I’ve been in college for two months, and while I realize the opportunities it holds, I hate it here. I’m seriously considering dropping out, working a ton, saving my money, and traveling for a while (a longstanding dream of mine). I’m just worried that, because I’ve been failing classes and have amassed no credits whatsoever, dropping out now would guarantee I’ll spend the rest of my life as some weird traveling street urchin, not qualified for any decent job. I’m very self-motivated when it comes to the things I want to do (art, photography, writing, etc.), but I’m really worried that I’d be making a big mistake if I dropped out without any credits. Should I stay for one more semester and try to get good grades (but also not be able to make enough $ to get out of here), or should I just get out now because I already know I don’t want to be here? —Emily, Chicago

I have been exactly in your place, and I know the feeling; I’m so sorry that you are unhappy at school.

So you have two options: Dropping out or staying. Let’s list some pros and cons.

If you stay were you are now:
You know you will be miserable for another semester, at least. Getting good grades there during that time might help you if you decide to transfer somewhere else, but is it worth the pain and suffering? I think you have better options. Let’s cross this one off the list.

If you transfer to a different school:
You don’t mention this option in your email, nor do you say what kind of school you’re going to now, but have you considered transferring to an artier kind of school, where you’ll get credit for the stuff you say you’re already motivated to work on (art, photography, writing)? I know your grades haven’t been stellar, but a lot of art schools and small liberal-arts schools understand people like you, whose intelligence, talent, and drive just aren’t engaged in traditional classrooms, and aren’t reflected in measures like test scores and grades. They’ll be interested in looking at your portfolio and your creative writing. If you leave your current school now, you can spend the rest of the winter researching colleges that might be a better fit for you, gathering transfer applications, and making yourself a more attractive candidate for a transfer.

How do you do make a school want to accept a college dropout with a not-so-great GPA? There are a bunch of ways. First, you can enroll in your local community college right now. I know community colleges get a bad rap, but they’re a great way to earn better grades cheaply, get basic credits out of the way, and/or continue taking art classes while you’re working. Speaking of working, schools will often appreciate on-the-job experience as well as portfolios of your work and letters of recommendation from employers. If you need to wait tables to pay rent, can you get a meaningful volunteer gig, or an internship where you know you’ll learn a lot—then kick all kinds of butt there? If you can’t afford or don’t want to work for free or cheap, can you start a project on your own and follow through with it in a way that will make admissions committees salivate? Write a book, teach a class, start your own business, create the next YouTube or CollegeHumor or Facebook (or Rookie!). In your personal essay, be sure to address your issues at your current school, and to explain why you believe this new school will be a better environment for you.

If you drop out:
I absolutely believe that it is possible to succeed without college, particularly if you are interested in an artistic field. There are millions of people who have jobs that never went to college. You will not become a weird traveling street urchin (unless you want to be one—I did that for a while, and it was lovely). The first thing to consider is the quality of life you want. Is a decent job for you one that pays an extraordinary amount of money, or one that allows you to pay bills with a little left over for the occasional movie or dinner out, plus enough time for you to make art on the side? You might think getting a college degree and then a steady gig with benefits = job security, but, sad to say, there’s really no such thing anymore in this country, with the economy such as it is, when anyone can be laid off at any time with no warning at all. It’s better, in my opinion, to be standing on the bottom rung of a ladder you want to climb (art) than on the top rung of a ladder you want to burn to ashes (your current college). Can you get an internship? Work in a studio or rent a studio on your own? Get a job at Hot Dog on a Stick and use your weekends to set up a table at art fairs? The artistic life isn’t always one that leaves you in shambles, but you may have to compromise a little in the beginning and have patience; creating during that time will remind you of your goals. Way before I ever got a paycheck for writing, I kept a journal and carried around a book to make observations and jot down ideas. None of that stuff has ever seen the light of day, but it kept me in practice and helped me develop my writing style so that when I finally got an opportunity to write for money I was able to hit the ground running.

I dropped out of college after freshman year, and returned 12 years later. In between I held a lot of jobs, did a lot of writing, and a lot of living. Today I’m about to get a master’s degree, and I’m a professional writer. Not a street urchin! And a TON of people much more successful than me dropped out of college, or never even went in the first place: Lady Gaga dropped out of NYU, and Amanda Seyfried left Fordham on the first day of class. Patti Smith left Glassboro State, where she was training to become a teacher, to move to New York and write poetry. Donna Karan and Jason Wu dropped out of Parsons. Jackie Kennedy Onassis left Vassar, but eventually went back to school and graduated. Most of the cast of Glee and half of the people who run the internet (like Jack Dorsey of Twitter and David Karp of Tumblr) didn’t get undergraduate degrees. Harper Lee dropped out during senior year. Louis C.K. never even went.

Sometimes dropping out and getting on with what you know you want to do with your life is the best thing you can do for yourself. Maybe you’ll never return to college. Maybe you’ll return in a few years (or, as in my case, more than a decade), when you finally know exactly what you want to get out of the college experience. Dropping out isn’t a death sentence for your ambitions or success. It can actually introduce you to experiences and people that will help you make your life dreams come true.

I think that in your heart you know the answer to this question, and that you need a little reassurance that it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. Go for it. —Danielle