education

#DearMe: A Letter to My Teenage Self.

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Dear (Slightly Younger) Mikayla,

When I first saw the idea of writing a letter to you, I found it a bit weird. I mean, I know you and you’re too hard-headed to listen to anyone, even me. But, ultimately, there are numerous things I would love to be able to tell you, wishes and warnings alike.

So, I’m writing.

From my perspective now, I know the truth of the matter is you spend a lot of time wondering what you’re doing wrong. You worry that you’re living just this side of disaster. You stay awake too many nights trying to envision something other than a question-mark future…

Stop. Please.

Everything you’re fretting over now—the friends, the classes, the feelings, the exams, the family members, the applications, the politics—none of it is going to break you. You’re going to be alright, I promise.

Okay, I’ll admit: over the course of the next few years, you’ll truly struggle with who you are and who you want to be. There’s no use worrying though because we still haven’t figured it out in the year 2015 and that’s perfectly okay. Trust me when I say that no one has their whole life figured out at 13, 16, or 21. All that matters is that you’re continuously working on it.

Remember: life isn’t a tightrope walk over a spike-bottomed canyon.

Learn to treat every day like a stroll on the beach–the tides move in and out, but you stay standing. Just enjoy the ebb and flow.

High school will pass over you like a breeze, but sometimes it will feel like hurricane-force winds and there’s really no helping that. That’s what high school is all about–learning how much pain, how much uncertainty, how much knowledge you can stand. Chickadee, high school is about survival and endurance—even when so-and-so stops calling you a friend and what’s-his-name tells you that you’re hard to love, hold tight.

You’re a military brat, you’re made for a fight.

When it comes time for university, go with your gut.  Don’t waste time in places you know you don’t belong and don’t even want to be. Be logical and be honest. The standard university experience isn’t so idyllic and it isn’t for you. Forge your own path and you’ll end up steps ahead. Freshman year, while playing an obligatory Welcome Week name game, you’ll dub yourself Magical Mikayla–make it your goal to be that person.

After university commencement, you’ll take two semesters off. Some days, you are going to swear that it’s a waste of time, that you’re wasting time, but I swear that this opportunity to be a wanderer is precisely what you need right now. Over the course of 8 months, you’ll visit 20 different states and this time, like no other time before, travel will be all you have to focus on, all you live for.

Revel in your experiences. Get caught up in simple pleasures.

In the coming days, when you’re feeling just south of sanity, you’ll remember the feel of west coast rocks and east coast sand, the sound of northwestern rain and southeastern thunderstorms, and the smell of strong coffee and harbor winds mixed together. The places you’ve been before were wonderful, but these are the places you’ll cling to and remember best. These places will resonate.

And, just like that, you’ve caught up to me.

The future is still a masked mark in the hazy distance, as it will always be, but there is an abundance of hope, desire, and ambition. There is an ever-growing collection of wonderful days and a group of delightful people who genuinely care.

There is possibility.

My ultimate wish for you is simply that, on your way from where you are in your time to where I am now in mine, you relish the journey.

With lots of love (…and feeling incredibly strange about signing this),

(Slighty older) Mikayla

Accepting My Inner Hermione Granger.

From the very first time I picked up a Harry Potter book, I related to and adored the character of Hermione Granger. She’s intelligent, driven, focused, and dedicated, yet she is also awkward in social situations, fearful of failure, obsessive in her projects, and annoying in her relentless rule-following.

It seems that, for every reason she is likable, she is insufferable. There is a definite yin and yang within her personality. Just as she is someone you think you could be or already are, she is someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to know. Through these contradictions and complexities, Hermione became a stabilizer among characters like proud blood-traitor Ronald Weasley and fearless boy-who-lived Harry Potter.

In essence, Rowling wrote Hermione so profoundly that an intangible character became a finite human being that many of us can see ourselves in.

