4 Things I Wish I Had Known BEFORE I Started University - Undergrad Success

4 Things I Wish I Had Known BEFORE I Started University

4 Things I Wish I Had Known BEFORE I Started University
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Have you ever heard of conversation cards? They’re little cards that ask questions to generate conversation. They say something like “what was the last thing you regret buying?” or “which celebrity (dead or alive) would you like to have dinner with?” If you hate talking about the weather as much as I do, when you first saw them you thought they were fantastic. Finally, when I see someone in the elevator I won’t be obligated to agree with them about how cold it is. We both have coats on. We clearly just came from outside…I am aware it is chilly. You don’t need to tell me. Also, I may have taken a few of them on dates to try to plow through the awkwardness…if you guessed I was still single, you guessed correctly. One of these cards made me think a little.

“If you could go back in time and have a conversation with yourself at 17, what would you tell yourself?”

I thought of a couple of things.

  1. If you live on Kraft Dinner and double doubles, you will get fat.
  2. If a drunk girl in heels wants to race you in front of a bunch of people, don’t do it. She practiced and you will fall. She’ll get the cab and you will get a scar.
  3. People know you are pale. If you wear bronzer one day, they won’t forget. Don’t worry about it though, vampires will be really cool shortly.
  4. Your student loan will eventually need to be repaid.

Then we’d have a short conversation about how good we look for 27 and how our hairline did not recede as quickly as we had anticipated.

Still thinking about the student loan, what would I tell myself about it? A 17-year-old cannot afford tuition. It’s just not feasible. I can’t go back in time and tell my parents how much money to save…there’s no card that tells you that’s a possibility. I went through the whole deck… nothing about your parents. I thought of hundreds of things I could have told myself, but narrowed it down to four for your convenience.

Return on Investment

If your parents are hippies they probably told you that you could be anything you wanted. Teachers are contractually obligated to tell you that. What they should be telling you is that most people don’t end up becoming millionaires. You need to think critically about the program you’re taking, and how much money people who graduate from that program make. For example: My undergraduate degree was in English Literature. I absolutely loved the experience, and from that aspect it was definitely worth 4 years tuition + books. However, from a financial or “real” perspective, English majors generally make the same amount of money as people who work in coffee shops. This is not a coincidence…most of them actually work in coffee shops. Go to the mall and ask the clerks what their backgrounds are. They’re either students or they have bachelor degrees. This is not to say that English degrees do not provide you with a valuable skill-set. It’s just not a marketable one.

Identify your career path before you pay your tuition and ask yourself some important questions. How much money are you going to have to borrow? How much money do people in your desired line of work make? How much will your student loan payments be when you have completed your program? Can you afford those payments and still live comfortably? What is the probability of you working in this field? What else can you do with this degree?

If you have your heart set on becoming a famous actor, writer, dancer or unicorn, go ahead and shell out the cash, but do it with the realization that you’re going to have to pay for it at some point. From the employer’s perspective, people with degrees are a dime a dozen. Spending four years at University does not make you special. It makes you the same as everyone else. Disenchanted? Good! Now you can start thinking realistically.


Unless you’re taking business, your professors will not stress the importance of networking enough. If you are not in a program that provides you with a specialized degree (or internship/coop program) that tells employers you are qualified to be their employee, networking is your only means of finding gainful employment.

Good Grades ≠ Good Job …Damn you math!

Shutting yourself up in a library with a coffee and a laptop, reaping the benefits of being anti-social (like not catching colds from people, or having to talk about the weather) may increase your GPA but not necessarily your employability. How many job ads ask you to submit a transcript of your marks? Having spent some time networking, while still studying, can give you a leg-up when you graduate. You’ll also meet people who know more about how to get into the field than your career services counselor. I bet if she had networked more in school, she wouldn’t have become a career services counselor. If I had taken the time to socialize with my professors, and meet some important people in the industry, perhaps I would have stayed and written a “creative thesis.” Instead I opted to work in a call centre for a year, and then go back to get a Master’s degree in something completely different.

