How to Drop Out of College

School is for fools.

by Spencer Madsen
Jun 11 2015, 3:00pm

The author in a dorm room. Photos courtesy of the author.

I'm the best there is at dropping out of colleges. I've done it three times, from three different colleges, accumulating enough credits to land myself somewhere around a sophomore. I always started classes strong, but the semesters just last too long. Every course was a new year's resolution I gave up on come February. I dropped out of a beautiful Hogwartsian college where I began having real sex and taking on real student loans (which, it turns out, you should probably repay). From there I moved on to the city universities of New York: first Hunter, then Brooklyn. After dropping out of both of them I got a job at a bike shop and wrote a poetry book. I published two more books by other people. I wrote a few articles. I got a paid internship and a few odd jobs. I made dropping out of college—and being a writer in New York—work.

And I'm not alone. With the post-graduate job market still looking bleak, more and more people are deciding college is a bunch of bullshit. From 2012 to 2013, the most recent time for which census data is available, college enrollment dropped by almost half a million students, the biggest decline since the census bureau began collecting data in 1966.

Related: What happens if you just stop paying your student debt?

This is a guide for those rudderless young souls. More specifically, the ones who want to get by as writers (or artists of any kind) in New York without a bachelor's degree. While these tips are based on surviving in New York, a lot of this stuff can be applied to any city. I just happened to do it in New York. And to be clear: I don't necessarily recommend dropping out of college. Personally, if I could go back and major in being a rich start-up bro, I probably would. I'd have a hot tub in every room. Fridge full of the most expensive drinks from the bodega. Kombucha and Blueprint juice everywhere. All of my peanut butter would be almond.

From left: The author, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Giancarlo DiTrapano, the author


Professors are cool. They're old, they know people, and they can write you a recommendation one day. But take that recommendation to the editor of a magazine and see what amount of shits they'll give. Instead, find the real-life equivalents: people older than you who have already done what you want to do. More often than not they'll be happy to have a protege, and that is your intro course. Except instead of reading a victorian novel, you're going out, having drinks, doing drugs. I wanted to get into publishing, and I found myself in the arms of Giancarlo DiTrapano, a guy who famously served coke on a silver platter to Michael Bible of the LA Review of Books and once fucked a catholic priest in a rectory.


If nothing else, people say, college is for meeting people. You take classes together, come up with ideas together, graduate together, and succeed together. But I didn't want to spend six figures and four years just to find that kind of friendship. Instead, I often piggybacked on bonds from colleges I didn't go to. I ingratiated myself with cliques from schools I never got into, and while I didn't share many of their memories, I benefitted from their college network, met new people they took classes with, and built real work with them on their college foundation. Through one friend at Parsons I met two more (designers who took classes together) and now Erik Carter does my cover art and Lucas Sharp does the typography. I was in design circles I didn't know existed, and I knew nothing about design. But by showing appreciation for what they do, they appreciated what I did. They came to my readings and helped out by making posters to promote them, and I promote their work whenever I can. (Like now?)


In life, as in college, if you skip enough times you'll fail. So go to that opening, signing, reading, open mic, and party. Put your face in the right places. It's OK to go alone; you'll be more motivated to make friends. I did dozens of poetry open mics around Manhattan fresh out of high school. It was a pretty anonymous way to get better. I even gave the organizer a fake name sometimes. I often left right after I went on stage so no one would talk to me. Later, showing up meant putting events together myself and always saying yes when asked to read, even though the rooms were small and mostly filled with other readers. Sometimes the rooms got bigger. Sometimes the rooms paid.

The author, reading in Montreal


Having a part time job to pay rent will help you pay attention in "class." You'll be less stressed when you have enough money to survive and it will provide you with some structure to prioritize what is most important. Some days I'd wake up early to get writing done before I had to go to my job. I wrote when I got home to make up for the hours missed. Writing came easier when I wasn't trying to make ends meet. Making enough money to not work full time was crucial though—there's a fine line between a job offering structure and wearing you down. A flexible work schedule is ideal for taking on the minimum amount of hours you need to live. That means retail or service work. I found a bike shop that paid pretty well and have since sold more pricey carbon-fiber wheels than I can count. However, I'd recommend waiting tables or mixing drinks. After a few months washing dishes, working day shifts, or moving from restaurant to restaurant, you'll find yourself making a couple hundred a night, giving you plenty of free-time to pursue your "real work." I had a teacher who always said I could make quite a bit of money camming for old dudes, and that would probably work too.


Identifying who is a waste of your time and who isn't is a skill that will only come with trial and error. In short, some of your friends bar-backing at a dive now will be working at a big magazine in a few months, and some of your friends bar-backing at a dive now will be bar-backing at a dive in five years. A good friend is always incredibly important to have, but if they're just an asshole with big ideas, remember, you're trying to graduate on time. A tip-off here is their ratio of talking : doing. Repeatedly tell everyone you're going to do something and you probably won't. Another tip-off is their personality. If they're likable as a person they're likely to go far. No one wants to work with a douche, not even douchey people.

Related: Black, White, and Greek


If you meet someone you've been trying to meet, DM her the next day saying so. Don't leave unnecessary questions hanging. Keep it to a single sentence with two clauses. Overdoing the gesture will backfire every time. The goal is to be in their head just enough that you come up if they're looking to fill up a roster.


A poet I befriended happened to be a higher-up at a big publishing house. She emailed me one day asking if I had any friends who would want to be her intern because she had only gotten weirdos from the open interviews. I thought, hell, why not (the best thought there is) and asked if I could take the spot. It was minimum wage but it wasn't nothing, and it taught me a lot about what I didn't want from New York, what kind of publishing I didn't want to do, and the life I didn't want to have. Plus, it looks pretty dope on my resume, whatever good that does me. The jobs I really want, that I'd work 40 hours a week every week for, they don't come from going to the right school. They come from knowing the right person and being the right person.


If someone asks what college you went to, be honest. If you never went, say so. If you dropped out, say that. The truth is you've made it to the same room as them at this point in time, with fewer years gone and less money spent. You're here now, and—with good "study" habits—you're winning.


Figure out how to make apps or something.

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