I created The Ultimate College Guide to help students maximize their college experience. The most common question I am asked during interviews is “What is your best college advice?” Now, I can confidently point to this article when asked that same question and know that I haven’t missed any crucial information. This guide unveils all of the strategies and secrets I utilized and learned throughout my college career. I hope that it can help you succeed too!
Okay, let’s start from the beginning. You’re currently a high school senior trying to figure out which college to attend and which major to choose. Overwhelming, am I right? This ultimate college guide will teach you how to win at college and set yourself up for a successful future.
Choosing a University
One of the most common questions among soon-to-be-graduating high school students is:
“Should I attend a private university or state university?”
Let’s observe the Pros and Cons of each.
|Close-knit alumni network||Lower acceptance rate|
|(Arguably) better professors|
|Favored by employers|
|Less Expensive||Not favored by employers|
|Vast alumni network||Less prestigious|
|Higher acceptance rate||(Arguably) worse professors|
|In-state tuition discounts|
We could spend hours arguing about the pros and cons of each, but the MOST IMPORTANT factor is cost. According to College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for private and public universities were $35,000 and $10,000, respectively.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume no scholarships or grants are awarded. A student who elects to attend a state university typically graduates from his/her four-year degree with $40,000 in student loans. Compare this to $140,000 in student loans if he/she attended a private university!
In my personal opinion, attending an expensive private university is rarely worth it. Success doesn’t come from a specific university, it comes from the student. A solid work ethic and drive will always outweigh the university name on your resumé.
Starting a career buried in $140,000 worth of student loans is not an ideal position. In no way am I bashing private universities, just the cost. If you can somehow secure a private university education for free or nearly free using scholarships and grants, go for it!
Scholarships are key in eliminating the need for student loans. There are two main types of scholarships: (1) University scholarships and (2) Third-party scholarships.
As the name might suggest, these are scholarships associated with your specific university. These are typically the mega scholarships that can make college free or nearly free for both private and state universities.
Check your university’s scholarship page to see which scholarships you might be eligible for. If you’re a biology student, you probably can’t apply to the “Business School Scholarship”. After identifying some potential scholarships, create a plan and apply to as many as possible.
Third-party scholarships are unaffiliated with your University. These scholarships often target a specific subset of students (e.g. Must major in Economics, must be Latino, must play Water Polo, etc).
There are some great resources for finding these third-party scholarships. My two personal favorites are Scholly and Scholarships.com. I’ve applied for dozens of scholarships on both of these sites and have been successful with quite a few! There are hundreds of great sites to find scholarships, I just included these two because I have the most experience with them.
This site is my personal favorite. Although it costs $2.99 per month, you definitely get your money’s worth. Their scholarship-matching tool is amazing. Once you input all of your information (University, State, Major, etc.), Scholly matches you with the best-fitting scholarships. I received nearly $20,000 over my college career from scholarships on this site.
Similar to Scholly, Scholarships.com takes your information and matches you with possible scholarship opportunities. I have found less success with this site, although I did earn some scholarships. The one benefit to Scholarships.com is that it’s completely free, which might explain why the search engine is less powerful than Scholly’s. I received approximately $5,000 in scholarships from this site.
Since first writing this post, I have stumbled across two other great scholarship resources.
StudentScholarshipSearch – This is a scholarship matchmaking site similar to Scholly and Scholarships.com.
ScholarshipPoints – This website “gamifies” scholarship applications. You earn points by applying to different scholarships and these accumulated points grant you the opportunity to earn even more scholarships!
Scholarship Tips: Build several templates for different scholarship essays. I built around 5 or 6 templates addressing common scholarship essay prompts. You can easily recycle these templates and make slight tweaks when necessary. I probably applied for 75 or 100 scholarships using only 5 or 6 essays (with minor tweaks). Here are some common scholarship prompts in their most general form:
- What is your greatest accomplishment?
- Why did you choose your major / What will you do with your major?
- Why do you deserve this scholarship?
Of course, these are extremely general, but I just wanted to give you some ideas. These templates will not work for every single scholarship prompt, but for me, they probably fit 80% of the time.
Build templates, search scholarships websites, and try to apply for one scholarship every day. Taking 30 minutes out of your day is well worth the thousands of dollars in potential savings.