 

However, despite my genuine love of all things Hermione and continual defense of her necessity in the overall plot, I never before realized how thoroughly I connect with one particular aspect of her personality and practices: her incessant desire to learn, to know, and to understand.

While the boys wonder about the name “Nicholas Flamel,” Hermione pursues his record through the ancient tomes and dusty pages of a library that contains information well beyond her year.

When the pink toad known as Dolores Umbridge removes any trace of learning from Defense Against the Dark Arts curriculum, paving the way for the Dark Lord Voldemort, Hermione incites a desire to learn among her peers and, as a result, a full-fledged rebellion.

After horcrux-deluded Ron abandons she and Harry, Hermione reads and re-reads the only books available to her–Albus Dumbledore’s biography and The Tales of Beedle the Bard–until the next step on the quest becomes apparent.

Greater knowledge, man, it’s worth pursuing. Hermione proves it.

Academia and learning were where Hermione succeeded above all others. (We will just ignore the “Harry and the Half-Blood Prince’s perfectly annotated book” incidents.) Books and cleverness are dominant aspects of who she is and everyone knows it.

At every turn, it was Hermione’s intellect that helped herself, the boys, and her other classmates on their way, no matter how much they grumbled about her studying and hand-raising. Her intelligence and logic were as valuable as Harry’s heroism and Ron’s loyalty, if not more so in certain situations.

The truth of the matter though, is that while Hermione wanted to learn, she also desperately needed to learn. She was a young woman who woke up one day to a new world that, while beautiful and complex, did not wholeheartedly want her to exist within it. As such, Hermione sought to empower herself in the ways that seemed most natural to her: studying and learning.

It wasn’t until last week, amid responding to an email from my new graduate studies advisor, that I realized that I have sought to empower myself in the same ways. Apparently, without realizing it, I’ve become, or quite possibly have always been, a Hermione Granger.

Of course, as moments of clarity are want to be, the whole situation felt a bit absurd at first. If you’ve ever been fitted for glasses and experienced the sudden realization that the world looks different from what your eyes alone have allowed you to see up to that point, then you understand my meaning. It’s the experience of finally seeing the clear image that has always existed before your own blurry eyes.

You see, I’m still on an extended RV trip with my family and I just wanted to have the “graduate advising hold” removed from my account so that I could register for classes later this year. But, being more than 2,000 miles from home means I’m not exactly available to do the whole “don a pretty dress, worry over finding a parking space, search out the office that I’ve somehow never noticed before, smile big, and make small talk” routine with an advisor.

Luckily, the advisor for my graduate program was kind enough to run me through the routine via email, minus all of the typical rigmarole. He began by covering all of the simple yet important details that I will probably forget and relearn at least twice before the semester starts. Then he set in with the questions. What is my educational background? What about professional? Why did I choose this program? Have I taken undergraduate statistics? Am I prepared for graduate school?

Oh. Oh goodness. There is a special kind of anxiety that is reserved for instances of simply not knowing quite how to answer questions. It’s awful and terribly disconcerting to say the very least.

I then found myself writing what quickly became less of an email and more of an unintentionally egotistical essay filled with “buts.”

Yes, I attended these universities, but I attended them in this order. I took these classes, but I studied these subjects in-depth as “a bit of light reading.” I feel this way, but I also feel like this. As I struggled to explain why a person with a B.A. in English would want to delve into criminal justice, why I had already begun to do so, a “but” slid into every too-long-and-too-detailed paragraph. For every stated fact there was some seemingly necessary addendum.

At the same time, every statement about myself felt absurd. I know that graduating two years early and studying extra subjects for fun sound like lies of the kiss-up, trying-to-impress variety. I know that purposely picking a foreign topic to study at the graduate level sounds incredibly ridiculous. Despite knowing those things, both notions are true in terms of who I am and what I’ve done.

Still, who is going to buy my truth when it smells strongly of baloney?

