Crossposted from my blog. Considering collaborating on a version of this that's tailored specifically towards undergrads in the LW or EA communities.
I just completed my first year of college (US university). I’ve written up some personal reflections and curated some useful thoughts from others.
Caveat: people are different. My perspective is one of millions; treat it accordingly.
Understand the game
For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, they don’t tell you the cynical (realistic? red-pill? based?) perspective of college during admissions. That’s for yourself to figure out, which seems…a little unfair.
The perspective I’m talking about involves some mix of:
- College is mostly signaling
- Social sciences bad ha ha
- Colleges just want money
- Many classes are useless (the caveat being technical subjects or skills)
- The main value adds of college comes from outside of the classroom
- Did I mention there’s a lot of dunking on the social sciences?
These ideas may feel a little uncomfortable. Some of them are overemphasized to make a stronger point. But in my experience (and through conversations with peers I highly regard), they seem mostly right.
Even if you’re skeptical, I think it’s important to at least be aware of these sentiments. It might save you a lot of time and effort.
- “If you want to get the best education in the world for free, you can just move to Princeton and start attending classes unofficially. There’s almost no effort made to stop you. You just won’t get a diploma, which makes it near pointless, because college is more about impressing people than learning useful info.”
- “Coming in, you will probably think that your college experience has been carefully designed to provide you the best possible education. (HA HA HA.)”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “I got a great education at my graduate school, but I didn’t go to graduate school to get that education. I went to graduate school to get a credential. From my perspective, I paid them for the credential, and they threw in a complimentary education with it.”
- “You have to optimize for something. If you don’t optimize for something, you will probably get screwed. But the thing you optimize for had better be worth what you pay for it.”
- Here’s a list of benefits that one can get from attending college:
- Credentials, general – Simply being able to say “yes, I have a bachelor’s degree” can make you more employable, even if it’s a Bachelor of Art in Underwater Basketweaving.
- Credentials, specific – There are jobs that you can’t have (sometimes legally) without the specific college degree that qualifies you for it. If you want to be a physician, you have to go to med school.
- Prestige – There are schools prestigious enough that simply being able to list them on your resumé makes you substantially more employable. There are hiring managers who will prefer you simply for having attended such a school; there are also highly competitive employment positions that it is effectively impossible to get unless one’s credential comes from a sufficiently prestigious school.
- Networking, aka Social Capital – The social contacts you make during a course of collegiate study – both fellow students and faculty – are potentially extremely valuable, if they are good ones, for whatever purpose you have.
- Social class advancement – As previously discussed, residential programs provide one of the few avenues available to most people to trade up their social class, by means of providing a live/work social experience that acculturates the student into the new class.
- Schemes – Sometimes life presents people with weird situations in which they can beat rule systems by going to college. For instance, avoiding military conscription (the draft), or getting a visa.
- “You bought into the system at an early age. You identified with your A. Then you grew up and you saw that getting an A isn’t the same as doing useful work. Now, you don’t identify with your A, but you don’t have an alternative outlet for your raw energy and creativity. What to do?”
- “The right answer is to identify with your life. Figure out how to make more money on the side so that you can have savings and enjoy nice things (be charitable later, when you’re making real money). Get enough sleep. Learn how to do those fun hobbies you always thought you’d cultivate after school. Figure out ways to do the tedious busywork as quickly as possible while still getting an acceptable result (and acceptable might still mean straight As).”
- “I spent that whole term hunched over books and stressing over how behind I was (so, not meeting people, not getting research or job experience, not figuring out what problems to prioritize, not getting others into high-impact careers), only to later realize my classes had taught me little of value.”
- “Classes are very unlikely to teach you much about a bunch of very important things, like what you value and what cause prioritization / career paths will best allow you to realize those values.”
- “Thinking deeply and creatively seems useful, and it requires having slack in your schedule.”
The major is not the career
You are not automatically boxed into whatever your field of study is, and you should not arbitrarily limit yourself by doing so.
