During my Junior Year of High School, I had narrowed my college search down to two schools and was trying to decide between the two.
When my Dad and I toured the college I ultimately chose, which was a prestigious liberal arts college, I took note that the students there were wearing cable knit sweaters and pearls. My dad made a comment about their fancy dress once we got home. He had noticed it too.
At the other school I was considering, which was also a great school but slightly less “prestigious,” the kids wore sweatshirts, Uggs, yoga pants and what 18-year-old-middle-class me deemed “normal” clothes for college students. I seemed to fit in better there at first glance.
I attended overnights on campus at both of the schools (which is typical for a sports recruit) and not surprisingly, felt a little out of place at the more prestigious school.
My freshman host took me to the late night snack place on campus and her friends were all talking about their crazy international adventures..from back in high school.
They were all super nice but I had never left the country. My parents had never left the country. I couldn’t relate to their conversation at all.
I felt different and intimated by them.
The overnight went way better at the other school I toured. I felt much more comfortable with the conversation and felt I fit in better with the students.
Ultimately, I decided to go with the fancier school.
I’m not sure what prompted me to make the decision to attend that school, maybe it was curiosity of the unknown, maybe it was just random decision-making, but I do know it changed my philosophy and thinking about money.
Here are the things I learned from going to school with wealthier kids than me.
Presentation and how you dress is important
I noticed that the ultra-wealthy kids (whom I knew were ultra-wealthy from gossip) dressed impeccably for class.
I mean full-on tailored clothing, dresses from the highest names in fashion, and perfect accessories – all for class at 8AM.
I didn’t quite understand why they dressed that way. I had assumed it was because they had the money to do it, or it was important in their circles.
I now understand that it takes effort to put that much time into your appearance and it can have major ROI.
I’ve written about how I realized early on in my career that dressing better could help you move up the food chain at work.
Lately I’ve also realized how much dress is correlated with confidence, which is correlated to performance.
For example, I took this past Friday a little too casual at work (because I had no meetings, my boss was out, and I slept in a bit). I ended up wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt which is absolutely fine in tech but not my usual attire.
I then was asked to do a few surprise things and I noticed I was hesitant to draw too much attention to myself because I was dressed so casually.
I think back to school when I was strolling into those 8AM classes wearing sweatpants shoved into dirty Ugg boots.
Maybe I was a little less likely to raise my hand and contribute in class than my impeccably dressed peers. Maybe professors gave me a lower participation grade because I was participating less than they were?
I still had a good GPA in college and it all worked out despite my sloppy dress, but maybe that extra bit of confidence and participation boost would have been the key to getting the A+ in class versus the A.
Like I wrote in my post, you don’t have to dress nice to get ahead and do well, but you may notice just a little bit of a boost when you do.
Perception of wealth shifts based on your peer group
To stick with the clothing theme – Abercrombie and Fitch had been the brand that the “wealthy” kids in my town wore growing up. There was nothing preppier than an Abercrombie and Fitch branded polo with a popped collar.
I couldn’t really afford Abercrombie and Fitch clothes but I acquired them somehow through working after-school jobs and gifts.
Two minutes into college, I quickly learned that Abercrombie & Fitch NOT COOL among this new college crowd.
The wealth scale was totally reset when I was around wealthier people.
Your Career Aspirations and Ambition Can Increase
I had friends whose parents had crazy-impressive jobs or whose friends’ parents’ had crazy-impressive jobs and it encouraged me to push higher with my own career aspirations.
I distinctly remember one epic fourth of July where my college friend took a group of us to his best friend from high school’s luxurious 5-floor penthouse in D.C..
We partied without parental supervision all night, in the nicest place I’ve ever been in, because it was one of his friends’ many homes and his highly successful, wealthy parents were busy being highly successful and wealthy somewhere else.
Going to school with wealthy kids blew my mind because I didn’t even know wealth of this kind existed.
(Although I experienced this wealth in a shallow way in college because I was too young to know better. I was taken by the glamour and the spending versus the hard work it took to get there).
It did give me something to shoot for though.
Networking + Putting yourself out there is everything
I watched my classmates apply for incredible internships, fellowship opportunities and more.
I also saw as they networked with family and friends to get access to even better opportunities.
I learned about networking and the power of leveraging ‘who you know’ to get ahead.
Keeping up with the Joneses is real
I asked one of my new best friends to help me pick out some preppy clothes from J.Crew to put on my Christmas list that first year of college.
I wanted to fit in and look like everyone else and J.Crew seemed attainable (my Mom disagreed once she saw the price of one of the things I wanted).
I was 18 and fitting in was super important.
Keeping up with the Joneses was real for me, as it is for so many Americans.
As an adult, my desire to keep up with the Joneses led me to purchase an expensive house, furniture, and car.
I’ve since downsized and figured out my finances but it’s a daily struggle.
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We’re all the same at the end of the day
Funny enough, many of my friends with the fancy clothes wanted to borrow my cheaper clothes when Saturday night came around.
My Forever 21 wardrobe was highly coveted on my floor.
My point here is that even though humans have their differences, at the end of the day we have the same interests – whether that be looking good for a party on a Saturday night when you’re 18 or whatever it is people want out of life when you’re older.
Were there awkward differences between the rich and poor kids in college?
Yes and no.
I was surprised to find that many of the “uber wealthy” kids had college jobs too. You could see them working in the dining hall or starting small businesses to make money. One might assume that they would coast off of family money but I didn’t see that.
I saw differences when it came to how they approached internships though. I noticed that some of my wealthier friends had older siblings or mentors who told them how to apply for competitive internships starting their freshman year.
I honestly had no idea how to even apply for an internship.
I didn’t know that you just go to the website for the company you want to work for, look up university jobs, fix up your resume, and apply.
I didn’t know the timeline for applications either and learned the hard way that you often have to apply in the Fall to get a competitive internship for the following summer.
These were all advantages that some of the wealthier kids had at the gate.
I learned over the years though from friends and general osmosis from those around me.
Did I feel out of place or uncomfortable at times?
Yeah, there were some awkward conversations about money that made me feel uncomfortable.
I specifically remember an old roommate once saying to me that they had never roomed with anyone on financial aid before (what does that even mean?)
At the same time though, college is a great equalizer and it wasn’t too awkward. I don’t think I was bitter about it.
Although, I played a sport in college and I do remember that my coach would try to divide us into groups to get us pumped up and ultra-competitive before big games.
Sometimes we would divide the team into blondes versus brunettes, East Coast versus West coast, or underclassman versus upperclassman.
I do know that the scrimmage that got most competitive (at least for me) was when we did public school versus private school.
I wanted to show those private schools girls what was up!
So maybe it was present in my subconscious even though I felt that I “fit in” everyday.
What do I think while looking back on my college experience now?
Pursuing early retirement has changed me quite a bit.
My husband and I have paid off nearly $100,ooo in student loans combined at this point and it wasn’t easy – despite all of the privilege, good luck and knowledge we had while doing it.
At the same time though, I never would have known that some of this stuff even existed, had I not burst my middle class bubble and met people of other socioeconomic classes.
You can seek out diverse perspectives on your own but there is something about college that brings people together.
I also recognize that there were many positives (such as learning to put together a resume for competitive jobs) and passions (such as international travel) that I picked up from being around wealthier kids.
I also made great friends in school.
Have you ever been around people that were wealthier than you? How did you react to it? How did it change you?
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