Selecting a Major
I am not here to tell you your passions, goals, and dreams. Want to learn how to write a symphony? Do it! Want to become a lawyer? Do it! I have no authority coming between you and your dreams, but what I can do is help you understand the financial implications of your decision.
To highlight these lessons, I will use three starkly different examples. The metric I have chosen to use is debt repayment. All three of these students attended a state university and received no scholarships or grants. We will use the $10,000 state university cost provided by College Board, assume a 5% savings rate, and a 3% annual raise (U.S. national averages). Let’s have a look.
Reggie went to school to become a radio announcer. He paid $40,000 for his bachelor’s degree ($10,000 x 4) and the median income for a radio announcer in 2017 was $31,400. Assuming a 5% savings rate, let’s see how long it takes for Reggie to repay his student loans.
Analysis: The red columns represent Reggie’s student loan debt and the green columns represent Reggie’s debt repayment (5% of his annual income). Reggie graduated at age 22 and took 20 years to repay his student loans. He is finally debt-free at age 42.
Techy Tanya went to school for software engineering. She graduated at age 22 with $40,000 in debt. Her annual salary starts at $103,400 (median salary according to US News). Let’s take a look at her student loan situation.
Analysis: Tanya graduated at age 22 and took 7 years to pay off her student loans. She is debt-free at age 29!
Donnie Doctor completed his bachelor’s degree at a state school for $40,000. He then went on to accumulate $208,000 more in student loans in medical school (State medical school average according to the Association of American Medical Colleges). Donnie completes his two years of residency, but he does not make enough money to pay back his student loans yet.
Donnie finally achieves his dream of becoming a doctor and earns $250,000 per year. Let’s see how long it takes Donnie to repay his student loans assuming he contributes 5% of his earnings toward debt repayment.
Analysis: Donnie finished residency at age 28 and took 16 years to pay off his student loans. He is finally debt-free at age 44.
Of course, these examples are broad generalizations and there are hundreds of factors that could change these outcomes. I just wanted to give you a general understanding of how your choice of major affects your financial situation.
From a financial perspective, yes, some majors are more favorable than others but don’t think that the most financially sound major is always the best choice. Tanya might be in the most advantageous financial position from her career, but Reggie makes people laugh every day on his radio show and loves doing it. Donnie saves lives every single day.
Some factors can’t be put into a spreadsheet, but for the factors that can, I’m your guy.
When searching for an on-campus job, there are some factors that you should consider. Find a job that’s relevant to your major, provides networking opportunities and leaves time for homework.
Let’s look at some awesome on-campus jobs and some not-so-great options.
This is my #1 recommended job. A teacher’s assistant gathers a deeper understanding of his/her field, forms a direct relationship with the professor, and often times has plenty of free time to do homework while getting paid!
My recommendation here might be biased since I was a Teacher’s Assistant myself, but I truly believe that this is the holy grail of on-campus jobs.
Research or Lab Assistant
Like a Teacher’s Assistant, a Research or Lab Assistant typically works directly with a professor. The work is usually more involved though, and not much free time is leftover to do homework. In addition, the Research or Lab Assistant does not typically gain experience working with students in the classroom. However, the one huge benefit to this position is the knowledge acquired in your respective field.
Any Food Service Job
This on-campus job is one of the easiest to secure but avoid at all costs. Let’s look back at our criteria for a good on-campus position and evaluate.
This job is probably not relevant to your major unless you’re a dietician or nutritionist, but even so, wiping tables in the dining hall doesn’t exactly scream “relevance”. You probably won’t find too many networking opportunities while spooning over mashed potatoes to hungry students either. Finally, there’s definitely no time for homework at this type of job.
Put some thought into which on-campus job is right for you. From personal experience, it’s definitely worth it to find the perfect fit. If you’re strapped for cash and really need a job, then of course just take whatever job you can get.
Have you ever heard the saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Although you may not like it, this statement is 100% true.
Networking is the fine art of building lasting relationships and connections. There is often a scammy connotation associated with the word, but if done correctly, networking can open heavy doors.
