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6 Ways to Rethink the College Experience

Abby Mannion
Abby Mannion

February 22, 2019

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College experience

Having a full college experience is something that many students long for, and it’s easy to get caught up in exactly which school will provide the best one. Who has the best cafeteria? The coolest sports teams? The right programs?

But what if I told you that having a full college experience can go far beyond these things?

As someone who has taken both traditional and nontraditional paths through college, I have found one thing to be true: it’s what you choose to do with your time that really matters. If you’re purposeful with your time, you can craft a perfect college experience no matter where you end up going (or what the food is like). But only if you’re willing to rethink the “college experience” a bit.

Here are six ways to do that.

1. Know Before You Go

I’ve had countless conversations with college students who tell me, “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do or what to major in.” Turns out they went to college not because they had a plan, but because it was the traditional “next step.” These students often end up frustrated because they’re spending time and money on something they’re unsure of.

If you’re in this boat, I would encourage you towards one of two things:

1. Consider taking your Gen Eds in a unique way. Taking your Gen Eds online or through a local community college gives you the chance to stay up to speed with school while also lowering the cost of classes. It also gives you more time to consider what major you would like to go into. Try some classes that interest you and see if something sticks.

This option will hopefully buy you some time and save you some money. That way, when it comes time to enroll in college, you can declare a major with confidence knowing that the rest of your time and money will be spent efficiently.

One important thing to keep in mind—if you choose this method, you should immediately seek the counsel of an academic advisor. Transferring credits between colleges can be tricky business (and if not done carefully, it will likely leave you spending more on your degree in the long run). Consider utilizing a program like Unbound, which would allow you to take these classes online at an affordable price and offers excellent academic guidance, so you can guarantee that the classes you’re taking will transfer to the school of your choice.

2. Take a gap year (or two, or three), and use that time to discover more about what you like. A great way to do this is by applying for internships, getting a job, or volunteering with organizations that interest you.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to college “late.” Hands-on experience is irreplaceable, and will quickly reveal whether or not you truly enjoy whatever field of work you’re considering. After a year or more of hands-on learning, you’ll have a greater understanding of what you should pursue in college (if anything).

Don’t go to college just because it’s supposed to be the next step. Go because you have a purpose for being there.

2. You Can Pick Your Pace

College is generally thought to take place in the four years after high school. While this may be the suggested and average timeframe, you don’t have to stay within those borders. Your story is unique, and how you go about the college experience is allowed to be different than my journey or your classmate’s. If your goal is to graduate in two years and then get a job or travel the world or start a family, you have the potential to make that happen. If you have responsibilities you can’t sacrifice, you can take classes at a slower pace. You can take gap years and start college later in life, once you know why you’re going. You can go to college for the traditional four years. You can start college, take a break, and then go back.

The list goes on and on.

The point is, you don’t have to squeeze yourself into a box of stereotypes.

Life looks different for each person, which means that each person will run at a different pace. You have the ability to run at your pace and not someone else’s.

3. Don’t Pause Your Priorities

Once you understand that you can pick your pace for going through college, it becomes easier to see that you don’t have to put other priorities on hold.

Yes, it is possible to have a life outside of college!

Having a full “college experience” can be so much more than just sitting through lectures, and keeping up with homework doesn’t have to be your top priority all the time. Why not fill your college experience with life experience too?

Your college years should leave room for you to maintain a job or be with family. Or you can prioritize travel. Just imagine, the world now becomes your campus! You can start building your business, designing your website, or putting more energy into a hobby that you value.

Focusing only on college leads to tunnel vision—there is much to learn both in and out of the classroom. While tunnel vision during your college years isn’t the end of the world, it will block you from engaging fully with the world. It may lead you to pass by opportunities to learn about people and cultures outside of your college campus or push off learning that one thing you always wanted to try. Academics is just one way of learning. Keep a broad gaze and an open mind.

The college experience should not pause the rest of your life. If it does, I would encourage you to take a step back and evaluate if you’re truly getting the college experience you desire.

