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20 Something: Advice to high school students

I mentioned in my last post that I am job hunting. I also mentioned that I have student loans to repay. I will be exiting my grace period next month, and while I knew that student loans were kind of B.S. I never realized how much so until now.

But that’s not the only thing I wish I had been better informed about when I graduated from high school. These are five things I wish I knew then.

Before we jump into the advice, I’d like to point out that I am aiming this at students like me who did not have parents able to pay for school. I was on my own. Granted, I’ve also been considered independent on my taxes since I turned 18, so I didn’t have to rely on my parents’ income. That opens a whole ‘nother can of misery as I’ve seen with some of my friends.

So, with that caveat, on y va.

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1. Start looking for scholarships early

I kind of browsed through scholarship information when I was in my senior year of high school. I applied to a few things. I didn’t really find many things that actually applied to me, and they all wanted so much information!

Okay, I admit it, I was lazy with this part. Horribly lazy. And I was conceited. I believed that my test scores and general awesomeness would get me amazing scholarships from the institutions I applied to. They would be lucky to have me!

Well, I did get scholarship offers from all three schools I applied to senior year. And each school offered me about 25% of the total cost of attendance. It was a huge let down.

By the time the offers were made, there really wasn’t time to find any other scholarships. Everything was closed for judging or whatever they call it.

So, children, look for scholarships. Use those impressive Google skills that I did not have back in the day. There really are tons of things available. You just have to be tenacious enough to find them. Then, you have to be patient enough to gather all of the materials and apply for them. Then, you have to be prepared to not get any of them.

I scored in the 98th percentile on the SAT in a country that is obsessed with exam scores, and it did nothing for me. I felt kind of lied to with this because I had been led to believe my entire public school life that getting good grades would solve all of my problems. It doesn’t. If you’re in that 99th percentile, ignore me. If you aren’t, bonne chance, mon ami.

But, ya know, try anyway because you really never know.

2. Save money

I kept a giant Sunny D jug in my closet, and I would drop my change into it. I started this my junior year. I ended up with just under $60 when I graduated. I’m sure I would have had more but I periodically had to raid the jug for quarters.

This is not what I mean by saving money.

If you have a high school job (as I did) your primary expenses are probably gas and fooling around, maybe a movie or fast food every now and then. I didn’t even have to pay for movies because my job was at a theater. I made minimum wage working maybe 25 hrs/wk, so it’s not like my checks were huge, but I still have no idea where my money went during that time.

To be fair, I did lock some of it up in a savings account, which definitely saved my butt while I was living in New York. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Squirrel that sweet green away like it’s a holographic Charizard card.

Or whatever the kids are into these days.

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3. Avoid private loans

If college tuition rates are the rats, private loans are the plague-infested fleas that ride on their backs.

Example: Despite my 25% coverage scholarships and hefty pell grants and federal loans, I still had to take out a private loan for over $7,000 for my first year of college. And this was at one of the lowest priced universities in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Granted, out-of-state student tuition is no joke, but really the price wasn’t much more than I would have paid at Oklahoma University where I was a resident.

Anyway, I took out the loan, and I tried to be smart with it. I paid a fixed $25/mo. every month for the past five years. That’s $1,500 that I have already paid. I now owe almost $9,500 on that loan. It feels like they took the money I paid and added it on to my bill.

4. Make payments while in school

Of course the real lesson of my folly is that if you must take out private loans, pay on it while in school. But don’t just pay the minimum like I did. If you can afford the full interest payment each month, do it.

To be fair, I really couldn’t afford more than the $25/mo. In my second year, I had to take out another (thankfully much much smaller) loan. So now I had $50/mo. to pay, and there were times when I struggled to do that. But even when I had the money to pay more, I didn’t.

So if you can pay extra, pay the extra. Then maybe by the end of the whole ordeal you’ll feel less like there’s a flea sitting on your shoulder infecting you with the Black Death.

5. Don’t spend a ton on high school graduation

If you can borrow a cap and gown, do it. If you have to pay for a class ring yourself, skip it. Anything that is not absolutely required in order to walk across the stage is not helpful to you, and you will feel stupid for spending money on it later.

Okay, that ring part I actually can’t fully get behind just because I happen to like my high school class ring. It’s the only ring I own.

Still, if you truly plan to put in the work to graduate from college there is no point in making a big thing out of high school graduation. It’s kind of like graduating from kindergarten: basically everyone does it. It’s not the huge achievement that it used to be.

I think I would have appreciated my college graduation more if I had realized that high school graduation was kind of an empty affair. And I wouldn’t have dropped $200 on a ring. That’s almost half a round-trip plane ticket to JFK.

En Fin

There’s a lot going on when you graduate from high school. There’s tons of advice everywhere, and because you’re a teenager, you think you already know what you have to do to get where you want to go.

You don’t, and you will realize this when it’s too late.

If you take one thing from this spiel, remember that private student loans are like the twist to an M. Night Shyamalan film: you know it’s coming, and you know it’s going to suck, but you still feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment bordering on physical pain when it actually shows its true nature.

Also remember, high school counts for nothing beyond this point. It’s not really relevant to the financial theme of my other points here; it’s just something to think about.

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