The Blunder Years
December 1, 2008 9:27 PM   Subscribe

Two-parter undergrad question: is it worth it to transfer? How can I stop from burning out?

In high school I spent a lot of time and energy buttressing my case for admission to an elite college. I took a ton of AP classes, got good marks on my ACT, cultivated recommendations, and did a few extracurriculars. It worked, and I was admitted to an extremely elite small liberal arts college on partial scholarship. Unfortunately, this didn't work out due to what can only be described as a massive collusion of at least five mostly unrelated factors and what might be lightly termed "blunders," and what's more, the story of what happened cannot be told without making me seem either insane or dangerous.

I am now attending my local state university, which I had expended all that effort in high school to avoid attending. To put it mildly, it lives up to my worst fears: the social atmosphere is suffocating, the professors are mediocre at best, and the entire city it is in is filthy and smells like dead things.

I could transfer, but I already am a Junior and I would have to do at least one addition year as most schools require two years worth of credit at their institution in order to graduate. Furthermore, my family's financial health, once robustly middle-class, has declined somewhat. Hence the first question: is it worth it to transfer to a place I might like? if so, can I get scholarship money? is there anywhere I can transfer to that won't ask too many questions about my past or will avoid asking for recommendations from my current institution?

Second question: if not, how can I prevent myself from burning out? I hate waking up every day here, and I find it harder and harder to engage myself in my schoolwork, but I'm afraid if I take time off I will simply never find the interest to return to college. For example, I have a large take-home test due tomorrow that I did not start until 9:30 tonight (it's 1:00 AM now) that so far has only one of ten questions answered. It's not quite a time management issue, since I spent a good amount of that time staring blankly at the materials and even more time just thinking about the test, nor is it anxiety, as I have been faced with similar positions before and met the challenge. It's obviously too late to save this test— luckily the professor's policies mean that there will be none-too-harsh penalties for late work— but how I can prevent myself from finding myself in this position in the future?

Possible relevant factors include being in a humanities major, taking classes year-round to get myself out of here faster, having a college GPA that hovers between 3.0 and 3.5, a desire to go to library school, living off-campus, having no car and not living in a public-transport friendly city, being otherwise unemployed, and already being in therapy, thank you very much.

Thank you for your answers. Anonymous on account of it revealing personal information that I am still trying to keep out of general circulation.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that you need to separate out your concerns/problems at your current school into things that have to do with this particular school versus you. The social atmosphere, professors and city might suck at the transfer school too. You might still be a procrastinator.

However, if you really want to, transfer. Fill out the FASFA and see what financial aid you can get and take out loans from the rest.

Every school's transfer policy is different. Recommendations and questions about your past? I don't think that this is normal.
posted by k8t at 9:32 PM on December 1, 2008

er, the advice I can give you looking back on school from 20 years on is that no matter how bad college is, the real world is 100X worse, and that's on a good day.

buck up, stop fucking around, and do it for you. Make it a personal challenge to push your GPA as high as it will go when you graduate.

Start thinking of career paths if you haven't already and angle for a transition to an MA in information.
posted by troy at 9:39 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

School debt is the best debt you'll ever find. Low apr and very kind lenders, as long as you stick with the subsidized federal loans. Your college of graduation will be with you forever, so I'd recommend finding one you want to go to. You seem fairly ambitious, so I think you'd forever regret not trying your damnest to get into a school of your choice, not the choice of your situation.

One more thing which struck me is to consider whether you really want to finish college. Do you have anything you're striving towards? Or are you just doing this because it's the thing to do?
posted by emptyinside at 9:42 PM on December 1, 2008

Wow. Your story parallels mine on many levels. Very small liberal school ---> large state school. I burnt out and have left again, but it's technically on medical leave. You are closer than I am to finishing, and transferring would just prolong your misery in school.

My vote is to find something you enjoy doing [painting? standup comedy? knitting?] to offset the lack of interest in school. Then at least you have something to look forward to when your work is done. Get the degree and get out, especially if you have scholarship or grant money.

