Why You Shouldn’t Go To College (Unless You Know What You’re Doing)

When I was preparing my college applications, many, many adults told me, “Don’t worry about it if you aren’t sure what you want to do. Take some time your first few years, explore a variety of classes, find your interests.” Most of my friends hear the same. “Feel free to change majors if you don’t like what you’re doing or find something you enjoy more. You’ll have plenty of time. So long as you settle by your third year, you’ll be fine.”

To all this, I say: Lies.

In a different time, this might have been true. Maybe you could dabble around for two years before picking what you want to do. Maybe it was “never too late to change your major”, as my boss has said in public talks. But anymore? No way. Not if you want to graduate in four years with a degree. 

At my college, and most of the ones I considered applying to, there a a “core curriculum”, a set of basic classes that are required to graduate, that have nothing to do with your major or minor. A few of these, like the humanities sequence, need to be completed before the end of the first year. The school recommends most or all are done by the end of the second. But in total, you need 15 courses, plus fulfilling a language and PE requirement, to complete this core. Now, it has major advantages:  by being required to take social science, math, physical science, art, English, and history, these intro requirements mandate the sort of subject dabbling that can help undecided students find their academic passion. Additionally, it gives all students a similar, broad foundation (although not everyone has to take exactly the same classes). But at my school, they admit it takes up about 1/3 of a college career. I’ve seen similar numbers at other universities. And that’s a big chunk of time at college, just completing general reqs.

Then, there’s the majors and minors. The intensity and number of classes required for these varies by school, but at mine, our smallest minor requires 5 classes, while the largest requires 9. Majors have even more of a spread: the fewest classes required by a major is 13, and the most is 19. In my particular case, I need 7 courses for my music minor, and 18 for my BS in earth sciences. That, on top of the 15 core classes and the language requirement, which required another three. In four years, I can take a maximum of 48 classes, with 42 as a minimum to graduate. So, I had 8 classes to “have fun”; by this year, I’m down to 1. And I had the advantage of knowing exactly what I wanted to do when I started university. I have several friends who need their schedules to work out perfectly for them to graduate on time, with just their major. And this seems to be a problem all over the country. Looking at the college completion data from Chronicle of Higher Education, around 80% of students in private 4-year schools graduate in 4 year; 94% graduate in 6. And those are the highest rates: public 4-year colleges and all 2-year schools have even lower completion rates.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s a bit of advice a counselor gave me just a few months ago: “Your transcript ought to tell a cohesive story of your interests and progression in your field. It should demonstrate your focus.” This was for applying to scholarships and graduate schools. And they told me this at the end of third year. Most of a transcript is set by that point; there’s no way to build a picture of your growing knowledge and interest in a single year, especially if you were finding your interest for the first two and a half. But for anyone considering graduate programs, that’s yet another concern to keep in mind.

So, what do you do? Having a college degree is definitely an advantage, as it opens up job prospects and pay ranges. But, if you can’t graduate, you’ve put in a lot of time and money and have squat to show for it. Or, in another scenario, you have a degree in a field irrelevant to what you actually want to do. Or, maybe you can graduate and do have a degree you want, but it took 6 years, and all the financial aid and scholarships expired after 4, so now you have a massive pile of debt to start your adult life. But, as colleges pile on more and more requirements, it’s harder and harder to explore the range of classes offered to find what really sparks your interest. So what’s the undecided student to do?

Or you could go to Hogwarts…

My advice: community college.

There’s other options, of course: taking a gap year after high school to get some experience (and some money). Doing online programs. Still attending a college full time and hoping you’ll figure it out in the first year or so. But community college has some real advantages if you aren’t sure what you want to do. You can take a lot of the general requirements there, and transfer the credit to a different school once you know exactly what you want to do. You still get a much wider course offering than in high school, and have the freedom to pick and choose what sounds cool. Plus, you can save a lot of money, as it’s relatively easy to work and go to school part time, and you might be able to live at home (if that’s something you want to do). Then, when (and if) you decide to go to a college or university, you’ve already had experience with how college classes work, you’ve met a much more diverse range of people, you can graduate sooner, and you’ll be confident that you’re doing what you want to be doing, without as much pressure to get done. It’s not the path I took, but I know several who did, and found it very successful. And even if you decide after a couple years that college isn’t your thing, you’ll come out with an Associates degree, which is better than no college at all.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a stigma around community college, and the adults in your life might try to push you away from that option, in favor of attending a four year college straight out of high school. But college is more expensive, more intense, and much less flexible than it was when our parent’s generation attended. A college degree does not promise a job, and a college degree that’s not in the field you want to go into might be worse than no degree at all. So before you apply undecided, look at the options, evaluate yourself, and make sure that you know  exactly what you’re getting into. College is awesome, but it’s also really hard. And the less sure you are about why you’re there, the more difficult it’s going to be. You won’t have time in four years to dabble around and figure it out. Fair warning.

Featured Image Credit: Ali Marie (personal photo)

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.


  1. September 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm —

    I’m not sure if I’d entirely agree with this. I went in to college with no idea what I wanted to do and came out in 3 years with 2 majors. There is space to dabble depending on what kind of major you’re looking at (science majors are generally harder to start later on), and depending on which school you go to (my majors were only 8 classes apiece).
    That said community college is totes a good idea for a lot of people.

    • September 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm —

      That’s fair, there are definitely a lot of people who can go in with no idea what they want to do, and be just fine. I wasn’t trying to claim that never happened. Also, kudos on the double major in three years. That’s really impressive.

