class-dependent tests only in May or June, with May being the preferred date if you are already studying for the same AP exam anyway.  AP exams are taken during the week, and SATs/ACTs are taken on Saturdays.  So there's no timing conflict.

There is one major exception.  If you are taking classes at a local community, you may learn the whole year's worth of materials in one semester (e.g., the first semester of 1st-year college chemistry is basically a year's worth of chemistry in high school).  In that case, take the SAT II of that class in January.

SAT math Subject Tests should be taken as early as possible once you have learned all that would be tested.  For many, this means the end of geometry or the start of trigonometry.  For some of you, taking an SAT Subject Test at the end of your freshman year may actually be the right thing to do.  Research on this a bit (these tests have changed significantly since I took them...).

Some colleges do not accept SAT foreign language test scores of one's native language.  Therefore, look through the college requirements carefully.  "Native language" generally refers to your first-learned and dominant language.  Therefore, if you were not born and have not spent most of your early childhood in another country where that language is dominant, then that particular language is probably not your native language.  Even if you speak mostly another language at home, it may still not be your native language if you speak English most of the time outside of your home.  If in doubt, contact the college and explain your situation.

You can take as many as three SAT Subject Tests in one day.  Try to schedule it so you do only two (maybe two in May and one in June).  Your scores on the third test may be lower because of exhaustion.

Take non-class-dependent SAT IIs, SAT Reasoning, or ACT at other times when you feel you are ready (take a few sample exams to see if you are really ready...).

Clever scheduling will cost you a bit more money, but it's worth it.  If money is an issue, get a fee waiver from the counselor.

There are many tips and tricks that you can learn online, in books, or at preparation classes.  Read them!  Remember your goal here is to get the best score, not to be the best student.  Sometimes to ace tests, you have to do some things differently (e.g., write long, semi-intelligent essays in a brief period of time instead of the best essay possible).  It's sad, but you have to beat the system in order to make it to the best colleges.  (On the other hand, the essays you write for your application should be concise and intelligent...)

SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT?

There are major differences between the two.  Some people feel that SAT Reasoning focuses too much on vocabulary, and its math questions are tricky.  ACT, on the other hand, is more closely aligned with what you learn in high school.  So for many people, it's easier to prepare for one than the other.  You may be able to find out which one suits you better after trying them out and figuring out your potential in raising scores for both of them.  Personally, I got the same equivalent scores on the two tests (those tests are different than today's tests, however).  But for the ACT, I studied for just one month, compared to a whole year for the SAT.

If you do take the ACT, please also take the writing test (unless you do really poorly on the writing test even after repeated practices).  Some schools require it, and you don't want to be missing that score when you apply to such schools.  The key is to practice such writing tests ahead of time.  It's a great skill to learn because writing intelligent essays quickly is absolutely critical in college.  You won't see too many multiple-choice tests in college...

An Extra Test for Non-Native Speakers

There is a test for students whose native language is not English: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).  The basic idea of TOEFL is to evaluate if one can use and understand English in an academic setting.  It is not there to test how many difficult words you know.  Colleges understand that non-native speakers may score poorly on SAT verbal or ACT but still have enough English ability to do very well in college.  Therefore TOEFL is required for all non-native speakers and it is in your best interest to take TOEFL if you are a non-native speaker.  By showing that you can follow the coursework without language problems, you can somewhat offset the poor scoring on the ACT and (especially) SAT verbal.  In most cases, people who have spent a few years in an English-speaking country should be able to ace TOEFL without much studying.

Alternatives to High School Classes

Many high school students have much success when taking classes at community colleges (CCs), which are full of people who are working adults and those who didn't quite make it into four-year colleges.  So in most cases, the competition is not very severe.

Most people take classes at CCs for the following reasons:

You have to apply early, and be ready to be refused into the class because CCs have to take care of their regular students first.  With the budget cuts in California, many people will have problem getting into classes.  Some classes may be offered online with few or no actual classes taking place.  If you have spare time, this would be a way to get those credits.

College classes also have a lot more resources that go with them.  Taking science courses at CCs is therefore highly recommended because you have so much more stuff available in the laboratories.  Access to these labs may make the subjects much more interesting than otherwise.

In most cases, CCs classes that are UC-transferable count as honors in GPA calculations.