I find that the more I leave school, the less I want to come back. Stay in if you can, and MeFi mail me if you want to talk further.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:44 PM on December 1, 2008

Whatever you do, don't take time off. Consider that if you don't feel like being in school now and you take "time off" to live it up, travel, and have fun in general, you will probably feel even less like returning to school. You're a junior and fall semester is ending, so you only have three semesters left after this one - that's what, only 1.5 years? Just finish it up!
posted by pravit at 9:58 PM on December 1, 2008

Two questions (transfer + limit disinterest) with a similar answer:
It depends on what you want (which is why you'll have a hard time getting clarity from answers on mefi - what you want is not something others can/should answer for you).

I am an attorney today, recently graduated from an excellent school (alums can guess from my user ID). While an undergrad, I worked as a college adviser in a local high school - I was the "Transfer: Makin' It Happen" coordinator so I have some experience with situations like yours in some sense.

Your work in high school was admirable, but it was essentially to show that you can work hard (AP tests, ACT) and have interests (extracurriculars) that will drive you in your career/job. Now that you've spent a couple/few years at State University, colleges will only look at your work and marks while in college. Nothing to be done about your prior excellent grades or that higher ranked college you were not able to attend. Your focus, and the focus of potential college admissions teams or employers, is now on your recent past and your goals for the future. A great college can be fun and improve you, but it is a means to an end - what will college get you? Personal improvement and experience at school is valuable, but for the vast majority of people college is a step in the progression toward a job - a good school means a better chance of finding a job that is interesting to you and rewarding (however you define that - financial, moral, fun, world changing, exciting, summers off, casual clothing allowed, by your own boss, etc).

That is what you must consider before making your move. If you want to be a lawyer, the school you go to matters in terms of where you can get into law school and then where you'll be able to find work. If you want to be a writer you may find more complex subject matter and experience at a larger school in a larger city. Stay close to home? Work in a particularly geographically focused field (fashion in NY, marine-biology along the California coast, etc)? Your goals and career choices define whether or not transferring would be valuable for you.

If you're unhappy with your current college, consider what why you value the contrasting atmosphere - more intellectual? Cleaner? More rural? If those are values you prioritize, then consider where you can find work that will make achieving those priorities possible and which schools will provide the most support in finding that work.

Only you can decide whether an additional year of school will get you closer to your priorities, but my general advice would be that many people take more than 4 years to complete their degrees so that extra year should not be a deterrent. There will be a substantially higher cost, but as others have said, federal student loans are not the worst type of debt to take on and the returns on that investment in yourself are something only you can calculate. I would advise my students that they should consider schooling costs but don't let it prevent them from fulfilling their goals. Apply for scholarships (you can get more than you think!) and grants. Take on work study (college advising is a good work study job ;-). Live frugally. But do so with your priorities in mind and your goals in sight.

Burning out - I can't give this the attention it deserves, but for now I'll say this: by finding out what you aspire toward (individual priorities, careers, goals, or values) and working to achieve it you will be genuinely working on what interests you. If the motivation is not there, then try again after considering how that activity will get you toward your goals. If you're still not interested, consider whether something else would interest you more and if you should be working toward that alternative goal.

This is not easy - you cannot just say, "well, I want to be rich and retire early" then work really hard for the next 30 years. There has to be something more to your job and life than getting out of it, because there ain't much else beyond that. Think of the family you'll be able to raise, the parents you'll be able to comfort as they age, the friends you'll be able to make and enjoy. What do you see yourself doing with them all? If you're not doing it now or are not working toward that goal, re-evaluate how you can do so and jump up and do it!

As for your current procrastination, that's probably all it is. Get to work. There's no excuse for taking advantage of your professor's leniency, you're only slowing yourself down from getting to where you want to be. Read up on mefi or zenhabits or lifehacker on how to avoid procrastination and set incremental goals. It's not burn out, it's something we all deal with to varying degrees and with varying success. I had to put up a sign when studying for the bar exam that said: "Get back to work" ... couldn't get my eyes too far up from the pages when the first thing I saw was a message to look back down (and it worked).

Year round classes is a good idea - should save you money in the end and will get you more from your time at school than a couple months with a summer job back at home watching your friends/classmages drink and avoid drugs/marriage/depression/pie. Humanities is just as competitive as hard sciences in most ways, don't give yourself an out by suggesting that your field is not challenging enough - there's always someone you can be working toward in terms of skills and knowledge regardless of field. Make that a goal rather than making A-'s your goal.

