It’s college decision season! To celebrate, I’ve been thinking about what I would have told myself in 2011 when I was deciding where to attend. Here’s a stitching-together of several emails I sent to friends who asked for college advice, plus a few additional thoughts.
As a caveat: I really do mean that this advice is for people who are exactly like me! So please don’t take my word for things—lots won’t apply to you because we’re different. As with all advice: think about it, see what resonates with you, consider reversing it, and generally take it as one of many data points.
Keep the goal in mind
At the end of college you should probably have a good idea about what to do next.
Here’s the default way to figure that plan out: (1) don’t think about it for three years; (2) get really stressed during your senior year because you have no idea what you want to do; (3) notice that all your friends are interviewing for jobs in consulting, finance, and MicroFaceGoogAzon; (4) accept a job from consulting, finance, or MicroFaceGoogAzon.
This process… could stand to be improved. Plan ahead and don’t make a “safe” decision based on social defaults or fear of not having a job. The most important question to answer is “what kind of jobs exist that (a) I would enjoy and (b) I have a reasonable shot at getting?”
Yes, it is scary and stressful to stare this question (especially b!) in the face, but it should be a lot scarier to waste years doing something safe instead of something awesome.
That isn’t to say you need to know with any amount of certainty what you want to do. (That’s unreasonable and it will change anyway.) Just that it’s good if your choices during college are informed by some broad sense of what they’re setting you up for later. “Plans are useless; planning is indispensable.”
Social environment >> classes
The other useful thing to get out of college is a bunch of awesome, smart and competent friends. I’d recommend optimizing for that, probably more than educational quality or status.
- On “density of people who are great at STEM,” my impression is that research universities score a lot better than small liberal arts colleges. I didn’t apply to Caltech, but by some (lagging) metrics it has an even higher density of accomplished people than other top schools.
Control over who you live with/near is a huge selling point, since it mostly determines your social circle. For example, Harvard assigns dorms to groups of upperclassmen randomly—you can pick your roommates but not the other roommate groups that you live near. This makes it hard to find the most awesome people because they’re mixed into boring groups. Other schools like MIT will often have dorms with different cultures and types of people, which makes it easier to find clusters of awesome people. For that reason, if I were choosing colleges today I might have prioritized schools with better housing policies.
If you go to a school with a strong subculture, make sure you retain your ability to interact well with “normal people.” The stereotype of, e.g., MIT alums that end up spending the rest of their life only hanging out with other MIT students, does happen to some people. It’s a reasonable personal choice (normal people can be annoying!), but if you’re optimizing for impact on the rest of the world, it will be a handicap.
Get better at deciding what to do
One thing I wish I’d had more of in college is something like a sense of taste: not aesthetic taste, but more “taste for what’s awesome” or “taste in good projects.” (My role model for good project-taste was my friend Adrian, who coauthored articles in Nature, Science and Cell before graduating.)
Good taste is what will guide you to doing effective things, instead of pointless things, in college. But it’s also really hard to develop good taste while in college, because you have no models of good taste except for academics. Academics’ taste is often deeply weird and driven by what niche will get them tenure rather than what is exciting or useful, so it’s good to have other models of taste too.
My best guess for how to do that is to take a gap year, during which you can front-load learning how the real world works. Summer internships outside academia are also good.1
Take a gap year
Yes, I just mentioned this above, but it’s concrete and important enough to merit its own section. I didn’t personally take a gap year, but everyone I know who took one found that it enormously improved how they used their time in college, and nobody regretted it.
If the point of a gap year is to improve how you spend your time in college, then you should spend it trying to learn as much as possible about how the world outside college works, and in particular, what that world considers valuable. Try to find projects that let you work with non-academics and produce something genuinely useful.
(It’s common for people to spend their gap years volunteering or traveling. A bit of that will expand your horizons, but spending the whole year on it, while fun, won’t maximize your learning.)
Bias towards action
One of the biggest new things about college is that you have way more independence. Because your parents no longer oversee your day-to-day life, it takes a lot less friction to do something random or unexpected.
Many college students take advantage of this by filling their schedule with (a) either parties or problem sets, plus (b) lunch dates where they complain about how busy they are. There are more exciting options! Here are some things I did that I think were more valuable on the margin than additional problem sets, even though a lot of them “didn’t work out:”
- interning at GiveWell (didn’t end up working there, but super valuable for exposure to various people/ideas)
- running a student group (I wasn’t very good at it but it turned out pretty well anyway)
- trying out being a math teaching assistant (turned out the grading:fun ratio was way too high)
- trying out research (couldn’t find projects I was excited about)
- joining a choir (was incredibly fun but I dropped after a year because the schedule was intense)
- writing a course catalog website (now unmaintained but was the first project I worked on from the beginning to shipping)
- writing blog posts
Of course, the problem sets are also important! But if you discover you can’t live without them, well, you can have six more years of grad school for that. If you discover you can’t live without parties, I’m not your guy for advice.