Can you get your CC professors to submit recommendation letters?  Yes, but they probably cannot do so via the online Common Applications system.  Find them the mailing addresses or fax numbers of the Admissions office and send the letters in one of those ways (with mailed letters being the preferred method).  Make sure they mention all the information the admissions officers need to figure out where to file the recommendation letters (e.g., your name, your HIGH SCHOOL (not the community college) name, any codes given to you by Common Apps or the admissions office, etc.).  Of course, they should indicate clearly that they are college professors at a CC, not a typical high school teacher, and they should indicate the courses they taught you.  To ensure delivery, give your professors pre-addressed, stamped envelopes along with your request.  You are not supposed to see those letters and therefore you need the teachers to mail them for you.  And since the same recommendation letter can go to multiple schools, you can give a teacher multiple envelopes.  Also request the CCs to send in the transcripts.  They may request small fees to do this for you.

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges want to see passion and commitment along with achievement.  These qualities are signs of a person who can accomplish great things in life.  You should find something that you are willing to sacrifice a lot of your resources in order to make it successful.  Passion and commitment on useless things such as video gaming probably won’t do much good.  If you like video games, go into computer programming or chess.  And please don't mention that you are a big couch potato even if you are proud of it.

If you really have a special talent in fine arts, you can submit your work (e.g., a CD of your performance or pictures of your art work) and maybe even get a recommendation letter from your extracurricular advisor (but this must not replace those from "academic" fields such as English or science).  If your advisors' recommendation letters cannot be submitted online, ask them to mail them in.

Not all extracurricular activities are the same.  Some take up lots of time and they are simply not the best choices (e.g., marching band or cheerleading).  Some are considered to be "non-intellectual" (e.g., cheerleading) so they don't contribute to your college application as much as others.  So while you should do what you enjoy, remember that there are many other factors you need to consider, and there are options to do what you enjoy.  For instance, you can do music at your church or in a community group instead of of your school's marching band, which requires you to put in many after-school hours because of all the games.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a "well-rounded" person who’s good at everything.  You don’t have to play sports or music.  But you need to do something useful outside of classes.  Leadership is good but don’t spread yourself too thin and don’t start a club just to look good.  Also don’t join 10 clubs in the senior year just to look good -- it actually makes you look superficial.

If you have limited extracurricular activities because of family financial needs or a physical disability, make sure you explain that on your application or essay, or explain that to the interviewer.  Family needs are not your fault, and oftentimes it may make you stand out from among comparable applicants.  You can, in your essay or during the interview, discuss how the special circumstances help shape you in ways that are not likely to happen if your situation were not so unique.

Leadership Positions

Leadership positions are thought to be very critical for admissions to top universities.  What really matters is what you do in those positions and the demonstration of your leadership skills, not which elected positions or how many you got.  In fact, having too many extracurricular activities or leadership positions raises doubts about your commitment and involvement.  You can be the presidents of ten clubs and not do anything.  For the top universities that interview promising students, the interviewers will try to find out your actual responsibilities and achievements in those positions.  It's better to focus on a few and really put in your time and effort, then do many for the purpose of filling up the application form.

Work Experience

Work experience are great both for your college application and your personal development.  You learn many things from your work experience – work ethic, responsibilities, interpersonal skills (both to deal with colleagues and customers), and the value of money.  You will have a different appreciation for things once you realize how much work it takes to earn enough money to buy that iPod.

Would doing menial tasks actually hurt one's image?  The answer should be NO, and here is why.  The aforementioned lessons can be learned from almost all types of jobs.  Students are never seen less favorably when they have jobs that are considered menial to adults.  Yes, they can be more impressive if they have jobs that have major responsibilities or require advanced skills, but those jobs are hard to get, especially for high school students.  Students also learn a lot from observing how adults do their jobs, even though they don't get to do those tasks themselves.  Therefore, what you learned is probably more crucial than what you actually did.

Many parents do not allow their kids to work for a variety of legitimate reasons, such as safety and wanting the kids to focus on schoolwork.  Others may have reasons that are more pride-driven – not wanting others to think that they are parents who cannot provide for their kids.  There's one fact that many parents ignore when they consider a kid's request to work: kids work to learn, not to earn.  So parents: get over those concerns and instead try to figure out how to help your kids get the most they can from their work experience.  If you are really concerned about the impact on schoolwork, then let them focus on summer jobs.  There are no real good reasons for not allowing your kids to work.