Your GPA will limit you from some top tier schools. But extracurriculars or any means of demonstrated commitment and desire can get you much further than you'd expect. Genuine interest is hard to fake and will show through if you're applying to a school and filed you love. Therapy is just like going to any other doctor to deal with a problem and your transit problems will resolve themselves as time goes on. Bikes are cheap and amazing (and used at most colleges) - get on one =)

Best luck in finding your path, even this struggle is part of what gives your life meaning - if the choice were easy no one would be impressed when you actually reached your finish line.

Sorry for the cheesy parts ;-)
posted by unclezeb at 10:44 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Second question: if not, how can I prevent myself from burning out? I hate waking up every day here, and I find it harder and harder to engage myself in my schoolwork, but I'm afraid if I take time off I will simply never find the interest to return to college.

From my experience - and believe me, I have experienced this - this feeling will never really go away. You can do as I did and find something that really excites you in that school, and throw yourself into it, or find another school that holds that sort of enticement for you.

The problem I ran into with doing the former (a job on campus in my case) was that it took precedence over nearly everything. That included my studies, my classes, degree-program related events... I eventually realized that even though I was miserable with most aspects of that school, I stayed for my job because I did it well, was recognized for it, and got approval from people who otherwise overlooked me. This included my major-related professors!

This summer I decided enough was enough. I'm in the process of transferring to another school, my second transfer. (Though, the first was for mostly different reasons...) Because of slow paperwork, I had to take a semester off, but I'm doing my best to get ready for January. I'm a little nervous, because I'm older than most students, and I will be adding some more time on my degree, but I'm excited too. I have a fresh slate in many ways. Even though this was not a school I dreamed about or even considered in high school, it's a good school with the programs I want to be involved in.

My advice to you is to do just what you're doing and think about your situation.

If you're truly unhappy, you need to do something about it. Things won't get better just because they "have to." Make a list. One side should read, "Good things about staying." The other, "Good things about [insert other college here]." Try to be as honest and non-exaggerative as possible. Weigh your possible paths.

You mention financial concerns. Keep up with your Fafsa. Always fill it out as soon as you can. That will help you get better loans and scholarships and grants if you're eligible. Also, try websites like Fastweb for additional scholarship opportunities. Taking some of the financial responsibility on your own shoulders is always an option if you're worried about being too much of a burden on your family. It seems daunting, but it can be much less complicated than people like to make it seem.

Also, you ask about recommendations and new schools checking up on you. In my experience (again...) schools ask for your transcripts and that's about it. If you have recommendations, they may not hurt, but many schools would accept you easily without them. I've never needed one, and my grades are very varied. (I'm a good student when focused, but like you, lose my enthusiasm, so to speak.)

So, look around. See what options are available to you. Try to find something on campus that you can really sink your teeth into and will get you back into the spirit of college. At the same time, look into other colleges. See if there's one with a really great library program, since you're interested, or a campus/community that will make it easy for you to live there without your own car.

Weigh your choices, talk to your friends and family (if possible) and try not to make any major decisions on a particularly frustrating day. (You can MeMail me if you need someone to bounce ideas off of.)

Good luck to you, I understand how conflicting the place you're in right now can be. Hopefully it works out for us both!
posted by Kimothy at 10:56 PM on December 1, 2008

The state school you're at now sounds pretty miserable indeed. Of course I don't know which school you're talking about; however I will take a minute to point out that it is often possible to get more out of the Big State School experience than many people do.

Sadly, it's often the case that at larger state schools the default college experience consists of drinking and doing the minimum amount of work necessary to get a ticket to a decent job. But I'd encourage you not to assume that that experience is the only one possible at most big state schools.

At a larger school you have to take a more active role in finding a niche and getting the most of your education. I'd encourage you to ask yourself whether you've really explored all the possibilities before assuming that you can't find anything worthwhile where you are now.

Maybe you have, and it really is hopeless. But I'd be surprised. See if you can find honors seminars, or clubs that pertain to your interests or major. Talk with the professors you like most, to see if you can ones who are better. Look at the faculty profiles in your department and see what faculty look interesting, or match your own interests. Propose independent research projects. See if there are performance groups, or publications (literary or other) etc. at your college. Maybe you could take a graduate seminar or two.

