The topic of college often comes up at the Obama dinner table, but that’s not true for all families. So on Tuesday afternoon, first lady Michelle Obama spent about an hour talking about the college application process — and how to succeed once on campus — with several dozen local high school students who are part of mentoring programs and attended a “college immersion day” at Georgetown University.
College is “probably still one of the best times in my life,”Obama told them, adding that the opportunity to live with people their age and study for four years is a luxury. “College is a good, rare, unique privilege. And hopefully all of you view it that way and don’t take it for granted.”
The students peppered the first lady with questions (before giving her hugs and posing for photos), and here is some of the advice she shared:
1) Make sure that you apply. Everyone in the audience laughed when she said it, but Obama’s No. 1 piece of advice for students applying to college was this: ”Do it. College is good.” Sometimes it’s difficult for students to picture themselves at college, especially if their parents did not attend, but Obama told the students to not doubt themselves — or to base their decisions on what their friends or classmates choose to do.
“There are thousands of excellent schools across this country, that’s something that’s important to remember,” she said, standing in Georgetown’s historic Riggs Library. “You can get an education right in your own backyard, but you can also see the country and the world. And somewhere out, there is a college or a university that is right for you.”
2) Think about how many student loans you can realistically handle. For many years, the Obamas spent more money each month on their student loans than they did on their mortgage. The first lady urged the students to make sure they could afford the schools that accept them. Paying for an education is not cheap, she said, and students need to make sure they are making a smart investment.
“You should know everything about this investment before you make the commitment,” she said. “Is it the right school for you? Is it the right curriculum? Is it the right size?”
And once in college, Obama told the students not to accumulate any credit card debt: “In college, buy what you can afford, which for most college students is nothing.”
3) Take ownership of your college search. When one student asked the first lady what students could do to get their parents more involved in the process, Obama said that students must take responsibility for their own applications — and ask for help when they need it.
”The application process and the process of getting to college is your gateway to maturity,” she said. “My parents didn’t know a ton about college... It was up to me to talk to my guidance counselors, to bring that information home, to make sure that I knew the application deadlines, that I knew when my parents needed to sign certain things.”
4) Push yourself and venture away from home. While it is not an option for everyone, Obama encouraged students to leave home for college. Sometimes it takes leaving home and your comfortable environment to grow as a person, she said. Obama told the students to visit campus or take a video tour online. And once in college, she encouraged the students to study abroad and travel the world.
“It is a special, rare time in your life. You’re young. You’ve got your futures ahead of you. There’s still room for some mistakes,” she said. “Nothing is life or death, truly, in terms of when it comes to the choices you make about college... So, you know, try something new.”
5) “Don’t let fear guide you.” Too often, high school students let fear direct their decisions — even who to hang out with or how to dress, Obama said. Picking a college should be a decision students make based on their dreams and goals, not their fears.
”Make decisions based on the power of your own vision about yourself,” she said. “Not who your mother is, not what your cousins are doing, not what’s going on in your neighborhood.”
6) All along the way, “work your butts off.” Yes, that’s really what the first lady said. She told the students that when she enrolled at Princeton, it was a “culture shock.” She worried that she couldn’t keep up with her wealthy classmates who graduated from private high schools. But once she started attending classes and working hard, Obama said, “I found out that I could do just as well, if not better.”
Do you have additional advice to students applying to college? Please share it in the comments section below.