Get good advice
Getting good advice is one of the highest-impact things you can do! A one-hour conversation with a good advice-giver can totally change how you spend months of your time. Most people underrate good advice by a lot.
This is because most advice is bad.2 For instance, if your college assigns you advisers they will probably be terrible.
My freshman year I was assigned a dental student as an adviser. I’m sure she was doing her best, but she had absolutely no idea how easy or hard any of the introductory courses were. (She could tell me things like “that course a reputation for being hard,” but students come in with such different backgrounds that “hard” in the abstract is a completely meaningless description.) Her only contribution to my education was to convince me not to take the hardest intro math course during my first semester. I don’t think that made my life that much worse, but I do think I missed out on a great time!
My sophomore adviser would have been worse if I hadn’t learned my lesson by that time: when I handed her my study card she warned me that “introductory theoretical statistics” might ruin me, presumably because she hadn’t heard of algebraic topology. (There’s no reason she should have—she was studying education.) Fortunately, I successfully convinced her I’d be fine.
(Of course, the advice I really needed to hear was that “hard” and “important” aren’t related, but that would have been way too much to ask for a 10-minute conversation slot!)
The problem is that by college, good advice is incredibly context-specific to you—what you enjoy, what frustrates you, what your background is like, what kind of goals you’re likely to have—that most formal advisers won’t ever have the time to understand.
Because of this, most of your best advice will probably come from bouncing things off friends—optimally friends who are a bit older than you, but people in your year are also probably better than random faculty. I think I under-utilized this a lot in college and would have benefited from reaching out more to people who I knew had a similar outlook.
(It’s possible to get good advice from authority figures at your college, but you’ll need to recognize their limitations and biases—no dental student will give you good advice about math courses, few professors will tell you that grad school sucks, etc. If you treat them skeptically and do the work yourself to focus their advising on the areas where they’re well-informed, then you might have better luck than I did.)
Aggressively ignore bullshit
Coming in, you will probably think that your college experience has been carefully designed to provide you the best possible education. (HA HA HA.3) As a result, when your college asks you to do things, you will feel inclined to take them seriously.
This is a mistake. Your college will spew lots of bullshit at you. Ignore it when you can; when you can’t, try to limit the degree to which it seeps into your life.
Examples of things that, in my opinion, turned out to be bullshit (of course this will vary by school, field, worldview, etc.):
- Physically attending lectures (just listen to them at 2x speed)
- “general education”
- Mandatory writing seminar (my writing got worse, not better)
- Paperwork (let me tell you the story of why I don’t have a minor in computer science!)
- Prerequisites for courses (note: not always!)
- Many courses (but very much not always!)
Lest this sound too cynical, let me point out that (a) college is still awesome and (b) ignoring bullshit gives you crazy superpowers to focus on the actually awesome parts, like spending time with smart people, learning difficult things, trying out different jobs and activities, etc.
Don’t take this too seriously
I’ll close with some reasons you shouldn’t take this advice too seriously:
This advice is very specific to my background—not only educational but also cultural/economic—as well as my general outlook, life goals, etc. If you’re different from me on any of these axes it will become less relevant to you.
I was lucky to go to a very good high school, so I started out with a strong background in various subjects.4 That meant I didn’t benefit as much from the generally-applicable math/science courses—calculus, linear algebra, programming, algorithms, etc.—as I would have otherwise. (I did learn a bunch from my statistics and machine learning courses, and I think some other classes I took improved my general problem-solving ability a lot.)
It also meant that I pretty much bounced off of the mandatory writing and humanities courses because they were worse than my high school’s (which apparently isn’t uncommon; the guidance counselor warned me about it, but I wrote it off as bluster until it actually happened).
Anyway, if you’re coming in with less background, the quality of instruction might matter more than it did for me, and you might be able to take more courses that turn out to be relevant to your later life.
- I haven’t been out of school for that long: someone with 10-20 years more life experience would have a different perspective on what was valuable and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone in that age bracket who was similar enough to me that I think their advice would apply well.
If you want to go to grad school, you might need to spend your summers cranking out research projects instead, but also, consider whether you really want to go to grad school… ↩︎
Including this advice! I know nothing about your situation or preferences! ↩︎
Actually, your college experience has been carefully designed to provide you with a piece of paper signalling to potential employers that you are intelligent and work hard, while in the process transferring as much money as possible from your family to administrators and construction firms. Also there are some people who will try to teach you stuff. The silver lining is that most of the brightest people in the world also want the same piece of paper so you can spend a lot of time hanging out with them. ↩︎
Linear and abstract algebra, real analysis, and a few years of post-AP CS. ↩︎