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14 Steps to Get a Serious Head Start in Life

Only 59% of college students actually finish their degree. Of all college students, the average debt load when they finish (or quit) is over $30,000 and their unemployment rate is 8.5%, far greater than the 5.5% average unemployment rate of the entire nation. More so now than ever, college attendees are actually finding themselves left behind economically, rather than getting ahead like the past generations. They have seemingly done everything right, but many are jobless or underemployed, and sinking under a mountain of debt.

get a head start in life

Source: Institute of Education Sciences

I thought going to college was supposed to lead to a head start in life! Apparently it’s just a way to get behind? What is the correct path for getting ahead these days?

14 Steps to Get a Head Start in Life

With tuition rates on the rise and an ever-increasingly saturated marketplace, what can students do today to give themselves a head start in life? After careful deliberation, I have discovered 14 things that students should do to be successful in life. As you read this, you might think, “Well, I’m not 16 years old anymore, so this article is a waste of my time,” but consider those that you know who could benefit from this valuable information. Wouldn’t you love for your nieces, nephews, friends, grandkids, and distant relatives to have a serious advantage in life? Take note of this list and be sure to pass it along!

The High School Years

In order to get a true head start in life, kids should already start considering their future lives once they hit high school (10th grade at the latest). At this level, they should:

get a head start in life1) Get Good Grades

This steps seems a bit obvious, but it’s not just striving for an A or B on a test, it’s about actually learning the information and benefiting from the action of self-discipline in the process. Sure, you might not need to know anything about a Frog’s intestinal track if you’re planning to go to school for Finance, but the ability to learn, retain, and understand the topic is still important. And, the grade itself is (of course) important as you apply for various colleges later in your high school career.

2) Score Well on the ACT/SAT

The first time I took the ACT, I was a junior in high school and had been studying for about a week prior to taking the test. I thought I was decently prepared….and then I took the test. Thanks to my studiousness in my regular classes I didn’t do awful, but my scores didn’t make my acceptance a sure thing for any university, and I certainly didn’t get much in the way of scholarships.

After getting my score back and comparing my smarts to my friends, I realized that a handful of people had been preparing for this test for years…YEARS! And, it definitely showed. Their scores allowed them to choose any university and get a full ride. If you want to get a head start in life, seek out study courses and classes that will teach you how to do well on these college aptitude tests. A couple hundred dollars could very easily earn you thousands in the way of scholarships.

3) Participate in Extracurricular Activities

If you’re good at sports, then be sure to participate in at least one. If you like chess, then join the chess team. If you’re interested in debate, then join the debate team. Extracurricular activities are more important than you think:

  • They help you develop as a person/leader
  • Colleges are interested in your activities to see what else you’re interested in, and if it meshes well with their school
  • Employers view your activities to gauge leadership, devotion, and ability

If you participate in no activities, then colleges and employers might just glance over your application. Institutions and corporations alike are looking for candidates with passion and purpose, not just a GPA.

get a head start in life4) Volunteer Again and Again

As Kristina Ellis often emphasizes, volunteering is important to your college education. Kristina, a winner of over $500,000 in scholarships, wasn’t a star athlete or an academic phenom. At a young age, Kristina learned that her mom would not be able to send her to college – she would have to find her own way. After much research, she discovered that good grades were important, but volunteering was vital to become a stand-out on scholarship applications. While many of her friends worked during the summer to earn $5,000, she was applying for scholarship after scholarship, emphasizing her passion and all of her volunteer hours that proved it. With just this tactic, Kristina was able to amass $500,000 worth of scholarships over the course of her student life. Want to get ahead in life? Volunteer (and apply for scholarships relentlessly).

The College Years

At this point, after having done all the things listed above, you should have a pretty good selection of universities that are opening their doors to you, and at a discounted rate no doubt. So what’s next? What else can you do to get a head start in life?

5) Attend Your Local State College

That trek off to college is a very important time for many students. They are embarking on the next big journey of their lives, and they are proving to everyone (and themselves) that they can survive without the constant supervision of mommy and daddy. Sometimes though, with all the blissful college tours and displays of student life, new enrollees can forget that one college might cost more than another (and that the improved night life of one area probably isn’t worth the extra $20,000 per year.

get a head start in life

Upon reviewing the expenses of my local college recently (The University of Michigan), I was dumbfounded at how much the costs varied for a local Michigan resident vs. an out-of-state resident. Take a look at the dollars above. An out-of-stater might fall in love with the University of Michigan, but it will cost them an extra $30k EACH YEAR. That equates to $120k more for a four-year degree! If you’re still looking for the right school to go to, make it a priority to check out the costs before packing your bags.