How to Network
|Be human||Act like a weird robot|
|Ask curiously about someone’s career||Ask for a favor right away|
|Follow up occasionally||Incessantly email or contact|
How to Act
Networking can definitely be nerve-wracking at first, but just relax! It’s easy to forget that no matter who you’re talking to, he/she is a human being with hobbies, passions and most importantly, a personality. Don’t act like a weird robot and systematically ask boring, rehearsed questions related to his/her field. Be yourself, act genuine, and you’ll be 10x more successful in establishing a real connection.
What to Talk About
NEVER ask someone for a favor during your first interaction, whether it be in-person or online. You don’t want to come off as a “What’s in it for me?” type of person. Think about it from their perspective, if some random student asks for a favor right from the start, how likely are you to say yes? Instead, ask curiously about their career, how he/she got there, and how you’d love to learn more. These types of questions can lead to deeper, genuine conversations.
Following up occasionally is an important part of networking. If you exchange a few emails with someone and then never follow-up, chances are that he/she will forget about you and the connection will be lost. However, a timely follow-up message can help to form a lasting connection. Maybe during your last conversation, he/she mentioned their upcoming vacation — ask about that in your follow-up! Talking about work is okay, but connecting on a more personal level is always preferable.
When it comes to networking, LinkedIn is your best friend. If you don’t have an account already, make one after you’re done reading this! LinkedIn is a powerful tool for finding professionals by searching profiles for a specific university, industry, or position.
Let’s say you want to find an alumnus from your university that works at Google. You can set your search settings to “Your University” and “Google” and LinkedIn will do the rest. Find individuals in positions you are interested in and reach out! Every single day, try to reach out to at least 1 individual on LinkedIn. Some people won’t answer you but don’t be discouraged, it’s all part of the game.
“So I should just send messages to random people on LinkedIn that look interesting to me?”… Yes! This was tough for me to comprehend at first, but once you start it becomes second nature. I’ll show you an example of a LinkedIn message format that was successful for me.
I stumbled across your profile and noticed that you’ve worked as a _____ for ___ years. I’m currently a freshman/sophomore/junior/senior studying ______ and would love to hear more about your position. I have a particular interest in ____ and would appreciate a conversation with you to learn more. I’m available for a phone call at any time at xxx-xxx-xxxx or you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look forward to hearing from you.
Networking is important for advancing your career to new heights. Get out of your comfort zone and reach out to people! Be human, engage in meaningful conversation, and follow up periodically. Find individuals on LinkedIn and connect with them. Networking doesn’t work 100% of the time, but your next connection just might land you the job of your dreams.
An interview is a chance to showcase your accomplishments, express your passion for the position, and convince the interviewer that you’re a reasonably normal human being. Always think from the interviewer’s side of the table.
If you were a manager interviewing a candidate who blandly answered all of the required questions and failed to demonstrate any true passion or interest in the position, would you hire them? Probably not.
An interview is a tool, you just have to learn how to use it. In my previous interviews, I always brought a bound and laminated research project I had completed. Why? Because nobody else did it. Before the interview had even started I had already differentiated myself.
“Be different and you will get noticed” – Ghandi
That quote was made up, but you get the point.
Know Your Story
Interview questions may have subtle differences in wording, but generally, these questions are all seeking the same answers. To prepare for these questions, recall several specific stories highlighting different aspects of a quality candidate.
These questions may sound something like:
- Describe a time when you failed at something. How did you overcome this failure and what did you learn?
- Tell me about a time when you worked in a group with uncooperative members. How did you handle the situation?
- What is your greatest accomplishment?
I could go on for hours, but you can find these types of questions with a simple Google Search: “Common behavioral interview questions”.
The best way to prepare for these types of questions is not to have 100 perfect answers for each specific question, but instead to have several stories in your arsenal that can be molded to answer a multitude of questions. To organize these stories you can group them into three categories: (1) Accomplish, (2) Fail, and (3) Overcome.
If you have some experiences that cover multiple categories, even better! Once you’ve memorized and developed your stories, you’ll be ready to tackle almost any behavioral interview question.
When it comes to technical questions, there is one important rule: Never pretend to know what you don’t know. Technical questions are questions related directly to your major or field of study. If you’re a finance major, you might get asked about the financial markets. A computer programmer might get asked which programming languages he/she knows. You get the idea.
