Two things I wish my teenaged self had known about college
In my last post, I talked about my early misconceptions about choosing a career and a major. My next big life decision was selecting a college, and I was pretty woefully misguided there, too.
I approached college selection in my usual methodical manner: first I sat down with two huge catalogs — each two inches thick on newsprint-thin paper — that listed and rated every accredited school in the country. I made a list of desired criteria and started winnowing the possibilities. Then I sent a letter to every school that met those criteria — well over a hundred of them — asking for course catalogs and other materials.
I had also qualified as a National Merit Finalist, so from the moment my PSAT scores were released, I had been getting unsolicited college brochures in the mail as well, often several a day. I saved everything in a brown lawn-size garbage bag under my bed.
Eventually, I gathered up all of these publications — by then overflowing the bag — sorted them into piles by college, and began the process of deciding which universities I would apply to. I was confident that I would make good choices, because I had collected ALL the information.
There was just one problem. I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t actually getting information. I had a 39-gallon garbage bag full of advertising under my bed.
That’s the first thing I wish someone had explained to me — that colleges are selling a product. Their main goal is convincing you to give them your money … or in the case of outside scholarships, convincing you to give them someone else’s money. Even if the school is footing the entire bill, because you were valedictorian or a National Merit Finalist or whatever, the aim is still money: they’re using you to bump their statistics and rankings in order to convince other prospective students to give them money. Whether the school is a good choice for you is completely beside the point.
In most cases, the picture of college life that you get from a brochure or a campus tour is no more accurate than the hamburger in a fast-food television commercial. The fluffy golden bun, sizzling grill-seared meat, curly green lettuce with water droplets arcing outward in slow motion, all bear no discernible resemblance to the smushed hockey puck you actually unwrap.
Even hard facts are suspect, because you can’t possibly know the whole story. For example, I chose my college in large part because it had an entire Fiction Writing department, with its own classes and a separate major. Many colleges offered a few writing courses under the umbrella of the English department, but to have a full curriculum at the undergrad level was rare indeed, and I thought it bespoke a dedication to the craft that I wouldn’t find elsewhere.
I transferred in to that college as a sophomore and immediately signed up for my first fiction writing course. On the first day I was alarmed; by the second class I was horrified. It was like military boot camp for writers. The entire purpose seemed to be to break everyone down and build them back up again in a very particular mold. I was seriously afraid that it would ruin me for writing altogether.
Fortunately I had drawn one of the more lenient grad students as instructor, and I found a loophole, a way to pass that one class without being completely undone by the freakish method. And then I abandoned the Fiction Writing degree and fled the department.
By the time I’d been at the school a couple of years, I had gotten to know some of the professors well enough to piece together the real story. As with most universities, fiction writing had started out as part of the English department. But one professor was an egomaniac who had developed his own paint-by-numbers approach to the teaching of writing. Most of the existing faculty disagreed, but he had more political power with the administration. When the dust settled, he had his own department, supported by the single professor who agreed to follow his method.
All the other professors — many of whom were published novelists — were thereafter only allowed to teach literature and essay courses, not fiction. (By contrast, almost all of the FW courses were taught by grad students, and no one, not even the full professors, had actually published fiction outside of the school’s own press.)
Freed from the constraints of the FW major, I took literature classes from several of those novelist professors. For writing practice I fled to poetry, which had remained with English in the political schism. I returned to Fiction Writing only once, for the class in Science Fiction Writing, which was taught by a visiting instructor who was an actual science fiction novelist. Being not properly part of the department, she was able to ignore most of the idiotic methodology and teach the class her own way. (My final project for her class became my first published short story, and won a major award. At the time I thought of it as my personal middle-finger to the head of the FW department.)
That was the most dramatic example for me, but by no means the only one. The second big thing I wish I’d understood is that college doesn’t actually revolve around the students. Universities, like any organization, are chock-full of personal politics. College professors almost universally have goals quite unrelated to teaching yet another set of kids the basics of whatever for the umpteenth time. They have personalities, and ambitions, and foibles. There will be struggles over power, over money, over prestige. And all of those things will define your experience as a student — sometimes in ways you come to understand, but often entirely behind the scenes.
If I could go back and give advice to my teenage self, here’s what I’d tell her:
Any assumptions about college you make in advance are likely to be wrong — there’s just too much you can’t know until you have boots on the ground. All that advertising under your bed is actual garbage: toss it out now. Same with campus visits — they’re still marketing, and give you a very poor idea of reality. College ratings are rigged — ignore them. Don’t succumb to flattery. Don’t pick a school for the major you think you want. Don’t assume that any circumstance that exists today (class, teacher, program, department) will be the same next year, or four years from now.
Instead, remain flexible. Pick the largest, most diverse university you can afford and keep your options wide open. Try lots of things, because your favorites will surprise you. When you find a teacher who inspires you, cultivate her acquaintance and take every class she has to offer. If something stinks, bail. Let go of preconceptions and adjust to the real circumstances in which you find yourself.
It’s been almost a quarter-century since I sat on my bedroom floor surrounded by stacks of catalogs and brochures. Marketing has only gotten more sophisticated, and I feel confident that academic politics are as pervasive as they ever were. As far as I can tell, teens today are no less naive or idealistic — if anything, they may be more likely to have unrealistic expectations.
In fact, the only significant difference is that a college education costs a lot more — over than three times as much, while wages have remained the same. That’s a lot of money to spend barking up the wrong tree.
What important things about college do you wish you’d known as a teenager?