6) Choose a Degree that Matters

If you want to major in theater, fashion design, or communications (or any other degree from Simple Dollar’s top 10 worst degrees list), you might want to check yourself (…and as the saying goes…’before you wreck yourself’). These degrees lead to some of the lowest paid jobs out there, and may not even require a degree in the first place. Before you put all the time, effort, and money into a degree, be sure that it’s something that can provide a living for you. After all, that’s what college is all about.

If you’re interested in the top 25 best jobs of 2015 (and you should be), check out the list that U.S. News recently published. If you’re going to school to become a nurse practitioner, a software developer, or a dental hygienist, you’re definitely on the right track!

get a head start in life7) Live at Home or With Friends Off Campus

While at school, housing can be expensive. Heck, take a look at the housing costs at Michigan. For over $1,000 a month, you get to share a 200 square foot space with someone you never met before in your life. Good times.

Instead of paying a huge amount for a small, smelly dorm, why not save a ton of money and commute from home? Either that, or rent a house just off campus with 3 or 4 responsible people of your choosing. I did this while I was in school and it saved me over $700 a month! It was definitely worth the added effort.

8) Work While in College

Some kids are serious drama queens (and kings) today. Many wouldn’t dream of taking on a job “because it might reduce their GPA.” This is code for, “I really like my social life here at school and I don’t want to give that up – after all, my student loans will cover me while I’m in school.”

Working while in college is beneficial for three reasons:

  1. It earns you money so you don’t need to go into debt
  2. It teaches you about the working world before you’re thrown into it after college
  3. You’ll learn how to prioritize your life when you actually have to weigh opportunity costs

My friend worked a second shift full-time job while he was in school. He was a crazy man, but he never had to take on any debt. And, he got incredibly skilled at planning out each day, which prepared him very well for the real world after college (heck, his life probably got easier after graduation!).

get a head start in life9) Get Experience in Your Degree Before Graduation

There are many things I did well when I was in school, but gaining experience in my degree was not one of them. After I graduated with a degree in finance, I quickly discovered that I made a huge mistake, simply because I never had an internship that had anything to do with finance. When reviewing my resume, my interviewer would often ask how much finance experience I had. My response had to do with school projects and personal finance. Ha! This was clearly not enough for them to hire me. Going into an interview with no related experience is like going to the bank with no record of any credit and asking for a $250,000 home loan. Try either of these and you might just get laughed out of the office.

When selecting your school, be sure that they have a top-notch internship program in place and that it’s a basic requirement for graduation. If you exit school without experience, you will almost certainly not get ahead in life. Rather, you’ll have to start at the back of the pack.

10) Graduate With Absolutely No Debt

This is a biggie. The average college student leaves school with approximately $30,000 in student loans. The looming student loan payments force many to take jobs that they don’t want, puts them back into their parents’ basement, and keeps them from buying their first house until their early 30’s. If you want to get ahead in life, one of the best ways to do it is to get through college without any debt. If you don’t think this is possible, please refer back to steps #1-9 for some direction 😉.

After The Degree

You’ve done a good job so far. You did well in high school, you landed quite a few scholarships to your local state college, and you graduated without any debt, but your work’s not quite over year. If you want to get ahead in life, there’s still a few more things to do.

get a head start11) Be Selective With Your First Job

Since you don’t have any debt, that means you don’t need to worry about those pending payments back to Federal Loans, which means that you can be a little more selective in your job choice. Now, you still shouldn’t wait around for a year to make the exact right choice (many employers frown on that huge gap in your resume), but go into each interview with careful consideration.

  • Do you enjoy what the company produces?
  • Is the job description exciting to you?
  • Is there room for advancement?
  • How is the company culture? Are people friendly and inviting?
  • Do they have a quality insurance offering? Do they match investment contributions?

These are all questions you should be thinking about when you take that first step into the building. You have as much right to interview the employer as they do to interview you. After all, you’re the one that’s in demand.

12) Immediately Contribute 15% to Investments

You’re used to being a broke college student, so instead of ramping up your lifestyle to a full-fledged adult with a single family home and a pool in the back, why not live just slightly above the level you’ve been accustomed to?

In other words, instead of ramping up your spending to that of the average idiot, I would suggest that you immediately put 15% toward investments (this can include the company match). Put this in the stock market, into your own business, or into another investment avenue, just as long as it’s earning some money for your distant future.

If you earn $45,000 a year in your first job and invest 15% for 40 years, you’ll have $2.7 million by the time you’re 62. Boom!

13) Live in a Dumpy Rental

If you want to get a head start in life, don’t run out and buy your first house immediately after college. The mortgage expense will be more of a burden than a help at this point in your life. Instead of spending $1,200 a month on a home mortgage, I suggest that new grads find a small rental above someone’s garage for $400 a month, and then sock away as much money as they can for a future home purchase. This way, you’ll only be losing $400 a month to a landlord vs. $1,000 a month to bank interest. The math is pretty simple – the cheap rental is a much better option for the first few years of your working career.