The best way to learn the technicals of your field is through practical experience. Of course, this is not possible if you are interviewing for your first job and have no experience, but if you have prior experience you should leverage that in your interview.
The next best way to approach technical interview questions is by networking with someone at the company of interest. In my experience, the people most willing to help you are young, 20-somethings who are still in the early stages of their career. Set up a phone call with someone using the various networking techniques I highlighted before and find out what types of technical questions you might be asked in your interview. Knowing some potential questions beforehand can give you a huge advantage.
If you lack prior experience and are unable to network with someone at your company of interest, look up “Technical questions for ______ position” on Google. I have certainly learned valuable information using this method, but to be honest, the amount of information is quite overwhelming and you may not know where to start.
- At the end of almost every interview, the interviewer will ask you if you have any questions for them. ALWAYS plan one or two well-thought-out questions and you will stand out from the competition.
- Be conversational. Don’t answer the questions like a robot. Add your own personal twist or experiences to your answers. Having a conversation is a lot easier than taking a verbal test.
- Side note: One time I got on a 15-minute disc golf tangent with my interviewer because he saw it on the “interests” section on my resumé. We spent half the interview talking about disc golf! Talk about an easy interview.
- Know some facts about the company you are interviewing with. A common interview question is “Why do you want to work here?” Having company-specific information to answer this question will definitely impress the interviewer and prove that you are truly interested in their company.
An interview is your 30-minute chance to prove yourself to your potential employer. Come prepared, differentiate yourself, and be personable. Good luck with your next interview!
In many industries, internship experience can make or break the start of your career. But why are internships so important? Often times, internships are much more valuable than a stunning GPA or other academic accolades. But first, where can you find internships?
Where to Find Them
The best three places to find internships are (1) directly through the employer, (2) on your University job board, and (3) on third-party internship sites.
Directly through the employer: Visit the website of the company you’re interested in and search for internship opportunities. Chances are if the company offers internships you can apply directly on their site.
University Job Board: Typically, your university will compile a list of potential internship opportunities within your major for companies that the university has a relationship with. This method of internship hunting can be great or not-so-great, depending on your university.
Third-party Internship sites: These are websites specifically made to aggregate internship opportunities. My two personal favorites are Indeed and Internships.com. These sites are typically helpful in finding potential opportunities, but your company of interest may not post their available internships on these third-party sites. If you’re interested in a particular employer, it’s always best to check on the company website.
Think Like an Employer
Craig and Miranda are both college seniors who recently applied for a full-time marketing position.
Craig has a 3.95 GPA, studies hard, and always finishes his assignments on time. He’s learned a ton about marketing in all of his courses and reads articles in his spare time to learn about more marketing techniques. The thing is, Craig hasn’t actually implemented any of the information he’s learned and has no way of proving himself to the employer.
Miranda has a 3.5 GPA. She’s worked multiple internship positions in the marketing industry and performed extremely well. She has data to show how she doubled social media presence at one internship and increased sales by 300% at another. She also brings in a marketing pamphlet and ad campaign she created to showcase to the employer.
If you’re thinking like an employer, Miranda is the obvious choice. Chris might have a great GPA, but he has no experience to establish his credibility. Miranda, on the other hand, has hard evidence of her skill set from previous internships. It’s important to note that Miranda has a 3.5 GPA, not a 2.0. Lots of experience and a 2.0 GPA will typically not earn you too many interviews.
Resumés and Cover Letters
Your resumé and cover letter are usually your first impression on a potential employer. The average time employers’ spend looking at a resumé is SIX seconds! If they don’t like what they see, you’re out.
Building a Resumé
Ideal resumé structures differ by major, but there are certain guidelines and considerations that can be applied to any resumé.
- Always fit your resumé into one page
- Don’t include irrelevant job experience
- Make sure your resumé looks clean and professional
Virtually every university has a career center that can help you create an informative and beautiful resumé. If you don’t have access to a career center, there are free online guides for building resumés in every industry.
A cover letter is basically a one-page paper explaining why you want to work for X Company. When it comes to writing cover letters, there are two main approaches.