Anyway, you may well decide that the experience and education you want is simply unavailable at the school you're now attending. But even at places that seem culturally dismal, there is often a critical mass of people doing interesting things underneath the radar of the wider campus monoculture.
posted by washburn at 11:24 PM on December 1, 2008

The professors are mediocre at best

Give your profs the benefit of the doubt. They have PhD's, presumably, which means they themselves spent 8 to 10 years in the post-secondary system dreaming of academic glory only to wind up teaching a bunch of slugs in some big state school. I expect they have had the life sucked out of them, but maybe if the odd student who actually cared showed up they might spring back to life. Maybe you're that student?
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:40 PM on December 1, 2008

I am yet to meet someone who enjoyed their undergrad. The social atmosphere is always suffocating because that's what happens when you have so many 19 year olds with undeveloped social skills discovering booze, love, and no parents. The professors seem mediocre at best because most of them are tired of dealing with said 19 year olds who care nothing about school or learning. If you actually enjoy being at school and learning, you should just study hard, finish up, and go to grad school. You only have 3 terms left anyways. Grad school is MUCH different from undergrad, in that most people around you actually want to be there, are passionate about their work, are more mature, and the professors care about you.
posted by shamble at 12:16 AM on December 2, 2008

The final year of my undergraduate degree went by extremely fast - I was always busy doing something. With that in mind I would say: pushing on and finishing the course without transferring is your fastest way out of the university system.

At the moment you say you're staring at your test and not doing it; and you talk about the suffocating social atmosphere and the mediocre professors. Changing school would result in a different social atmosphere and professors, but that will only fix your inability to work if your inability to work is due to the social atmosphere and professors. Maybe it would be different at another school, maybe it wouldn't. On the other hand, finish up your course and leave the university system and the problem is gone for sure.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:15 AM on December 2, 2008

The professors are mediocre at best

Really? Or are you seeking out a mediocre student experience? By and large, the professors at top-ranked liberal arts colleges come out of the exact same graduate programs as the professors at large state universities. (The academic job market is tough, so just because you want that job at Amherst doesn't mean you won't take a job offered at a university in Buffalo.) Teaching is given a higher priority at a small college, often, and in that kind of tight environment it is harder to drift anonymously. And the campus environments couldn't be more different (partly because, as you found out, small colleges can be pretty ruthless in showing people to the door when things "aren't working out," whereas the big state U will probably let you keep hanging around as long as you keep paying tuition).

My point here is that you are blaming your depression and frustration and dissatisfaction on your surroundings -- on anything other than yourself. The city smells bad, your profs are crap, you don't have a car, and the other students are beyond crap. Well, ok... there definitely are cities that are famous for smelling bad, with a nice rendering plant or tire factory downtown. But the rest of it just sounds like you blaming internal problems on external factors.

Even at the most downtrodden of diploma mills (which I doubt your school really is) there are good, committed professors who love working with and supporting students. And even in the most caustic and stultifying of social environments there are really cool people who are stuck there just like you are, because of family, finances, or other reasons. And even that terrible diploma mill has a library that needs student workers, and volunteer programs that will help compensate for the imperfect GPA when you start applying to MLS programs next year.

Are you seeking any of these things out? If you aren't, blaming your problems on your environment strikes me as similar to staring at the blank test instead of working on it and blaming the professor for being mediocre. My guess is that with all of these things you are saying, "oh, I'm too cool for that, I'm so much more awesome than they are," and in doing that you are shooting yourself in the foot in a big way.

Honestly, you will do whatever you want to do. But the argument against transferring is pretty clear: time and money. If you stay, you are one year away from finishing, and starting next fall your energy will be going into applying to grad school. If you transfer, you have to spend hours and hours applying, then spend another year as an undergrad, try and quick make some connections to profs to get letters of rec, figure out a new system, etc, and then start the grad application process hopefully a year later.

And I think the advice about casually taking on additional student loans should be read with a great deal of caution. Student loan debt is tough, honestly, for all that you can call it "good debt." You still have to pay it, and high loan payments will mean that you can't take that cool-but-unpaid internship, or travel with your friend to India. Debt will constrain your future options in a big way -- think twice before doing this.
posted by Forktine at 5:41 AM on December 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

I am yet to meet someone who enjoyed their undergrad. This is anything but true. I loved (and hated!) it (that kind of love-hate relationship being the norm at my undergrad university). Very few people I've met since didn't enjoy at least parts of their undergraduate years.