I had to question the entire situation. What do you do when the truth sounds like a series of lies, and you don’t want to lie to make the truth sound truthful? The only conclusion I’ve come to is that you just stop. You stop worrying. You throw caution to the wind. You let the admissions counselor judge you, critique you, and come to some half-arsed conclusion if it makes him feel good. You give up on appealing to others and fitting yourself into expectations, preconceived ideas. Maybe, just maybe, you realize the truth.

You realize that you’re a Hermione Granger, and that’s completely okay. Okay?

It’s perfectly fine to be something that sounds false as long as it isn’t actually. The truth is what matters, plain and simple, not how the truth sounds. Who you are and what you do are worthwhile and essential to a balanced world. There must be a Hermione for every Harry, Ron, Neville, Seamus, Luna, Severus, Minerva, Dumbledore, and so on and so forth.

It’s alright to be the brains, the student, the autodidact. Having knowledge is half the journey to understanding. Just don’t forget that there will always be something you don’t know or understand, and that is why you must keep trying, keep living. Learn, grow, and know as much as you like. Dismiss the “tone of surprise.”

Ron (by way of the wonderful HP Queen Jo) once commented on Hermione, saying her philosophy was “when in doubt, go to the library.” I’m come to realize that I believe and do the same thing because, as a much older man, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, once said, “the scholar and the world” are together in “the love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.”

If you’re like me, if you’re a Hermione, embrace it. You’ll be glad you did.

Without further adieu, if you ever have to explain who you are, narrowing your whole being into one measly message, do not feel ashamed, fraudulent, or confused. All the words you’ve read will be insufficient to describe you. You’re just a Hermione Granger–one of a large community of insufferable know-it-alls–and there is nothing “just” or “merely” about any of us.

(“Hermione Reads Before Bed” by Lorena Garcia, fan artist)

 

Thank You for Teaching Me to Learn.

When you graduate from university several things happen at once.

First, you realize that it all went by–primary, secondary, university–much faster than you thought when you were 5 years old and dreaming of going to “big kid school” with a grown-up backpack and fancy pens of your very own.

Second, you start to miss things that don’t make sense like the person with the cool jacket that you never got to know, laying on the concrete while waiting for your ride, and the feeling the first day of your last semester.

Third, you suddenly don’t know what to do next, not really.

When you’re a month out of university and you aren’t starting graduate school until you’re moved across the country, you start to look back because the future is too uncertain to contemplate. You start to wonder what you did right and what you did wrong. You start to see what the grey area of your education contains.

That’s where I am today. I’m floating, weightless, in the grey area between what I did and didn’t do to get to where I am today, and for some reason one phrase keeps coming back to me: “thank you.”

Obviously I’m thankful for having graduated, especially without any debt, but there’s something, or rather a collection of someones, that I’m also thankful for–the teachers and professors that helped me get to this point. This post is dedicated to them and all the “thank you’s” I should have said before now.

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“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).”

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Mrs. Thornton,

You were the first teacher I ever had. You were the image that I had, from fall of 1999 onward, of what a dedicated teacher was, and every other educational figure was internally scored on a scale based on you. You taught me to write beautifully in cursive, read books like they are going out of style, and create anything and everything whenever possible. You were the last teacher who ever had to tell me to stop chatting with my friends and the first to tell me that not talking to my friends during class didn’t mean I should ever let anyone stop me outside of it. You awarded me a trophy for “citizenship” and taught me to sing Spanish. It is because of you that I have penmanship that others still compliment and bookshelves full of journeys I can take at any moment, as well as a voice and a desire to learn and create, that no one can ever stifle. Thank you.