If your parents own a company, does it count if you work there?  Well, the short answer is: "not as much."  You just don't get the same level of demands you'd get from an outsider, and also you will be treated differently by your peers at work.  I've heard of doctors trading their kids so they work at the other person's clinic.  That is an improvement over working for your own parents, but still you may be treated more generously than you would at a total stranger's company.  Take the challenge – work for a complete stranger and learn something.

Unpaid internships are also good, particularly if it's with a firm in a field that you are interested in exploring.  Your internship may also become a springboard for a future job.  Or maybe you learn enough about that field that you decide not to pursue it as your career.  Either way, it's good for your career development.

How about volunteer work?  Most volunteer works are fairly easy-going.  Hosting organizations tend to be very lenient about the volunteers' attitude and performance, and they tend to not entrust volunteers with important work.  So while volunteer works look good on your college application, paid work experience are probably more preferable than volunteer work.  The key is to explain your experience and how that adds to your understanding of the world and makes you a more mature person.

Your employer or supervisor can also write recommendation letters for you.  Sometimes their letters can better illustrate your work ethic and personal characteristics than those from your teachers.


Awards are always beneficial to your college application.  Enter into contests (e.g., essay, science, spelling bee, etc.) when you can.  Sometimes you'll win simply because you are one of the few entries that the sponsor receives.  (One year, for a national report contest, my history teacher's three students won the first, second, and third places in California.  They were the only three entries in the whole State, and so of course they won!)

Contests that help you with academic achievements (e.g., Academic Decathlon) are particularly attractive even if you do not win national or regional recognition.

Finding these contests may be the hard part.  Your teachers are probably better sources than your counselors.  You should also search online.  Don't discount contests sponsored by groups that you do not naturally belong.  Ethnic institutions may host contests that do not limit entry to people from their population.  For instance, I entered into an essay contest sponsored by the Skirball Cultural Center, which is a Jewish organization.

College Application Preparation

Start early!  This is a lot of work and too often students rush to get the applications in, and in the process make avoidable mistakes in essays or their responses.  In fact, this makes a good summer project for the summer before the senior year.  Too many kids get overwhelmed in the middle of their senior year and make dumb mistakes because they run out of time to complete all the college applications they want to do.

For some selective schools, they have supplements to the Common App that you need to complete.  In many of these supplements, they try to evaluate you as a person in greater depth than what the Common App tries to do.  They want to see how you think about certain aspects of your life experience (e.g., "What do you consider to be the worst failure thus far in your life?").  They may want to see how creative you are (e.g., "If you are an admissions officer, what other questions would you ask that we did not ask in our application form?" or "If you can use only five words to describe yourself, which words would you choose and why?").  Some students feel that these supplements are far more difficult than the Common App, which is mostly a report of what you have done instead of how you think.  So get these supplemental applications early and start working on them. For many, the supplemental questions do not change much from year to year.  Therefore you should get copies of those applications online or from other upperclassmen before the application season begins.  You may want to start collecting those supplements in your sophomore and junior years so you can start your preparations early.  If you find that you cannot answer certain questions because of the lack of experience (e.g., you have no work experience), then you will still have time to do something so you can respond to those questions.  Those thoughtful questions may also pop up in your interviews.

Personal Statements

First and foremost, your personal statements need to be about YOU.  Tell them something important in your life that made you better.  If it’s about a person that changed you, remember that you are the subject of interest, not that person, and therefore spend enough time talking about the impact on YOU, not just what that person did.  If it’s about a setback, emphasize what you learned and how that makes you better than before.  Having a failure in life and learning something from it may be a better personal statement than a "How Great I Am" piece.  Also, don’t give them a rundown of your life’s events.  This is not intended to be an autobiography.  Your life is too short for there to be a meaningful autobiography!

Recommendation Letters

Your recommendation letters will come from your counselor and teachers, and so get to know them and figure out who can best prepare your recommendations.  Ask early and give them ample time to write them – they may have many requests from many students.  In fact, the best time to ask may be right near the end of your junior year.  Remind them of the deadline two weeks before the actual deadline.  Refresh their memory by telling them the special things you did in their classes.


