3 Painful and Expensive Lessons from Students Who Chose the Wrong College Degree

09/09/2016 11:05 am ET

Like any hopeful senior high school student, I applied to several universities, including those out of my budget. The difference between other students and me, perhaps, is that I sent applications to schools that didn’t offer what I wanted, as long as they had a good scholarship program.

You see, some students apply for college with a specific course in mind. Not me. My only goal was to get a diploma. Any diploma, as long as it’s ‘free.’

In the end, I got several acceptance letters but only a few scholarship options. Coupled with my parents’ inability to support my school expenses and the fact that I can’t get a part-time job yet, I was very desperate. In the end, I chose the college that offered me 100% scholarship on tuition and miscellaneous fees. Score!

A few semesters in, I realized how wrong I was.

Your College Degree: Best Decision or Most Expensive Mistake?

Maybe you sent applications without anyone guiding you. Or maybe none of your parents had gone to college, so they couldn’t give you any concrete advice. Whatever the reason, the pressure to make the right choice is there.

The stakes are high because your future student loans, salary prospects, and career growth will all be affected by this one choice. To help you avoid that, here are 3 of the typical mistakes incoming freshmen make, and how you can prevent them.

1. Choosing Just for the Heck of it

“I was so confused, I didn’t know what to major in, so I ended up going with History… just because,” says Laurence Bradford, a tech writer and the founder of Learntocodewith.me.

She admits history has nothing to do with building websites and tech writing. When asked if she regrets it, she said, “I’m happy with my life, but I wish I spent $120,000 on a degree I actually used!”

Some students go to college not really sure if they actually need it. Then there are clueless students like Laurence.

There’s a simple way to figure out what you want before completing your admission form. Pick three things you enjoy doing, and find a job related to it. Then find at least two people doing those jobs, and ask if you could interview or shadow them for a day. Another way to do it is to interview seniors studying a major in something you’re interested in.

2. Not Comparing Potential Salary against Expected Student Loan Debt

Choosing a major based on high income potential doesn’t always make sense. If a huge chunk of your income will be used to pay a staggering student loan, and the jobs available for that major are limited or unstable because of the industry, then it may not be worth it.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for graduates of petroleum engineering will grow roughly 17% from 2010 to 2020, while the salary runs anywhere from $75,030 to 187,199 a year.

Given that salary range, the typical student loan ranging from $120,000 to $165,000 can be paid in three to five years with proper budgeting, even if you graduate from one of the top petroleum engineering schools, such as the The University of Texas at Austin.

3. Relying on Personal Interests for Career Fulfillment

“I’m in more than $100,000 in student loan debt and still not loving my career”, says Nicole Williams, a Life Coach with a Masters in Clinical Psychology and Education.

Williams says she loves kids and behaviors, that’s why she applied for a doctorate in Psychology. Aside from that, she admits choosing the program without doing any research on the career of a psychologist.

“A year in, I knew I made a huge mistake! A hobby or interest doesn’t always translate in a fulfilling career,” says Williams.

What’s the lesson here? Being passionate about a subject doesn’t mean you’ll love a career in that field. University pamphlets and course syllabi show only the good side of things, but it’s really up to you -- the student -- to discover what life is going to be like after you earn that diploma.

Don’t Make the Same Mistakes We Did

You’re about to make a crucial decision in your life. Whether you regret it or not four years from now, it’s all up to you.

Got other advice for upcoming freshmen this year? Share them in the comments.

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