What I Wish I Knew in College

I feel like I only learned how to optimize effectively during my senior year of college. At that point I was mostly set into my college path: I was an economics major, I had already used my off-terms, I was involved in particular organizations, I had my group of friends, etc. What I could change was the entire course of my future, but I still looked back on the previous three years and thought about how I wasted so much time and possibility. I wished that someone had told me what I needed to know back when I was a freshman, it seemed like such a unique opportunity that I simply didn’t know how to optimize when I first got to college.

The typical advice about college is that it is a time to explore. You are expected to get to campus as a blank slate, try out a bunch of different classes (indeed this is often required), and probably settle on some liberal arts major. By default, you will hang out with the first people that you meet, and by mostly sheer chance your social group will be established for you. Thinking about your career is forbidden until junior year at the earliest. You definitely won’t be doing things like paying bills or cooking for yourself for at least four years. I think this is, in fact, almost diametrically opposite to what you should be doing.

Before You Even Get to College…

The default assumption is that you will go to college, in the same you it was assumed you would go to high school, junior high, etc. You should immediately remove this thought from your mind. Ask yourself instead why you are choosing to go to college. What do you expect to get out of it? What is the opportunity cost: what other opportunities are you potentially not taking? How do you want to spend the next four years of your life? You should take the time to ponder these questions seriously. You just might realize that you do, in fact, have better options.

By the time you’re reaching college, you probably have some idea of what you’re interested in, and what you’re really good at. With a little bit of research, you can also figure out what jobs are particularly in demand these days, or are likely to become more important in the future. While most practical training is on the job, the kinds of jobs you can get out of college will at least partially depend on your major.

This doesn’t mean your forecast will be perfect. Back when I got to college, finance seemed like a very promising, up and coming area. By the time I graduated in 2008, the financial system was on the brink of collapse. I had decided on economics before I even set foot on campus, in part because of career decisions, and in part because I found economics legitimately interesting before college… but not at all because of trial and error experimentation with my classes.

My point is that by the time you set foot on campus, you should already have a plan. This isn’t to say that you will stick to the plan exactly, come hell or high water, but that you will be undertaking goal-directed behavior from the beginning. College is only four years of your entire life, but four years that have a number of advantageous features that need special consideration. So before you do anything else, get clear on what you want to do with your life.

Tailor Your College Activities Around Your Plan

Before deciding what major you want, what classes to take, what activities to get involved with, you need to first be holding that long-term plan in mind. The exact details are going to vary depending on your situation, but I can say some things with confidence. Unless you’re aiming yourself at a very rare job, you will almost certainly not be choosing a major in the humanities. If you have a naturally systematizing mind, the most promising track right now is computer science, since programmers are currently in demand and it seems likely that computers will be an increasingly important component of the world. In retrospect, I would have chosen CS as a major without any hesitation. Hard sciences are generally respected in any more quantitative field. Something to also consider is creating your own major: you get to pick your own coursework and professors to work with, though you are also harder for potential employers to evaluate.

Beyond what major to pick, there is the question about your coursework. Talking to people in your chosen industry is very helpful, some of them do want you to have taken specific classes. Talking to college alumni is also helpful, they may have strong opinions about which professors are better than others, and it would send them a good signal that you explicitly chose to work with them. Even then, your major coursework is only likely to occupy half or even as little as a third of your total coursework. For the rest of the time, I do think you should expand your horizons and pick things that seem intellectually interesting. I took a large number of classes in linguistics, for instance, the practical consequence of which is limited entirely to inventing realistic languages for fantasy novels… but it gives me great conversational topics, and was very engaging and fulfilling in the moment.

Similarly, pick some of your extracurricular activities around signaling to your future employers. Graduate programs usually like to see you have been a TA, for instance. Demonstrating interest in your chosen field, and showing willingness to take initiative, are both important traits that people are looking for. If there is something you feel like doing, then of course do it – I think you should be enjoying life every step of the way. Perhaps even more important is how you decide to spend your off terms. Internships can lead directly to jobs, once again demonstrate interest and initiative, and can give you a history of work experience at a time when most of your competition doesn’t have any.

Socialize Deliberately

My next section of advice revolves around the social world. You are being presented with an amazing opportunity to completely reinvent yourself, in an environment where no one has any preconceived notions about who you are. This is your chance to become exactly the person you wish to become, and no one will know otherwise. Are there any old habits you wanted to break, or new habits you wanted to establish? Did you want to be a popular kid? Did you want to be surrounded with smarter friends? College is an excellent place to step into your new and better self. So choose that new personality deliberately, and become the person you want to be.

In terms of who you spend your time with, recall what I said about the default circumstance… you hang out with the freshmen on your floor. These people only have one comparative advantage: they are right next to you. Admittedly it can be really nice to have immediate social opportunities with low transaction costs, so be conscious about that factor. Now, the people you will truly click with will likely be distributed all across campus. In this case, time is of the essence – people’s social circles become ossified quickly, so it becomes more and more difficult to establish a strong connection over time. In this case initial exploration is the right strategy. Think about your interests, find out where those folks would hang out, look into lots of groups, go to parties and meet people. Ask other people who they think you should meet.