As others have said: make sure you're doing your best to take full advantage of all of the options at your university. Would raising your GPA so that you might make the cutoff for an honors program allow you to take smaller, more advanced classes with professors? Are there any interesting graduate classes or seminars you might want to sit in on? Are you going to office hours? Undergraduate research experience is harder to come by in the humanities, but are you trying to involve yourself in your field in other ways - through a major-related undergraduate organization, through the literary magazine, by getting a job (work-study or not) in the library? If there's not a literary magazine, or a library-related undergraduate organization, have you tried to start one? Have you considered getting a bike so that you'll be more mobile and able to participate in things? Have you checked out any student groups that might stereotypically be full of people not part of the "suffocating" social scene? Theater, computer clubs, humor magazines, live action role-playing gamers?

If you're not already trying to pursue some of these ways of making your life at Big State U. any better, transferring might not help at all. It's easy to find excuses not to do things; your excuses might just change to "it's too hard to make friends as a transfer," "God, all the kids here at Small Liberal Arts U. are rich and spoiled" or "NYC is filthy and smells like dead things too" or "all of the professors are too busy with their research for me to get to know them." And while the situation can make your procrastination worse, it won't go away in a new environment. It's something you've got to learn to work past.

This isn't to say that a transfer is automatically the wrong choice. If you've tried to talk with your Big State U. professors and been rebuffed, if they don't have student workers in the library, if the literary magazine isn't an option, well, switching schools might be an ansewr. It will, however, be a lot of hard work, time, and money. You will graduate late - note that lots of people do this, and it's not necessarily a bad thing, if you're improving your situation and bettering your chances of getting into grad schools. You just need to make sure that you're not going to switch schools and bring the same old problems with you. In the end, you are primarily responsible for the success or failure or your undergraduate years.
posted by ubersturm at 6:31 AM on December 2, 2008

Is part of the problem related to your worrying about people at elite colleges having better opportunities than you or a better time? I went to an elite college and, in retrospect, there are lots of people who are doing a lot worse financially and career-wise than my friends who attended mediocre or less prestigious universities. Also, there are always people at every school who want to trade up. Don't let your ego get the better of you, especially when money is at stake.

Also, I have a friend who is a recruiter who says they are limiting their recruiting efforts to a couple of elite universities and a bunch of state schools, because they want to get the biggest bang for their recruiting efforts. They want to interface with as many people as possible before hiring and so they're paying attention to a lot of schools that aren't "prestigious" in the traditional sense.

The best thing about you that will always put you over the top is that you have the ability to work hard. A lot of students have never done that. I sincerely believe that will put you over the top in anything you want to do in the future. I just really hope there's a way for you to have positive experiences at your current school.

Make sure you try to make lots of good friends, because that really counts when you're looking for a job/opportunities in the near future.
posted by anniecat at 7:14 AM on December 2, 2008

I transferred after my sophomore year (which was effectively my junior year, considering AP credits), and it was a major pain in the ass. I ended up finishing college in five years instead of the three I would have taken at the original, state school.

I wanted to go to a school with better resources where the research that was going on was more cutting edge, but what I didn't realize is that engaged, driven students are much easier to come by at such universities. It ended up taking me a lot longer to get involved in fruitful research, as I had to adjust to a new environment and scramble to satisfy redundant basic requirements that I had already essentially completed at my original college.

Consequently, it has taken me much longer to get to the point where I am a competitive applicant to graduate schools. That isn't to say that there weren't benefits as well as costs to my transfer, but if your goal is to pursue further education in library science, realize that satisfying undergrad requirements at the school to which you transfer may take away time you could apply now to working at making yourself an attractive MLS candidate.

Like Forktine said, I'm sure there are willing and able professors at your current institution with whom you can get some excellent work done. If you're looking for a challenge, perhaps you could do an independent study? Sometimes it takes a while to find the professors who are doing work that's up your alley, but I imagine you'd feel a lot less burnt out if you could get involved with some research.

Good luck!
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:28 AM on December 2, 2008

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