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Ms. (who may now be Mrs.) Nawrocki,

You were the youngest teacher at the school that year and still relatively new to that all-girls Catholic convent school, just like me. You encouraged me to read, even when it meant that I spent all three breaks each day sitting at a picnic table with my face buried in pages. You coaxed me into making friends, even when I was ready to stay off to the side and prepare for the next class. You made me talk things out with those friends, even when we made each other cry at recess because none of us knew how to handle multiple friendships. And, when I wasn’t in your class or grade level anymore, you still said “hello” in the courtyard and asked about my family. When everything else made me feel like a misplaced and awkward child–and even as you interviewed me for your thesis–you made me feel better, normal. Thank you.

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Ms. Person,

When I walked into your class the first day of sophomore year, I was exhausted, nervous, and more than a little skittish. So, all in all, it was a pretty normal day for me. Throughout the fall of 2008 semester, I don’t think I said more than 10 words that didn’t relate to presentations and other assignments, but you taught me so much about writing and the world of nonfiction. Then, the spring semester happened, we talked about my book reviewing, and suddenly I was applying to be on the yearbook staff and being grouped with the students that were doing the same. Everything seems to have passed in a whirlwind after that: I was writing in styles that I didn’t even know how to do before you, I was using a camera that you put in my hands, and I was learning to love a school that you made me see differently. It’s because of you that I learned to enjoy the microcosm of society that is high school and I didn’t simply retreat into my neon-sock-wearing, review-writing, antisocial, pessimistic, sophomoric self. You helped me grow into myself and truly appreciate those around me; you’re a large part of the reason I see and love the world the way I do. I sincerely hope that I know you for many years to come. Thank you.

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Mrs. Ramirez,

I think that everyone, at some point, has that teacher that they desperately want to impress for reasons that they don’t even understand. For me, that teacher was you. I walked into your class with my heart set on enjoying my best subject and I was hoping against all hope that I would have a teacher that loved English and writing instead of merely teaching either subject. You did. To my 16/17 year-old self, who thought about everything in terms of lyrics, you personified the notion of a “heart so big it hurts like hell.” Feeling and caring positively exuded from you, and your assignments made me care and feel too, and that was an incredibly scary thing for a teenager. Sometimes I would put off your weekly essays just because I was scared that I would feel too little or too much and my writing abilities just wouldn’t be able to match the emotions and ideas I was supposed to convey. You made me tiptoe a careful line between comfortably loving writing on my own and the abrupt realization that there was a lot about the literary world that I had left to explore. It’s because of that I realized there is no end in sight when you love something, there is only the passion of the process. Thank you.

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Dr. Dumas,

The first day of class, you admitted that students and other professors called you Doctor Doom. You told us that your British Literature II course would be hard and that people typically failed or just barely passed. I think your speech was supposed to scare us, but I don’t remember being scared. As the weeks ticked on, you threatened us with bad grades, put us in our place with hard questions, and generally tried to personify Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. It was exciting because you truly made me work for my grades. You made me run across campus to buy a test scoring sheet and defile a textbook by making notes in the margins. You made me discuss the works we read and admit my opinions before others could give theirs. You made me speak out when you saw my nose crinkle up at other students’ comments. You made me live up to my choice of a front row seat, and you didn’t allow me to be an insignificant 17-year-old among 21-year-olds. I usually hated any grade below an A, but I was incredibly proud of the B I got in your class because it was by the cramps of my hand and sweat of my brow that I earned it. When I dropped off my final paper at your office, I had never felt more accomplished. Thank you.

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Professor Bayless,

If I had to point out a teacher or professor that I would most like to emulate, I would point to you. It’s not because I adored your lesson plans or got to know you personally, but because you love the material you teach. When I was in your courses, there wasn’t a single day that I felt as if you didn’t want to be there or that you resented what you were doing. Despite teaching being your job and a job being necessary to pay for all aspects of life, you didn’t seem to resent it like some professors do. Yet, you also didn’t settle and allow your job to become your life. When you spoke about your poetry, your wife, and the degree in creative writing that you got in spite of societal protestations, I couldn’t help but to feel encouraged in my own endeavors. If nothing else, your brand of optimism and insight was contagious. While I was only lucky enough to be able to take two fine arts courses during my degree, those two courses and you forever changed the way I look at art. You may not have taught me the quote, but you taught me the lesson: “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Oscar Wilde). Thank you.