14) Put Over 50% Down on Your First House

Before you start arguing with me, wouldn’t you say that you’d have a pretty big head start in life if you were able to put 50% down on your house at 26 years old and then have the house completely paid for by the time you’re 29? It might not seem possible, but I am living proof that it can be done.

First, you definitely need to find a cheap rental so you can bank some cash, but you also need to be living in an area with reasonably priced housing. Take a look at the chart of the U.S. below. If your area is shaded dark, then you’re in trouble and likely won’t be able to achieve a quick mortgage payoff. But, if you’re in a lightly shaded area like me, then you can probably find housing for $120,000 or less and pay it off much more quickly.

Related: Top 10 Cities to Grow Wealthy in the United States

get a head start in life

Source: Eye on Housing

By earning an average of $50,000 a year and continuing to live inexpensively, you could pretty easily stash away $15,000 a year. After four years, you can find a quality $120,000 home and fork over a down-payment of $60,000. At this point, your income has likely increased and you can up your savings from $15,000 a year to $20,000 a year. By the age of 29, you’ll make the last mortgage payment of your life. You’re not even 30 and you’ll never have another payment to anyone. You’re earning a great wage at work, you’re completely debt free, and you have many years worth of income in your future. Talk about getting a head start in life, right??

Are you ready to get your head start in life?

Get Out of Debt Money

AUTHOR Derek Sall

Derek has a Bachelor's degree in Finance and a Master's in Business. As a finance manager in the corporate world, he regularly identified and solved problems at the C-suite level. Today, Derek isn't interested in helping big companies. Instead, he's helping individuals win financially--one email, one article, one person at a time.


  1. When my husband and I were working, one of our three goals was to put our son through college with no student loan debt. We accomplished that by starting his college fund almost the moment he was conceived….well, at least as soon s he was born. We put money in it every month, sometimes only $25 but it received a deposit every single month. Our son worked summers in high school, was valedictorian of his class so he received scholarships that helped, but didn’t come close to paying the full bill. He attended the flagship state university in our state which has a nationally recognized program in his engineering field. He chose a major that has provided him with a job right out of college. With no help from the school, he found a paid internship between his junior and senior year. He also worked during summers in college, took AP courses that earned him almost a full semester of credit, tended to business and graduated in 4 years. The curriculum he took in college was strong enough that his graduate school gave him 24 credit hours toward his Masters that shaved 2 semesters off of his grad studies and he had a job in his field waiting for him while he finished his last semester before getting his Masters. It was a team effort and we had the easier part….just saving money.

    • Sounds like you all did an amazing job, and he now has a great head start because of it! Nice job Mom, Dad, and son!

  2. Unfortunately, I think a lot of high school and college students don’t have the self-discipline to do all of those steps. I was definitely an anomaly among my peers since I took an accounting class in high school and knew immediately that was what I wanted to do. I got an internship at a CPA firm in high school and continued working there full time through college and ended up with very little in student loans. I also interviewed at the beginning of my senior year for positions after graduation, so 9 months before I graduated, I already had a job lined up. I did make some financial mistakes along the way too though, like going to a private college for the first 2 years (really expensive) and not saving as much as I could have. Overall, it took a lot of discipline to work full-time, be a great student full-time, and live at home when other students were partying and ‘having fun’ all the time.

    • You and I sound similar, Jen. We didn’t do everything perfectly, but we definitely put ourselves in a position to get a fantastic head start in life. As for the typical student, you’re probably right. Many will never read this article and will exude their ignorance throughout their college careers. But, for the few that actually take this advice – boy, they’re going to have an amazing start and will likely become millionaires because of it!

  3. Great list! While I didn’t give it quite this much forethought when I was back in high school, I have to say I am impressed by some of the teenagers I see around the internet (on Reddit and such) asking about what steps they can take now to get ahead financially in the future. They will definitely have a huge advantage by planning ahead.

    • Very true, Gary. There are some teenagers that really have it together these days, and they will be the ones that have smooth sailing later in life. It might not be all sunshine and roses today, but it sure will be in the future.

  4. It seems to me that those screaming the loudest about student loan debt are those who majored in impractical subjects while attending expensive schools. If students are taking out loans for school they need to treat school as an investment and so few seem to do so.

    • Yup. “I can’t find a job because I mastered in something stupid… Someone else should pay for my loans!” I’d be utterly embarrassed to be these kids’ parents…

  5. Outstanding article! Wish I’d had this kind of information to share when I was a high school counselor. Great information. I really go for the attend a State school and now days emphasize going to a JR Collge first.

    Thanks for the great info!

    • Glad you liked it Keith! Spread the word if you still know some high school students that might be headed for some big mistakes!

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