Can you Work Your First Year of College?


I know you, you responsible and savvy college freshman, wondering If you can work your first year of college to help pay your way. Fear not, for I have an answer for you.

As a general rule, students can work their first year of college, and many do. Sometimes, a program may be too demanding, and require abstinence from work, but otherwise, the only prohibition on working is the student’s ability to handle the extra workload.

So, what makes it a good idea to work your first year of school, and what doesn’t? At what point will the workload from school become too much for a student to handle?

Does It Make Sense to Work Your First Year of College?

For many high schoolers and other young people who have not yet been to college, school may seem like this big, difficult, amorphous something that you need to conquer. It certainly seemed that way to me. 

With all of the unknowns and responsibilities that you are expected to devote yourself to while going to school, working can seem like another unnecessary burden. I mean, after all, your parents may help with some or all of your schooling, you can get scholarships, and you have access to student loans, right?

Well, some of those options may be wise, and if you and your family can afford it, it may be a good idea for you to forgo working your first semester or two to allow yourself adjust to college life, but it is never wise to consider loans and student debt as a first option. 

Aside from the fact that your schooling will actually cost you more money if you accept a student loan, as it constantly grows while you whittle away at it, it can take decades to free yourself from the burden of paying them off, making acceptance of student loans a burden that reaches far into your future.

Working while in school, along with grants, scholarships, and family assistance, can give you the means to minimize– if not eliminate– the amount of debt that you accept while at college. 

It is true though that the extra burden of working while at school can cause more stress while you adjust to the demands of college life, so you may need to ask yourself if working your first year of college is worth it. If you and your family can afford to, waiting a semester or two to begin working while at school can help in your adjustment to college life, but shouldn’t be put off for too long. 

If I were to work about 20 hours a week, earning say $10 an hour, that is about $800 a month that can go to my rent and other needs that I would not have otherwise. 

Having an income that you can spend on books, rent, food, tuition, and so forth is not the only benefit to working in college. Working can help teach you to manage your time well, and will help with the transition from school to the full time workplace.

It is likely that a part time job alone while at school will not pay all of the bills, but at the very least, it helps.

Is There Enough Time to Work and Go to School?

When you sit down to do the math, you may be blown away by how much of your time college will consume. Between all of the responsibility you are taking on yourself, associated with living on your own; shopping, cooking, cleaning, and the workload from school, a lot of your time is eaten up.

A rule of thumb that many follow is to look at how many credit hours you have and multiply that number by two to find the number of hours per week that you will be spending on homework alone. 

Add that value to the number of hours you spend in class and you get the total amount of time you spend a week on college. So if you are accepting 12 credit hours, expect to work on your homework for about 24 hours. Add that to your original 12 hours of class time and you get 36 hours of college a week. Alternatively, you can just multiply your original number by 3. 

Regardless, this comes out to a value that some may call a full workload. 

Except, well 12 credit hours is only the minimum number of credits you need in order to be considered full time. This coming semester, I will be accepting 15.5 credit hours, which is average for a college student. So If I were to use this rule of thumb, I would expect to be spending about 46.5 hours a week devoted to studying. 

With a perspective like that, it seems unlikely that I would be able to accomplish anything at a workplace with anything less than a few hours of work a week, especially knowing that often a full time job demands 40 hours a week. 

This would be the case, except that this rule of thumb is largely inaccurate! 

While researching this topic, I found here that the majority of students actually spend less than fifteen hours a week studying, and rarely did students work more than 26 hours. This dramatically opens up my week to the possibility of working. 

See, if my credit load of about 15.5 hours a week means that I will probably only spend another 15 hours studying, that’s only about 30 hours a week that I spend on college. My week has opened up by vast amounts, and there certainly is enough time to work a part time job to help tide me over.

Given that most colleges and programs restrict the hours you can work to about 20 a week, assuming that you are accepting a full work load of 15 credits and 20 hours of work a week, that is only about 50 hours of combined work a week. Given that there are about 112 hours in a week that you spend not sleeping, this is a demanding but possible amount of time to work. 

A work week of about 15 hours is usually a nice sweet spot that allows you to earn a reasonable amount, while freeing you up to work on school.

You can adjust your workload as you see fit, but if for some reason you need to work as much as you can through school, you can space out your learning by accepting fewer credits a semester, and making up for that lost time by taking courses over the summer or by taking more years to graduate. This of course comes at the expense of not graduating as soon as you may like, but a credential is a credential.

When Can’t I Work My First Year of School?

Sometimes certain programs that demand too much of your time make it impractical to work your first year of school, and others make it completely impossible, either by consuming so much of your time, or by forbidding you to work. 

Law schools do exactly that. They either consume so much of your time, or outright bar you from working your first year of college. Many medical programs may also be too demanding your first year. 

The Importance of Rest

It is important to remember to take care of yourself. I’ve been in situations before where I have worked myself far more than I should have, and it wears on you. Fact of the matter is that you are human, and even though you can do amazing and wonderful things like putting yourself through college, you can’t go forever without taking a moment to breathe.

Take an axe and chop down a tree and you’ve done a great thing. Refuse to sharpen the axe as you work on the next tree and the next tree and the next tree, and you’ve done a stupid thing.

So remember to work hard both at school and at work, but if you choose to accept the extra workload, take care of yourself. Remember to rest, and that– on occasion– you need to treat yourself.

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