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Dr. Redmon,

For a while, I felt as if you were my only professor. That is to say, how often does a student have the same professor as their advisor and for two or three classes for three semesters in a row? But, I think the feeling spawned from more than just the frequency of our interactions–your courses contained such poignant material that I couldn’t help but to think about the courses even when I wasn’t in them. You taught me about literature and films in such a way that the lessons resonated outside of the classroom and discussion boards. You taught me how one discussion or one piece of material can transcend that physical experience or existence. When I completed the assignments for your class, I felt like I was doing so much more. As I wrote about religious, historical, and literary modes of early American literature, simulation in films, and the sexualization of female characters, you made me realize putting pen to paper or fingers to keys was only the first step in changing life and society. You made me see how vital my education is to the world I live in and that, despite frequent dismissals of an English degree, skill with words and the ability to see beyond the obvious may be precisely what makes life worthwhile. Thank you.

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Paying for College: You Might Be Doing It Wrong.

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I recently read two intriguing articles about the realities of university costs and federal student aid in modern America.

The first article was by Richard Vedder (hover for link) and detailed five ways that the government and universities could make higher education more accessible. The second was a Wall Street Journal article by Caroline Porter (hover for link) that explored a 10% leap in the number students using federal student aid since 07/08. Such articles came at nearly the same time that President Obama addressed the possibility of tying college/university performance to federal aid (hover for link).

When you consider all of this, one notion becomes clear: there is something wrong with higher education in America. Even former Secretary of Education William Bennett has declared that only 150 of the 3500 colleges/universities in America are worthwhile investments (hover for link).

However, the fact of the matter is that students are the ones who have to get through this bass ackwards education process, not successful journalists, the president, or retired officials. In the words of Tim Gunn, students have to “make it work.”

With that in mind and the begrudging acceptance that I cannot solve the issues of all students overnight, I have compiled a few tips about financial success for those planning to or currently attending university.

As a soon-to-be graduate, I am certainly not an expert but, I have made it this far with zero debt and no loans, and I’m graduating with my undergraduate degree 2 years early. I hope that these will apply to at least a small portion of you.

Happy college games, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

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Apply to as many scholarships as early in your education as possible.

I know that high school feels super-duper, oh my god, I can’t even, that’s ridick, cray cray, far away when you’re in middle school, but you should already be preparing for college. Yes, I said college. If you’re already in high school or college, keep applying! There is no scholarship season, so apply year-round. Every application does not require an essay; essay simple and non-essay apps and you’re set.

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Don’t just apply to the school/schools everyone is talking about.

Apply to the schools that will suit your degree needs but will also offer the best scholarships to you specifically. If that means applying to more schools just to review scholarship offers then do it. Applications themselves cost a pretty penny, but it is worth the cost in the end if you can attend one college for little to nothing while your another might have cost you your pinkie toes, firstborn child, and a sacrificial lamb. Here’s a helpful (comparison tool).

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Fill out the FAFSA on time! Here, I’ll even give you the link: (FAFSA).

I don’t care if you or your parents make too much to receive federal aid yet too little to pay for school without assistance. The information on those sheets can help in applying for private aid, serve as an example of your attempts to pursue higher education, and they will get you organized so you really know how much change is in your piggy bank. Also, for those reasons and the possibility of receiving a Pell Grant, make sure that all of the information you submit is accurate. No lying!

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Do not take out more loans than absolutely necessary. Consider all other financial options first (job, family, scholarships, grants, work-study, etc).

I know entirely too many people who are either up to their neck in loans because they didn’t realize what they were agreeing too, or they were flat-out unintelligent and took out every loan offered to them and didn’t even spend the money on school. Please, for the love of all that is educational, don’t take out a loan unless you absolutely have to, and if you do, understand exactly what it is that you are agreeing to. This is a College Board site that gives at least a basic explanation of the (different types of loans).

