I graduated from high school nine whole years ago, which both seems like a really long time and no time at all. I was the VP of my senior class, and as such, gave the opening speech at my high school graduation ceremony. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I’m sure I congratulated everyone in my high school class for being amazing and having accomplished so much already and of-course-you-will-go-on-to-do-great-things because what other option is there when you’re 18 years old?
This past weekend, I sat through my younger stepsister’s high school graduation ceremony and listened to the many student speakers, as well as a local celebrity of some kind who had graduated from that same high school almost 20 years prior and was now giving the commencement address. Everyone pretty much said the same thing: Congratulations! Graduating from high school is an amazing achievement! You have already done it! You don’t need luck because you are already so amazing that you are going to change the world!
And it got me thinking. The past 9 years have been the most exhausting, difficult, trying, and confusing years of my life. I have grown immensely, but it’s not because I was such an amazing high school graduate that I went out to change the world. It’s because I messed up, had to go back and do some things over again, and, frankly, was led to believe that I was really hot shit before I had done anything to deserve that type of praise. And it might not have made a difference if someone had been honest with me during my high school graduation ceremony that this was how life actually is, but maybe it would have. So I started to think, if I could go back and re-write my high school graduation speech, what advice would I give now?
- High school is not even “just the beginning.” It’s Step Zero. Congratulations, you have completed the bare minimum requirement to become a functioning member of society, but you will need a bachelor’s degree (and probably also a master’s) before you can actually be a competitive force in the real world.
- Don’t spend too much money on your bachelor’s degree. It’s not worth it. Go to an in-state school or a small college that has a lot of scholarship money to give away. You will still have a great time and get a good education, but you won’t be stuck paying off loans until you’re 40.
- Major in something useful. If someone asks you “What are you going to do with that major?” and you don’t have a really good answer, switch majors. This doesn’t mean that you have to ignore your dreams, but think of it this way: No amount of passion can replace the business skills that are necessary to sell your screenplay, or the writing skills to write a grant for your next art exhibit. Plus, you can always take photography classes or painting lessons on the weekends for a lot less than $300 per credit hour.
- Going along with #3, it is never too late to switch majors. I have SO many friends who realized in their 3rd (or 4th!) year of undergrad that they didn’t actually care about political science/biology/history/whatever, but they felt like it was “too late” to change their major. And instead they ended up working a job they hated for 2-5 years before ultimately going back and getting the degree they actually wanted. Or, they could have graduated two or three semesters late with something they would actually want to use. You do the math.
- Learn to write well. Knowing how to communicate effectively is a skill that cannot be faked and cannot be overestimated, and it starts with writing skills.
- Study abroad. You will learn more about yourself in those few months than at any other time in your life.
- Sure, college is an important time to have fun and revel in the last few years of your youth, but really, the hard work starts now. No matter how hard you worked in high school, no future employer will ever ask what your high school GPA was. That number officially will never matter again. Like I said before, NOW is when your decisions start to matter, so choose wisely. Stick your neck out, prioritize, and start trying to think like an adult. If you can accomplish a few “adult” achievements during your undergrad career, you will be well situated when it comes time to apply for your first job.
- All that being said, take your time and don’t overthink it. It’s important to have goals, but it’s also important to be open to things as they come along. Maybe 1% of you, at best, will go on to do “that thing” you currently think you’re going to end up doing. The rest of you will change careers a dozen times before the end of your life. So focus on building marketable skills and on discovering what you’re good at, and don’t worry too much if you don’t have all the answers just yet.
Ok, so this list isn’t very cheerful. But maybe if someone had told me these things as an 18-year old, I would have thought twice about a few of the things that I’ve had to go back and ultimately re-do in my mid-twenties. And sure, that’s part of growing up, but a little extra advice never hurt, right? Would you add anything to this list?