College: What I Did Right (Part 1)

College: What I Did Right (Part 1)

Several weeks ago I volunteered to speak to a group of asleep high school students about my experiences as a woman in STEM.  Though the students seemed minimally interested in my talk, it allowed me to reflect on how a lot of the choices I made in college a decade ago (audible gasp!) still affect me now.  For those who actually want to listen, here is a list of things I feel I did right when I was in school that helped me reach financial stability today:

1. I went straight there from high school

Obviously this isn’t an option for everyone, but if you happen to be a 16-18 year old who stumbled upon my blog, LISTEN: it is much harder to go back to school and take courses when you have serious bills and a family.  I easily took a full course load with minimal distractions when I was 18.  At 30, I am now struggling to squeeze in time to take one online class for my job.

Over the past few years I’ve watched a lot of my coworkers try to get online degrees and ultimately give up.  Don’t be one of them if you can.

Even if you do need to go back to school, carve out dedicated, undistracted time to work on your courses.  I pretty much work on my online class between when I get off from work and when my husband gets home from work.  Anytime after that will realistically eaten up things my husband wants to do ranging from urgent errands to binge watching anime.

2. I made applying for scholarships a part-time job

When I entered college, I made sure I came in with at least some free money.  I first looked into what schools I could realistically afford and didn’t get attached to any schools I couldn’t.  Because of scholarship options, I chose to stay in Florida. 

I ended up going to a private school in Florida for pretty much free.  I started off by filling out the FAFSA and qualified for some need based grants and the work study program at my school.  Because I had a certain SAT score and community service hours, I also got the equivalent of full public school tuition (several thousand dollars a year) applied to my bill through Florida Bright Futures.  Florida even has a grant called the Florida Residency Access Grant that basically exists to keep the public schools less crowded by giving out scholarships for attending Florida private schools. 

My grades, class rank, and SAT scores helped me get the bulk of my scholarship funding with an academic scholarship that covered ¾ of my private school’s tuition each year.

I really didn’t waste time with scholarships that involved “write an essay and maybe get $500 if yours is better than the 100,000 other essays we received.”  Instead, I invested by time into improving my SAT/ACT scores.  Between my first and second attempts at the SAT, I increased by score 150 points just by doing a few practice exams.  This jump in my SAT score is what helped me the most in affording the school that I went to.

3. I got work experience related to my major while in school

Although being in school and sticking to a class schedule is hard work itself, you need to be able to prove to future employers that you can apply your knowledge.  Even if you don’t exactly get work in your field of study, having a job shows that you have a work ethic and can fit into the roles in a traditional work place (answering to a manager, showing up consistently and on-time).

I pretty much had to work when I was in school to pay some basic bills.  I spent 3 years working in my college’s library, worked as a teaching assistant two semesters, and got a lab job on campus my senior year.  The lab job is really what gave me an edge in future real-world jobs.

Now that I’ve been in the real world for a while, I’ve seen resumes at my past and current jobs come through and get turned down based on lack of experience.  Find a way to get some experience related to your major, even if you just start with a volunteer-based role a few hours a week.

The places I’ve worked have also made some questionable hires of entry-level employees who can’t troubleshoot, problem solve, or work with their hands.

Yes Jimmy, I’m sure you are the master of organic chemistry, but please staple these reports and take out the trash without being overly contemplative about it.

So while you are cultivating your academic knowledge, develop a wide variety of other skill sets at can be used at any job (basic office skills, building social and networking skills).  Again, this is best accomplished by working while in school.

Those are the 3 main things I did right while I was in school.  In Part 2, I will cover what I did wrong, or what I would do-over again if I had the chance.

Readers, do you have any advice for those heading to school and starting off in their careers?  For those in school, do you have any questions for me about paying for and making money after college?  Comment below!

What I Did Right in College

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