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Spend your money (or your family’s money) on what you need, not every little thing you want.

The idea of a “broke college student” is engrained in our culture. We get it: college costs a lot and no one has a lot. But, no one is going to feel bad when you’re blowing your money. If you have a meal plan, eat in the chow hall…Papa John’s does not need to be on speed dial. If your phone works, use it…you don’t need a new one every month. If your laptop is running, use it or do a tune up…buying a new one is wasteful. Be happy with what you have, work for what you need, and occasionally give into what you want. Also, budget yourself with a (tool like this)!

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Only live in the dorms if you’re going to live there full-time, your scholarship covers them, or it is the only viable housing option.

I can’t even begin to describe how silly some people have gotten about dorms/housing. I know people who are living in dorms 2 miles from their parents, and they stay at home every other day. I know people who were in such a hurry to move away from their parents that they had to take out loans for rent. Being someone with overprotective parents, I know that moving out seems like the way to get more freedom; however, if it is a better financial choice to live at home, suck it up. (57% of students) are reported as living at home or with a relative, so don’t rush out just because you want to be able to play beer bong often.

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Weigh the pros and cons of online, on-campus, and mixed delivery courses.

There’s a certain stigma these days against online courses, but some of the online courses I’ve taken through my college have been more beneficial than others I’ve taken on campus or through mixed delivery (classes that are online and on-campus). Depending on the school, online courses can cost less, more, or about the same as other delivery methods (hover for link). Forget about the stigma, compare the tuition and fees, and enroll in the style that suits you. The majority of online classes/schools are not like University of Phoenix where you’re working for credits that will never count or transfer.

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Price compare your textbooks are soon as you possibly can! Email or meet with the professors before the start of the semester if possible.

The biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when it comes to little college costs that add up is in buying their textbooks. You have to price compare every site to every brick and mortar store if you want to avoid getting ripped off. Be sure to compare your school bookstore to (Amazon) to (Chegg) to (Neebo) to (Half.com) to (AbeBooks) to (Alibris) to (Campus Books) to (Barnes & Noble) to (Hastings). When a semester ends, sell the books back to those same shops (except your school bookstore) and you’ll get a nice return.

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Get to know every person you can, particularly influential adults.

I am talking about your professors, faculty advisors, registrars, librarians, sororities moms, trash collectors, and even that creepy couple that are always shoving pamphlets in your face. Don’t forget about those people you may never even meet offline; employ social media for more than sharing pictures of half-eaten sandwiches and DIY projects. Networking is key when the word of any individual or group could mean a scholarship, grant, job, or even just someone to stop you from having a mental breakdown.

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Do not even think about stretching out your college experience any longer than necessary.

Taking pointless classes or semesters that involve so few credit hours that the college wonders why you’re enrolled is ridiculous. When my peers say that they’re taking “only a couple of classes” so they can “enjoy the experience,” I want to bang my head against a wall. Actually, I want to bang their head against a wall. Yes, college is fun. No, you shouldn’t waste money and time by making it longer. Do not change your degree plan 15 times and do not take an extra course in twerking. If you have other commitments that you have to cover, that is understandable, but don’t become the meme.

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On that same note, keep to your degree plan and note any changes.

Although most colleges/universities have a policy of keeping your specific degree plan once you’ve committed to it, changes can happen, especially in colleges/universities that are still in the development stage. You don’t want to pay for classes you don’t need. So, keep an eye on your degree plan, register as early as possible for the courses on it, and enjoy the suffering that the coursework entails. Oh, and have fun being righteously arrogant after completing the courses and the degree.

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I hope that some of these tips are sort of, kind of, maybe, a little bit useful. Best of luck with your college situation, and please leave a comment below if you have a tip to add!

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