Note: A creative thesis is a piece of fiction written in lieu of a regular thesis. It is not, as many of my friends refer to it, a “pretend thesis” or “not a real thesis.” Seriously, I could have published Dr. Weigo’s Notes: A psychological /psi-fi thriller about a Papal conspiracy to prevent the apocalypse by detaining all humans suspected of being re-incarnated Angels and ensuring their souls do not make it back to Heaven. I’m sure I would have made millions. Instead, I work in Human Resources.

Tuition Credits

Let’s just go through the basics. When you pay tuition, you have to record them on your taxes. When they are recorded they are transferred into” tuition credits,” which can result in a higher payout. If you take your taxes to a “tax specialist” who doesn’t know you or really care about you, they will automatically cash these out for you every year so you get what they call “the maximum payout.” This is NOT in your best interest.

Take your taxes to an accountant who you trust and who loves you. Caution: Accountants generally have difficulty expressing emotion. If they didn’t spit on you when you asked them to help you, it means they love you… Or you could just tell them to carry your tuition credits over. This means they will be available for use the following year. Continue to carry your tuition credits over until you have completed school and are actually paying taxes. If you are assessed and end up having to pay more in taxes than what was taken out of your pay, you can use the tuition credits to balance it out so you won’t have any expense out of pocket. You can also use them immediately following graduation and get a ridiculous payout…like enough for half a down payment on a condo ridiculous.

Tuition credits can be transferred to your parents only in the year you paid the tuition. Once you carry them over, they’re yours.  If you are a nice person and your parents have to pay additional taxes, this could be a nice thing to do for them. Some parents will feel a strong sense of entitlement to your tuition credits. If they paid for your tuition, those feelings could be valid. If they did not…screw’em. Any moron can keep a baby alive long enough to go to University. Hell, after a certain number of years they pretty much raise themselves. (Can you tell I don’t have kids?)


Remember when you got your first installment of your first student loan? There was almost $5,000 in your bank account for the first time ever. “Oh my god, I’m rich and I’m only 17!” Your first instinct was probably to go out and buy an Xbox, some Red Bull and a keg of beer. What you should be doing is investing some of it. You don’t need all of it sitting in your checking account no matter how “tuff” it makes you feel. Putting as little as 20$ per month in a savings account will eventually accumulate into something substantial. You won’t even notice it’s gone except for in December when you’re Christmas shopping and the second half of your loan doesn’t come until January. Then you may notice. Feel free to stick your head out the window and shake your fist at me when this happens (I’ll probably be stopped in an added lane trying to merge on a bridge if you’re looking for me).

The first thing you should do is meet with a Financial Planner. If you don’t trust the ones they provide at your bank, you can meet with one from any other company. Warning: They will try to sell you life insurance. You should get it while you’re young, but don’t feel super pressured if you’re not ready to start making monthly payments on things. Identify a budget you can live with while you’re going to school that includes partying money. Identify how much you can realistically put into a savings account and do it. If you aren’t realistic, it won’t work. When you graduate, you’ll have enough to cushion yourself from the payments of the loan until you can find work. If you planned properly and don’t need the cushion, you just have a nice savings account to start with.

To The Parents: It is physically impossible to convince a 17 year old, who is not making enough money to cover all of their expenses, to put money away for the future. Even in my fictional conversation with myself I couldn’t do it.

I hope this was helpful to someone who still has time to take this advice. Forward it to anyone you think needs to see it. Also, if anyone has mastered time travel, please email this to me 10 years ago.

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Scott Keenan is a recruiter for @PriorityCareers, with several years’ experience recruiting in both the public and private sectors in addition to marketing and social media roles. As a self-described professional cynic, he provides unique insight into modern recruiting from both the recruiter and candidate’s perspective. You can follow Scott on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn or check out his posts on The Priority Blog.

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