Template Approach: If you know the position you’re interested in but aren’t specifically interested in a certain company, this is the approach for you. Similar to the scholarship template I discussed in the Scholarships section, you can also build cover letter templates.
Example: Bill wants to be a financial analyst, but doesn’t care what company he works for. He builds a financial analyst cover letter template and applies to 25 different companies. He makes minor tweaks to each application (Don’t forget to change the company name!), but generally, the cover letters are identical.
Targeted Approach: If you’re dead set on a specific company, I wouldn’t recommend using the template approach. Instead, visit the company website and note their values, mission statement, and goals. Make your cover letter personal and explain how you could help the company, and how the company could help you.
If you did some networking and met someone at the company you’re interested in, mention their name in your cover letter! Not only will the potential recruiter ask that person about you, but you will also seem more serious about securing the position.
Internships are crucial for securing competitive full-time positions upon graduation. Come prepared with the right toolbox (resumé, cover letter, industry knowledge) to obtain the internship that best aligns with your goals.
Finally, it’s senior year and you need to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. In this guide you’ve learned how to create a resumé and cover letter, to network and interview effectively, and how beneficial internship experience can be. Now it’s time to start your career and put your skills to the test.
The best way to lock down a full-time position is to receive an offer from the previous summer’s internship. If you worked hard and demonstrated a passion and talent for your position, chances are that company will not want to lose you and will, therefore, offer you a full-time position (if one is available).
There are some circumstances where this end-of-internship job offer is not possible, but not to worry, recycle the same skills you learned to obtain your previous internship and crush your full-time interview!
Decisions Aren’t Permanent
If you’ve jumped through all the right hoops and still didn’t land your dream job, it’s okay! Any job is better than no job (unless you are absolutely miserable). Take a step back and assess your situation.
If your most-promising job opportunity can give you value or help to develop crucial skills in your field, then take it. Use the skills you acquired in that position and use it them to propel you to your next position. Your first job out of college does not define your career or what you’re capable of.
When deciding on your first full-time job, identify how much upward mobility your starting position has. In other words, if you work hard and efficiently for months or years, will you be rewarded equitably? If the answer is no, you will likely find yourself extremely frustrated as you struggle to climb the corporate ladder.
If you truly want to be compensated based on effort and success, it might make sense to pursue a role in sales or with a smaller company. These types of organizations tend to have less corporate red tape regarding promotions, and value productivity and efficiency over tenure.
Real Hourly Wage
The terms “salary” and “hourly wage” can be deceiving because they do not account for actual time committed to the job. To highlight my point, I’ll show you an example of how stated wage and real wages can differ.
Todd has an annual salary of $41,600 and works a “40-hour workweek”. His weekly salary is $800 ($41,600/52). Therefore based on a “40-hour workweek”, Todd earns $20 per hour ($800/40). Todd commutes 30 minutes each way every day to his job and sometimes works late to finish his assignments (typically 1 hour every day).
After factoring in Todd’s commute and weekend work, he actually devotes 50 hours each week to his job. Therefore, his real wage is $16 per hour ($800/50). Todd is actually making 20% less than he thought he was!
Calculating real hourly wage can help to clarify if you will be well-compensated for your time. Be honest, run the numbers and see for yourself. You might be surprised when you realize the investment banking job with an annual salary of $100,000 pays only $24 per hour after accounting for the 80-hour work week!
Landing your first job is a huge milestone in your career. If you don’t get the dream job from the start, don’t worry about it! Use your current job as a platform to build your skills and launch you toward your goals. The highest-paying job in nominal terms might not always be as great as it seems. Find a job with upward mobility and a respectable real hourly wage that rewards you for your time and effort.
Bonus: Side Hustles and Investing
As a young adult, you have tremendous advantages over your middle-aged counterparts when it comes to side hustles and investing. The first is that you typically have little or nothing or lose. The second is that you have time on your side. The third is a low-cost lifestyle, which is crucial for creating opportunities.
Start your side hustles and investing in your early years and you will not regret it. The worst possible scenario is that you fail miserably and learn a ton along the way. Since you started with little to nothing, the cost is negligible. My advice to anyone thinking about starting a side hustle or investment portfolio is “Just do it”!
