Passive early, active late

In financial investing, an active investor is one who’s hands-on, frequently adjusting their strategy and their asset allocation based on market trends. They buy and sell repeatedly in an effort to beat the stock market average. The passive investor, on the other hand, plays the long game. They’re not trying to predict the market’s next move. They don’t react to market fluctuations. They’ll buy and hold, confident that whatever ups and downs the market may present in the short term will ultimately lead to financial returns in the long term.

Your education is an investment, and not just financially. You’re investing time, energy, attention—choices that affect the experience and the outcome. And for those investments, I recommend going passive early and active late.

The passive college prep investors try hard in high school, choose activities they enjoy, act like nice human beings, and remain secure that things will work out somehow no matter what college they end up attending. Active college prep investors are constantly reacting to circumstances based on the predicted effect on their college admissions chances. They’re repeatedly course-correcting and often doing so based on hearsay or what the competition is doing. Actives worry a lot more and enjoy high school a lot less than the passives do. And because their respective expectations around admissions decisions tend to vary so widely, the actives are less frequently happy with their admissions outcomes. During high school, passive college prep investing seems to bring better returns.

But once you get to college, it pays to increase your activity. Not to a frenetic pace of change where you drop any class at the first sign of an impending grade lower than an A. But if you take a semester’s worth of classes as a business major and just can’t stand any of them, it’s probably worth meeting with an academic advisor to talk about your options.

To get the most out of college means doing more than just working hard and hoping for the best. College is four short years filled with opportunities to learn, grow, experience, and prepare for life on the other side of graduation. What do you want to have to show for that time? If all you can say at the end of your college career is that you worked hard and went to class like you were supposed to, you’ve missed countless opportunities to extract value from your time there. And sometimes extracting value means looking objectively at the choices you’ve made, comparing those to your desired collegiate outcomes, and course-correcting when the two don’t match.

Put a different way, you can and should still play the long game—hard work and character are investments that always pay off in some way. But short-term changes in college can make a longer-term impact when you make them thoughtfully.

There’s always room for informed planning combined with equally informed self-assurance. But your future as an adult is not based on one decision you make in high school. College choices can carry more gravity because of how much there is to benefit from and how little time there is to do it. I don’t make financial recommendations, but as far as where to direct your effort and intention, I recommend you play the passive game before college and turn your active game on once you arrive.