The "What If" Questions You Were Too Afraid to Ask About College

by
Editor-in-Chief, Carnegie Communications

Attention, worrywarts! You can be super excited about college and still have lingering doubts, fears, and questions. That’s normal. Ease your mind with these real-world answers.

What if I end up hating my college?

Hate is such a strong word, you guys. It’s important to remember that going to college, in all likelihood, is the biggest change you’ve experienced yet in life. It’s going to have ups and downs. You’re probably aware of that, though, so the real question becomes: what if you’re weeks or months into your freshman year and it’s been nothing but downs?

Many experts say students should give it a year before deciding to bail on a college. Often all it takes is one thing—meeting a new friend, loving a single class, or joining an amazing campus group—to help turn things around. You might find talking to the mental health or even spiritual guidance officers on campus helpful too.

That being said, if a full semester or year passes and you know in your gut that you’re not in the right place, it’s simply time for Plan B. And you’d hardly be alone in changing your mind. In fact, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently concluded that more than one-third of college students switch schools (although that also includes students transferring from community colleges).

Changing colleges requires a lot of careful thought and planning, but if it’s the right choice for you, transfer counselors can help you every step of the way. Then you can call a mulligan on your first college and move on to bigger and better things.

What if I can’t afford it?

In a perfect world (or, you know, Sweden), you wouldn’t have to worry about paying for college. And while we always say that anyone can make college affordable, a huge part of that is baked into the college search itself: finding schools where you’re a great fit and strong academic prospect, so you get lots of financial aid. Of course, that doesn’t really help if you’re already enrolled somewhere and can’t make your tuition payment.

If that happens to you, contact the financial aid staff at your school ASAP to explain your situation. They’ll probably have useful insights to share, and they might be able to break your bill into a more manageable payment plan, if that helps. Also make doubly sure you have done the following:

  • Filed the FAFSA. And filed ASAP, because federal aid is first come, first served.
  • Filed the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, but only if it’s required at your school.
  • Extensively searched and thoughtfully applied for all scholarships for which you are eligible. “All” is not a joke.

There are other ways to save money too, such as earning your gen eds at a community college and transferring back into your school, not to mention working part time to make ends meet. You could also potentially defer admission for a year to work and save money. There are challenges to all of these options—transferring, for instance, can end up costing more if you don’t plan it well—but they can also be the ticket to affording the education of your dreams.

If you haven’t enrolled in your college yet, there’s also the possibility of asking for more financial aid, especially if you excelled during your senior year of high school (after you applied) or if your family’s financial situation drastically changed (like a parent losing a job). In any case, you should talk to your financial aid counselor and submit a brief letter describing why the school should reconsider your financial aid package.

Then there are student loans. Oof. Here’s the thing about loans: they can help you fill in the gaps, but there’s a point where they stop being a smart choice. You have to think about (and probably research) your ability to pay them back after you graduate. (Owing $40,000 in student debt is more manageable as a junior engineer than as a junior copywriter, believe me.) The decision to borrow money should not be taken lightly; loans can stifle your financial growth for years, if not decades. And if you don’t make your payments, you might find yourself in big trouble. Also keep in mind that you might be getting loans from the government as part of your financial aid package anyway. Talk over your loan options with your family and the financial aid office at your school so you really know what taking on that debt means.

At the end of the day, if you and your family find you really can’t afford your college, try asking yourself what made it worth the expenditure in the first place. The things you loved about it might be available at a less expensive school.

What if I don’t make any friends?

It’s actually easier to make friends in college than you might think. You will have more opportunities to meet people than you know what to do with, from classes to extracurriculars. Go out and do the things you like to do, whether it’s playing lacrosse, building robots, jamming in a band, or volunteering at the library. (Seriously, there are campus activities out there for everyone.) Then take advantage of being surrounded by people who share your interests.

You can also look into joining a fraternity or sorority, where friendships and relationships are paramount. Yes, there’s a chance they might not accept your bid, but there’s also a chance you could find a lifelong brother- or sisterhood. You may even be surprised by the variety of Greek life options available to you.