A side hustle is any kind of entrepreneurial business venture that supplements your primary job. Side hustles are different from on-campus jobs or part-time jobs in that you are the one actually creating the business. Building a business from scratch involves substantial learning and dedication, but that is what makes it so valuable.
My Failed Ventures
During college, I failed with two of the side hustles I created. The first of these ventures was a tutoring company. My plan was to market my finance and economics knowledge to high school students and charge a flat rate of $40 per hour (which seemed comparable to the competition). I wrote out a business plan and posted an ad on Craigslist.
Guess what happened! Not a single person contacted me. Why? I did little to no marketing for my business and I had no credibility. Long story short, I gave up and moved on. This venture cost me literally $0 and only a few hours of time writing up my business plan and posting on Craigslist. I learned the value of marketing and how to write up a business plan though.
A few months later, I tried my hand at a new venture. I was reading books like The 4-Hour Workweek and learning strategies about how to create successful side hustles. This second venture was a specialty clothing company. I created a logo, social media accounts, and drafted up some style ideas. However, when I went to contact clothing manufacturers in China on Alibaba.com I realized that I was in way over my head.
Eventually, I gave up on the venture because I was stuck and unmotivated, although I might have succeeded with some persistence. Through this business failure, I learned about social media marketing, distribution chains, and business documents. The reason why I shared these personal stories is to highlight that although I failed at creating successful businesses, I succeeded in gaining valuable knowledge.
Never Give Up
Don’t let a failed business venture discourage you. Instead, leverage the knowledge you gained to increase your chances of success in your next venture. If I were to give up side hustles after my failed tutoring company, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article right now.
There are so many possibilities when it comes to side hustles. Find an idea that interests you and then take action! After those two failures, I was finally successful with my third business venture, Arsenal Discs, but that story deserves a whole separate article. Recently I’ve been working on Fly to FI and enjoying every second of it. I attribute the success of Arsenal Discs and Fly to FI partially to the skills and knowledge I gained from my failed ventures.
Another massive advantage of starting a side hustle in college is your access to resources and information. In nearly every niche, you have access to professors, clubs, students, and more at your university. Utilize these resources while you have them!
For example, in starting Arsenal Discs — the disc golf company I co-founded with my business partner James — we took advantage of every expert willing to speak with us. We had help from a plastics engineering professor for our material, an aerodynamics professor for our flight characteristics, and a marketing professor for social media, website, and promotion.
Non-students typically do not have access to this type of expertise, so take advantage while you can. Thinking about creating an app? Reach out to a software engineering professor and get involved with the relevant clubs. Want to start a landscaping business? Contact the horticulture and civil engineering faculty and join committees and organizations.
There are so many different ways to tap into the endless resources that your university provides. If this post inspired you to start a business venture and you’ve taken action, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or message me on my Contact Page.
If I have learned one thing in my quest for self-fulfillment, financial independence, and happiness, it is that time is our most valuable asset. This same principle is true for investing. The earlier you start, the better off your investment accounts will do in the long run.
If you’d like to start learning about investing and setting up your account, check out my Vanguard 101 course. This step-by-step tutorial will teach you everything you need to know about account setup, the basics of investing and how to invest with Vanguard.
Another great option for new investors is M1 Finance. This platform is completely free and offers commission-free trading, the option to purchase fractional shares, robo-advising, and automated investing. This might all sound like mumbo-jumbo to you but check out my M1 Finance – Start Investing Today post and sign up! The minimum investment to establish your account is $100.
If you’re unsure about investing, let’s dig into some historical numbers to predict what types of returns you might see in your investment account. Let’s say you invest $5,000 at age 21. Using the 100-year historical average annual return of 8.86% in the stock market, this $5,000 would be worth $63,829 after 30 years! Investing $5,000 at age 21 is probably a lot more feasible than investing $63,829 at age 51. If you’d like to see the math click on this Future Value Calculator. Start investing today and never look back. Time is your most valuable asset so take advantage while you’re young!
Side hustles and investing are great ways to take advantage of the long life ahead of you. Use side hustles to gain valuable, real-world skills and learn how to create a successful business. Invest as much as you can while you’re young and capitalize on compound interest. No business venture is a true failure and no investment is too small. Taking these steps in college will put you lightyears ahead of the competition.
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