Other than building your tribe, you should think of college as being one massive networking opportunity. In practice, a huge amount of the value you’re going to get from college, over the long term, comes from the connections you build through your school. Think about whatever field you’re interested in, and locate the other people who have the same ambitions. If you want to be a journalist, getting involved with the local newspaper both boosts your resume, and will likely help you meet your fellow writers. Another critically undervalued resource is the fact that you have unprecedented access to a large number of highly intelligent people – your college professors. Whenever you take any class, make time up front to meet your professors personally, and engage them. (Edit: my good friend Matt Elder suggested to always use a professor’s office hours, you’re likely the only person who will be there!) Give them a reason to remember you, and eventually to help you out. Perhaps the largest resource of all is actually the alumni network. You might think this is largely for use after graduation, but if you want more information about a given field, most alumni are willing – and indeed eager – to hear from current undergrads and give them a helping hand. If you don’t have a detailed plan yet, that is an excellent source to help you start building one. Start reaching out and building those connections now, they will pay off many times over the long run.

Leverage Your Free Time

While it may not always seem like it from the inside, your college years are going to give you the most free schedule you are ever likely to have. This, in my opinion, is the biggest comparative advantage of your undergrad years, and thus represents the most important factor to get right.

Sit down right now and write out a list of everything you want to do. Don’t hold back, wish for the moon, just get it all down on paper. When you’re done, look at the list, and think about what’s required to get there. Some of those items will take a lot of money, others a lot of time, and so on. While you are in college, you have a unique opportunity to get those things that require lots of time done.

When I think about the major things I would like to get done that require more time, a few things in particular come to mind. One of them is writing a book, or really writing anything at all. It is a generally useful skill, and being a published author gives quite a bit of credibility. It takes lots of practice to get good, and setting a regular time or word goal will get you there over time. More generally though, with lots of time on your hands, you can devote yourself to learning skills. It may not take long to get amateur level skills under your belt, but true mastery requires thousands of hours of work. Starting that process when you’re younger means you will get better faster. Some useful skills for later in life may include things like internet marketing, or you may want to pursue a fun hobby like the electric guitar. Either way, now’s a good time.

Perhaps the most ambitious goal would be to start some kind of project. This may be a humanitarian effort – in which case the college is likely to give you lots of funding and good press – or you may want to, say, learn programming and write the next big web app. More realistically though, it is entirely possible to start a business in your dorm room, and if you are interested in entrepreneurship over the long term this is a very good way to get your feet wet. In my own case, I started an online electronics retail store using largely out of the box software and drop shipping. That was a fascinating experiment (and a great talking point), even if it didn’t end up becoming Amazon. This is likely going to be one of your few opportunities to get that vaunted “real world” experience everyone raves about.

In Conclusion

The most important lesson here is simply to avoid falling into default patterns of behavior. College is a particularly unique span of four years, and it is worth making the best of those qualities. This is an opportunity to really stand out from the crowd, by learning critical skills or taking action long before other people start thinking about what to do with their lives. You really do only live once – so learn from others, make a plan in advance, and do it right the first time.

  • Shiva Ryan

    This could almost be a commencement speech. From my perch, you are still young. It is never too late to learn something new, look for new friends, or change old ways. While the University years are a unique time, with limited responsibilities and obligations, life is not set in stone.

  • Swimmer963

    I pretty much did know what I wanted to do in high school–as of about grade 10, actually, I had already chosen nursing as a career. There were, of course, big opportunity costs; I wanted to learn more about physics, and about music, and I knew even back in high school that *not* going into these fields would mean I wouldn’t learn nearly as much about them. And my prediction was correct: I achieved a middling level of composing skill, then stopped doing it when school got really mind-consuming, and I’ve forgotten half of what I knew about physics in grade 12. I also expected to be academically bored–and a lot of the time I was. Nursing is a college diploma program revamped as a university baccalaureate program, and a lot of the ‘academic’ classes are filler. [Clarification: in Canada ‘university’ and ‘college’ are very different things. Your post describes university. Canadian colleges offer practical, applied programs, usually in 2 or 3 years rather than 4, with lower tuition and less prestige, and they don’t have the same social environment as university.]

    In hindsight, it was 100% the right choice, for some right reasons and a few wrong ones. The ‘I want to be different from my parents’ was a wrong reason (they both did PhDs in hard sciences). But ‘I want to learn better social skills’ was a good reason–and it worked as planned– and ‘I want to have a good job right out of school’ was an excellent reason. More to the point, nursing *is* an intellectually challenging job, even if not academically challenging. It’s hard work, and a lot of it is mental work, and it *changes* you. I may be bored in class, but I’m never bored during a shift at the hospital. And who knows, maybe I’ll have time to take some physics classes in the evenings once I graduate and start working?

    I’ve done some of the traditional university stuff–extracurriculars, forming new social groups, etc–but in an ad hoc way, and normally by forcing myself to. It’s not really who I am.

  • Romeo Stevens

    It’s worth pointing out that computer science is one of the very few career paths where conscientiousness is uncorrelated to income.

  • stephen fay

    it’s funny because I didn’t plan any of these things but ended up doing them anyway — by accident!