      I guess I’ve just seen a lot of people come in undecided, switch majors three times, and panic in their senior year when they can’t finish on time and the money is gone. A lot of these kids just don’t have the maturity or experience to succeed first year, and so end up screwing themselves over. By taking time to make sure they’re ready for the college experience (as it actually is, not as pop culture makes it out to be), I think a lot of people would be a lot better off. Maybe saying most people shouldn’t come in undecided is a stretch, but they should at least be prepared to figure it out quickly, rather than goofing off for two years.

      My two cents. 🙂

  2. September 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm —

    Nice essay. I had a small comment but it turned into a larger blog post: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/09/26/what-should-be-your-college-major/

  3. September 27, 2012 at 11:36 am —

    Community college can definitely be a good thing. I went to a public university right out of high school. I graduated with high honors from high school, but had no idea what I was doing when I got to college. All I did was watch Unsolved Mysteries with my roomie. At the end of my first semester, I had a 0.9-something GPA. Yikes. I managed to convince the school to let me back in under the conditions of academic suspension (worse than probation). If I didn’t take an academic recovery course, took more than 13 credits, or had a semester GPA of less than 3.0 (I think), I would have been kicked out for good. I did all of those things.

    That summer, I took a community college course as a guest student, mostly for fun. I ended up staying there and getting my Associate’s degree. A good thing about having an Associate’s is that (at least in my state) if it meets certain requirements and you decide later to go to a university, the majority of your core classes will be waived.

    At my university, tuition was over $350/credit hour. It it was less than $80/credit hour at the community college. I saved a ton of money.

    Not having to worry about taking core/exposure area classes, I had more time to take classes that interested me. My second semester back at the university, I took a Scanning Electron Microscopy class. That was so fun that I ended up taking all of the microscopy classes offered. I didn’t end up doing the full microscopy major, but I do think that the experience I gained from those courses is what caught the attention of my employer. I am now a contractor analytical lab tech at a major chemical company. I have my own office with a window that looks out to a dumpster. Not too bad for someone who nearly flunked out of college.

    I did have to take a class called “I was a teenage vampire at the movies” to graduate, though. And no, I DO NOT want to talk about it. 🙂

  4. October 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm —

    Really great piece. There are a lot of people who go into college knowing what they want to major in. I was one of those people. I even had over a full year’s worth of post-sec credits to speed me along. If I’d stuck with one major and aced everything, I would have graduated in two years.

    It took me six (one of which was a break year, where I just worked).

    If I’d known then what I know now, I would have spent a year working and having a social life, gone to CC to take care of my generals, and, since I started stripping as a sophomore, I would have been making enough money to pay for CC by myself and been way less stressed than I was paying University tuition by myself. I could have dabbled more in CC without feeling the pressure of ZOMG I’M PAYING 12,000/YR TO BE HERE AND I NEED TO GRADUATE WITH IMPRESSIVENESS! I probably wouldn’t have flunked out of so many classes and hated myself and wallowed in such deep depression. I would have felt less pressure and more freedom.

    And then, after finishing general stuff, I could have gone to the University and gotten whatever degrees I would have wanted at that point.

    I love who I am now, and I love the education I got (in school and out), but financially and stress-wise I wish I’d gone the “Wait one year and just work, then go to CC first” route.

  5. October 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm —

    This is good advice! However, students should also keep in mind that even if they think they know what they want to do, they should keep their minds open and try other stuff. I went into college thinking I wanted to be a film director, and now I’m a Theatre major concentrating on costume design. Fortunately I managed to figure that out in enough time that I’ll be able to finish in four years, but if I’d dallied another term or two I could have been screwed.

  6. October 1, 2012 at 11:26 pm —

    Unless you decide to be premed! Med schools don’t accept credits from community college. So you would have wasted your time “trying out” english and science courses at a comm college if you later decide to go to med school. You would just need to retake them.

    • October 3, 2012 at 1:52 am —

      Actually, it may depend on the school. There doesn’t appear to be anything here http://www.med.umn.edu/medical-school-students/medical-school-admissions/prerequisites/index.htm
      indicating that a BS that was obtained by credits earned partially at CC and partially at a four-year institution would be rejected.

      • October 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm —

        You’re right, I recently learned that they don’t outright reject that credit. However my advisors say it will diminish your chances of getting in. Med schools want to be able to confidently know you are capable of mastering the material. An A at a community college doesn’t tell them that.

  7. October 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm —

    If you actually earn your BS in the end from a four-year institution med/vet schools don’t care that you earned some of those credits via community college. Nor does graduate school for that matter. Best thing to do is contact the four year university and ask them about transfer credits, then contact a couple of med school programs and find out if it matters that you have transfer credits on your transcripts.

    I did a community college for the first two years a decade ago and my last two at a four-year state school to save money. But it was a very good choice too. You have the opportunity to interact directly with professors, smaller class sizes and a fairly diverse student body. Considering the shock I had going up to a four year school I can’t imagine that I would have even graduated if I’d gone there straight from high school.

    However, I knew exactly what classes I needed (science degree) and took full time every semester including summers to get out in 4 years. I think it’s even worse now, particularly in the sciences.

  8. October 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm —

    Ali, I didn’t realize we share an alma mater! I actually recognized the degree program worksheet before I recognized the very distinctive building in your featured image. 😉

    I recognized the degree program worksheet because I spent so much time agonizing over it…I did a self-designed interdisciplinary major, with a 16 course requirement, and I did it in three years plus one quarter. But I pretty much knew that was the program I would be doing when I came in, even if I didn’t know the exact courses I was going to take. If someone waited a couple years before deciding they wanted to major in biochem, they would definitely be in trouble.

    • October 29, 2012 at 4:01 pm —

      Oh, and I can say from my own experience that having a degree and a good record from this particular school has had made much more of an impression during my time since graduating than has my actual choice of major. This is anecdotal, of course, but I’m grateful that I haven’t been left kicking myself for not majoring in something more practical.

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