Life After College: Learn From My Mistakes

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Looking back on the last few years of my life, I have very few regrets. Despite being stuck in a less-than-satisfactory job for far longer than I desired, I believe my college experience and about $130k of debt I racked up as a result were totally worth it. That said, I might have done a few things differently and I hope some of my insights will help anyone beginning their journey.

1. Student loans aren't as safe as they are made out to be

It is easy to assume a student loan is a goodwill loan from the financial institution and education community to improve the lives of students. I will be the first to admit I didn't do much research before committing to a rather significant amount of student loan debt. I guess I thought student loans were intrinsically a good thing, for the good of the people, not to take advantage of young people.

I was only partly right. The federal government has been extremely hospitable with my federal loans. I have a lot of flexibility with my payment plan, and I am able to pay based on my income. The federal loan programs are really institutions to get more Americans educated, which benefits our country.

Private loans aren't for the people and by the people. They take advantage of an education system that is getting exponentially more expensive by filling the void between federal assistance and college tuitions with rigid loan plans that can get way out of hand for students.

For example, I was given more private loan money than my parents made in a year. The minimum monthly payments on those loans are more than I would owe on a modest mortgage. If I had known that going in, I would have seriously considered different options for funding my education.

2. Internships matter

One thing I wish I had explored as an undergraduate was an internship. As a history major, I didn't think internships were relevant. I also took an absurd number of credits for my last few years (sometimes more than 20 credits in a semester), plus had a part-time job, so I had no desire to add to my already hefty workload.

I now realize internships are a great way of preparing for a professional career. You gain real-world experience, which is incredibly important when searching for a job once you earn a degree and are trying to enter the workforce. I regret not exploring my options in the world of internships. I have no doubt I could have developed some marketable skills and relationships that would have helped me find gainful employment much sooner than I did.

3. Reconsider a gap year...or two

After graduation, I decided to take a few months off. I was burned out from school and needed to take a break before moving forward with either my job search or applying to graduate school.

That was a mistake.

I graduated from college in the midst of a seriously difficult job market. The U.S. economy hadn't recovered from its financial crisis of 2007-2009 and unemployment rates were still very high. Recent graduates were competing with all the people who lost their jobs during that difficult time.

My taking a break from the fight for a job had a detrimental impact on my livelihood. As a result, I had no choice but to accept an underpaying job to make ends meet (begin paying off my huge student loan debt) and have paid dearly for it in the last two years.

4. Unsolicited advice: Be aggressive

So, if you're dreaming of a several month-long vacation after graduation, I am here to tell you it's not a great idea. You need to be aggressive in school by acquiring experience through internships and right out of school to find employment or apply for graduate school as soon as you can, when you are fresh and marketable.

Perhaps you've heard all this information before, but I think it's important to hear it from someone who has really struggled, and to some extent is still struggling, because of mistakes I made.

I believe if I would have better understood private student loans, taken internships seriously and not taken a break after graduation, my last two years would have played out very differently -- in a financially positive way.
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