4. Every Moment Counts

Another way to rethink college is to rethink the time you’re technically not in school. Evaluate the long breaks—primarily your winter break and summer break. If you’re looking to get ahead or gain more experience, these two breaks are great opportunities to knock out some extra classes, apply for an internship, or get a job.

For me, I used one summer to take two classes through Unbound. These classes helped me get ahead, which then allowed me to graduate with an associate degree in three semesters, which gave me the liberty to accept a job working with a ministry, which is what I’ve always wanted to do.

Do you see the domino effect? While taking two classes over the summer doesn’t sound like much, it was that simple action that propelled me forward to reach my desired destination.

It’s about making purposeful actions with the time you’re given. Set goals for your life beyond college, and use these breaks to work towards them. Maybe that means taking classes to graduate early. Or you may intern for an organization that connects you with the people who offer you your first job. Or maybe you save a little extra from working during one break so that you can spend another break traveling. Whatever it is, be aware of the time that you have and use it to it’s fullest potential.

5. You Don’t Have to Drown in Debt

With the skyrocketing price of college these days, debt appears to be inevitable. But this doesn’t have to be the case! There are ways for you to save money and make money that will set you on a path toward debt-free college.

One of the best ways I’ve found to come out of college debt free is to take affordable transfer classes, like the ones I took through Unbound. By finding flexible classes that fit into my degree, I was able to save thousands of dollars.

You can also save money by becoming an R.A (Resident Assistant). An R.A. is a leader of a hall in a dorm who usually gets reduced or free housing. Or consider saving money on housing by living in an apartment off campus so that the cost is split between more people, or better yet, with your parents. (Free rent!)

Saving money is a helpful step towards coming out of college debt free, but making money is equally beneficial. Both serve as action steps towards offsetting the cost of college. A great way to make money while at college is to apply for jobs on campus. That way you’re not inconvenienced by paying for transportation to get to your job.

Coming out of college debt free may also mean putting college on hold for a year or two. Working to purposefully save for college is not something that should be looked down upon. In fact, this may be a wise option for you to consider. It is much better to put college on hold if it means graduating unshackled by debt.

Debt is something that will affect your life for years after college. But graduating debt free isn’t impossible. That’s why having a debt-free mindset is so important. Once you know it’s an option, you can better strategize the action steps necessary to place yourself on the debt-free path.

6. Independence Doesn’t Mean Irresponsibility

One thing that many students look forward to as they enter college is that sweet sweet freedom. Staying out late, partying, eating whatever and whenever… but I quickly found that independence does not mean irresponsibility. In fact, quite the opposite.

Because you have more control over your class schedule than you did in high school, you also have more control over how you use your time. What you do with this time will either impact your college experience for the better or for the worse.

While it seemed fun to push off my studies for as long as possible and stay up super late, I found that these decisions left me stressed and tired. In my pursuit of freedom, I trapped myself in an unhealthy (and disappointing) lifestyle. So, I decided to break some of these bad habits. I went to bed earlier. I purposefully structured time to do homework instead of leaving it to the last minute.

When I chose to be responsible with my independence, I found that I actually had more time to hang out with friends or enjoy hobbies. I had more energy and was less stressed.

I would encourage any students entering college to rethink independence. Be purposeful with your time. Start building healthy habits now.


It can be easy to think, “Well there’s no way that I could come out of college debt free” or “Traveling while doing college sounds nice, but that’s really just a pipe dream.”

That’s just not true, and thinking that way will hinder you from taking any action at all. You can take a gap year, take classes online, or spend all four years on campus if you want. Everyone’s different, and we all learn in different ways. Whatever your college experience looks like, I would encourage one thing—be purposeful with the time you have.

Having and partaking in a bigger college experience is something that you can choose, but you have to choose it.

Interested in creating your perfect college experience while graduating debt free? Join the community of students who say “no” to debt and make the world their campus.

Abby Mannion
Abby Mannion

Abby is a writer and speaker for Painting Freedom, a Christian organization dedicated to equipping a generation of artists to share their faith through the power of imagery. She’s passionate about creativity and seeing beauty in all things. When she’s not working, you can probably find her outside hiking, climbing, or fawning over the adorableness of baby hippos… specifically the baby ones.

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