Also, don’t forget, everyone around you is in the same boat: new and shy and scared they’re going to say something embarrassing in front of the cute person sitting next to them in biology. Making friends is a skill too, and it gets easier with time. Have the right mindset, and you’ll do fine.

What if I fail a class?

Hopefully you won’t be so out of touch with your course work that you get blindsided by a failing grade. If you realize you’re on a collision course with academic disaster, you should meet with your professor (office hours, office hours, office hours!) and take advantage of any tutoring services available to you on campus.

If it’s too late for that and you do end up with a failing grade, you should still talk to your professor and tutors to figure out where you went wrong and what you should do differently in the future. (In the event your academic performance suffered due to things out of your control, like a serious illness or a death in the family, you should, again, talk to your professors and academic advisor about your options.)

In any case, you need to use the resources and people around you and get the situation under control, because failing even a single class can have serious repercussions. You could potentially lose scholarships, your ability to play sports, and college credits (which might necessitate taking extra classes—and paying extra tuition).

One bad grade won’t end your college career, as long as you take steps to do better in the future. If you don’t take those steps, it can snowball. You don’t want to find yourself dropping out of school, with thousands of dollars in the hole and no degree to show for it.

What if I get waitlisted?

Ah, the waitlist. Academia’s purgatory. Maybe you’re thrilled to have made it that far, getting waitlisted at a reach school. Maybe it’s the harsh reality of an increasingly competitive admission landscape. Whatever the case, you don’t have to spend your days on the waitlist just, well, waiting.

First, keep in mind that only 5%–10% of waitlisted students are accepted (usually fewer at top schools). And there may also be some drawbacks to being accepted from the waitlist, like missing out on financial aid and housing options. You also wouldn’t find out until after the May 1 “universal decision” date, so accepting a spot from the waitlist would mean losing an admission deposit made elsewhere. But if you’re certain the waitlist school is the one for you, you can try to make your case for acceptance.

Colleges want to admit students they know will enroll, so start by reaching out to the school again with a brief letter or e-mail stating your intent to attend if accepted and the reasons why you would be a great fit for their community. If the school was your first choice, say so. Include any recent achievements, like a higher GPA or academic awards, if you have them. You could also mention any new activities you’ve joined—but do not repeat anything from your initial application. You can ask for an interview with an admission representative to discuss these things in person as well, if you haven’t met with someone already. And you might be able to submit an additional recommendation letter; just make sure you have a solid writer lined up and confirm with the admission office that they’ll consider it. Follow up once a month to check the status of your application, and remember to be patient and polite in all your interactions.

Finally, while you’re waiting on a decision, reconsider the other colleges you applied to. With a thorough college search behind you, you should have other acceptances to choose from. Visit those schools again. Look back at your notes and research. Talk about your options with people you trust. You might end up more excited about your “backup” plan!

What if I get rejected?

They say the best offense is a good defense, and in college admission, that means putting in the time and effort to find several schools that fit you, your goals, and your academic profile. That’s where the notion of “reach,” “safety,” and “realistic” schools comes from. So even if you’re rejected by your top choice, you can enroll in a runner-up and still be happy.

And if you’re not head-over-heels for your second (or third) choice, it’s important to remember that college is what you make of it, and you can have an incredible experience anywhere you go. Research has also determined that a person’s happiness and future success has very little to do with where they go to college, so there’s that.

Related: Getting Over the Heartbreak of a College Rejection Letter

Now, if all your schools rejected you, well, that’s tough. But it’s not the end of your college journey. Not by a long shot.

Look back at your college list; is there a chance you overreached? Plenty of students apply only to Ivy League schools and their ilk—and they’re rejected by all of them. This is despite their being outstanding students, because admission to those schools is so rare that it truly is a crapshoot these days. That’s why finding your “reach,” “safety,” and “realistic” schools is so important!

You can re-up your college search and apply to other schools with later deadlines or rolling admission. Or you could enroll at a local community college. If you hope to transfer from any of these institutions, you can use your freshman year to beef up your academic profile if it was lacking before. In any case, you have options. Ask for help, work hard, and, as the song goes, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.”

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