Most of the top universities try to interview their applicants.  Interviews are most often done by volunteer alumni.  They are busy people and so you need to accommodate their schedules.  When an interviewer makes contact with you, ask if they need any documentation from you.  Some may ask you to fill out a form to make the interview easier for them.  Thank them via e-mails immediately after the interviews to reinforce a good impression.  If you think there are issues that were not addressed during the interview, that thank-you e-mail may be your last chance to do so.  Don't ask questions like "what are my chances" because 1) the interviewer doesn't know, and 2) if he thinks you really don't qualify, he wouldn't want to tell you either.

Your interview is a chance for the college to know how you are as a person.  They like to see a person who is socially appealing and can get along with others well (i.e. not a loner or a weirdo).  Demonstrate your passion, commitment, uniqueness, and social skills.  Research the school a bit and prepare some intelligent questions to ask.  (Sometimes you ask questions not to get answers, but to show that you did your research and are really serious about the school.)  Show them you’re excited about the school and really want to go there.  Don’t appear to be a snob, but don’t unduly humble yourself either.

Remember, most interviewers do this volunteer work because they have a passion for kids and education.  They generally do not do this with the intention of being the "gatekeeper" of the schools.  Therefore, don't be too nervous even if you are talking to a top lawyer in a big law firm.  Interviews should be an enjoyable process for you.  Be yourself and relax.

The Wait-List

Sometimes you are not accepted outright but are placed on a "wait-list" by a college.  If this is from a school that you really, really want to attend, accept the invitation to be on the wait-list but make plans to attend a school that has accepted you.  After May 1, that school will know how many students are matriculating, and if the number is below their minimum goal, then they will review the students on the wait-list and offer them the chance to attend.  You will, at that time, have a very brief period of time to make up your mind, and so make your decision carefully.  If you are wait-listed by more than one school, you need to rank them in your mind so you can choose one quickly if more than one accepts you later on.  If the wait-list letter does not prohibit you from adding stuff to your application, then check with your teachers to see if they did send in the recommendation letters you requested, and send in those missing recommendation letters if some were missing.  Shortly before the admission decision date (May 1), send an e-mail or a letter to the admissions office to reinforce your desire to attend that school, and mention any new achievements or awards you received since your application was submitted.  If you spotted some weaknesses in your application and managed to compensate for them (e.g., signing up for AP exams or getting some work experiences), then mention them also.  Just remember, you got nothing to lose so go for it!

It is frustrating not knowing where you will go for college until early summer, but if it's a school that you really, really want to attend, then this may be your last chance.  And all you lose is the deposit sent to the school that you initially chose.  For something that will impact the rest of your life, that deposit (generally about $100 or so) is a tiny price to pay.

And if you don't make it in as a freshman, for most schools you can apply as a transfer student in a year or two.  So keep that in mind and make sure you meet all the transfer requirements by the time you want to transfer.

Other Questions That Should Be Asked...

Should I go to college?

That is a question many students don't even think about.  Ask yourself a few questions:
The first two questions help you evaluate whether you'll enjoy going to and studying in college or not.  The last question helps you see whether you'll enjoy the typical types of work that you would get with a college degree.  If you did not answer YES to all three questions above, then chances are you won't enjoy college and/or a college education may not do you too much good.  Still, there's no reason to force yourself to go to college or reject college because of your answers to those three questions.  It's ultimately your choice.  Right now, you may not fully appreciate the choices and opportunities in front of you anyway.

What do I really learn in college?

First and foremost, college is not quite an extension of high school.  It's very different.  In high school you have to learn the basics of many fields, even the ones you don't like.  In college there are still mandatory requirements, but they constitute around one-fourth of the graduating requirements.  The majority of the coursework is in the field you choose to study.  So you will be learning at least a field of study that you have some interest in.

For many people, however, what they learn in college end up not being very relevant to what they do at their jobs after college.  That doesn't mean their college education is wasted.  What most people really learn in college is not the knowledge taught in the classrooms, but ways of thinking critically, solving problems, adapting to changes, utilizing tools, expressing their points of view (both verbal and written), understanding others, working with others, dealing with others, and building connections for use later in life.

Finally, in college there are less homework but more projects that take weeks to complete.  Therefore, you will learn many important skills such as time management, independent study, and team work.  For those of you who do a senior thesis, you will find it a very fulfilling experience (after much sweat and tears, of course).  It's like giving birth to a child – taking months of hard work, days of painful labor, and finally getting the joy of creation.

What should I study?

Many high school graduates do not know what they really want to study.  That's OK because many of them simply haven't been exposed to enough fields of study to know what's really out there.  Many fields are a lot more interesting once you get more exposure to them.  And in most schools, switching majors is rather easy, at least in the first two years.  So if you are not sure what to study, take some general education courses to get more exposure, talk to students and teachers in different fields, or get internships during the first two summers.

This brings up another debate: should one choose liberal arts or specialty schools?  Generally one should go to a specialty school such as CalTech or Julliard only if they are 99% sure about what they want to study.  Otherwise, a liberal arts school is a safer bet, and they tend to be more interesting because of the greater diversity of the student body and fields of study.

Does going to college guarantee a good job?

No, hardly anything is guaranteed in life.  A college degree really helps you get the first or second jobs, but after that employers focus more on your employment history than just your education.  Your degree (both the reputation of the college and your field of study) helps potential employers guess your competence when they cannot rely on your employment history as a guide.

Of course, some jobs require college education or beyond (e.g., teachers, engineers, medical doctors, etc.), and no amount of “real-world” experience can compensate for the lack of required education.  If your career goal involves jobs that have such requirements, then stop reading this and go study!

If I choose not to go to college, how do I prepare myself for the real world?

First of all, make sure you are competent in the fundamental/soft skills – reading, writing, and arithmetic.  If possible, learn some skills that have immediate market potential (e.g., basic computer skills, accounting principles, nursing, cooking, etc.).  That generally helps you get your first job.  You don't have to be an expert at this time – the key is to get in the door of that company so you can learn more and become an expert.  Learn as much as you can at the job site, and constantly look for opportunities to move up.  You may find it necessary to go to a community college or a university extension school to get some classes to help you move up the job ladder.  For instance, many people take business management classes to help prepare themselves for management positions within their reach.  (Did you notice a word that keeps popping up – “learn?”  Learning is a life-long process and it is the key to a successful career.)

Many of the skills mentioned in answer to the question “What do I really learn in college?” can be learned outside colleges.  You just have to be motivated to pick up those skills on your own.

Can I go back to college later?

Yes, but it is very difficult a few years after high school.  After you get a job in the “real world,” you'll find it very difficult to stop making money and devote your time to college.  Because by then you have obligations – rent, car payment, kids, etc.  You can take classes at community colleges part-time, but many never finish their degree programs.  If you think college is for you, then do it soon after high school and get it over with.

On the other hand, many experts do recommend taking some time off before you go to graduate school.  It's a much larger commitment to make, and without some real-world experience, one may not know whether the field they choose is indeed what they really want to do in life.  Also they are less motivated than those who have seen the real world.  This is especially true for fields such as business administration where real-life experience makes a big difference in their motivation, attitude, perspective, and the understanding of the difference between theory and practice.

Is it worth the money?

Most people believe so.  On average, a college graduate makes $600,00 to $1 million more than a high school graduate.  Generally, the issue is the starting salary – college graduates get a lot more to begin.  But money is not the only nor the most important concern.  What you want to do with your life should be the deciding factor instead.

Can I really afford it?

If it's worth the money, then find a way to pay for it.  There are plenty of financial aid out there so most people who really want to go to college end up finding ways to pay for it.  Don't let the concerns for money deter you.  Apply first and see how much financial aid you get.  If you don't get enough financial aid, talk to the school about other options.  There are additional student loans you can take out.  Some people choose to do military service and get the government to pay for their college education (you can actually take classes and get some credits while in the military).

Should I aim for public or private schools?

Both types of school will teach you want you really need to learn, and so knowledge acquisition is generally not the issue.  For most students, it's a matter of cost – private schools can cost a lot more.  But with the financial difficulties in many public schools, you may not be able to get the classes you need and therefore you'll not graduate as quickly as you would at a private school.  In such cases, the cost differential may be less than the lost wages that you give up.

What's more important than the cost is the strengths of the programs.  Some private schools have some of the top programs in the country (e.g., filming at USC) and therefore the additional cost is worth it.  The connections you make are priceless.  Remember, the differential in costs is trivial when you compare it to the lasting impacts on your careers.


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