People with psychology degrees are running startups. Physics undergrads become AI researchers. Your English major friend is now an environmental activist. CS majors have pivoted to consulting. That one business frat guy just got a job offer as a full-stack developer.
If you’re not sure what to study (or what skills to learn), a useful heuristic is to learn stuff that maximizes your future optionality. These subjects generally seem to point towards the hard sciences, under the logic that it’s easier to pivot from a technical field to a general one, rather than the other way around. (And learning hard skills is useful.)
- “I think you should prioritise keeping your options open very highly. So, I think the most important aim is to build flexible career capital – skills, connections and credentials that will help you find opportunities in the future.”
- “Learning a subject matter is less important. 80% of jobs in the UK don’t require a specific degree.”
- “It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.”
- “Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.”
- “Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.”
- “I know many people who switched from math to computer science because they found math too hard, and no one who did the opposite. People don’t do hard things gratuitously; no one will work on a harder problem unless it is proportionately (or at least log(n)) more rewarding. So probably math is more worth studying than computer science.”
- We think it’s reasonable to aim for the most fundamental, quantitative option you can do, i.e. one of these in the following order: mathematics, economics, computer science, physics, engineering, political science/chemistry/biology (the last three are roughly equal).
- “If you’re a physics teacher, the topic is physics, but the content is (I assume) some combination of grading papers, making slideshow presentations, lecturing, doing demonstrations, and answering student questions.”
- “Say Emma is a physics teacher. Which do you think matters more for Emma’s personal career satisfaction: being interested in physics (the topic), or enjoying grading, lecturing, presenting, and answering questions (the content)? Almost certainly, I think, the latter.”
Identify your goals, then half-ass them
A lot of people seem to be sleepwalking through college — mirroring what their friends are doing, never stepping out of their comfort zone. This seems suboptimal.
You don’t need to know for certain what your goals are. But you should probably have some general idea of what your choices and skills are setting you up for. As mentioned above, maximizing your future optionality is a good heuristic.
Ben Kuhn writes:
- “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.”
Once you have some goal in mind, Nate Soares suggests half-assing it with everything you’ve got. (This is one of my favorite blog posts, so I highly recommend giving it a full read through.)
- “The slacker in you rebels against pointless tasks, and the tryer in you wants perfection. So satisfy both: aim for the minimum necessary target, and move there as efficiently as possible.”
- “If you’re trying to pass the class, then pass it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion. If you’re trying to ace the class, then ace it with minimum effort. Anything else is wasted motion. If you’re trying to learn the material to the fullest, then mine the assignment for all its knowledge, and don’t fret about your grade. Anything else is wasted motion.”
- “Always deploy your full strength, in order to hit your quality target as fast as possible.”
- “That said, the quality target can be really really high…This can occur naturally whenever you work on something difficult relative to your skill level, or in competitive situations, or if you’re signalling your ability to work hard. But don’t get confused. Even if you write for the love of writing, you eventually have to stop editing and call it finished.”
You might also be familiar with Parkinson’s law — the idea that if you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute. I think this principle serves as additional justification for half-assing it. (There is more nuance involved here that doesn’t come off from a surface-level read.)
The people and social environments matter
One major value add of college is meeting and working with smart people, so it is probably smart to optimize for this as much as possible. Other people put it better than I can.
- “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.”
- 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.”
- “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.”
- …But even if most of the students weren’t my kind of people, Harvard still gave me an unparallelled group of interesting, talented, smart, and ambitious classmates. I probably learned more from them than from my professors for the last two years.
- That kind of environment turns out to be difficult for me to replicate outside college, where I no longer get to live with eight roommates and a stone’s throw from so many other awesome folks, and I only get the same three coworkers every day instead of rotating groups of 30.
- “Most students don’t realize how rich they are in the scarcest ingredient in startups, co-founders.”
- “Co-founders really should be people you already know. And by far the best place to meet them is school. You have a large sample of smart people; you get to compare how they all perform on identical tasks; and everyone’s life is pretty fluid. A lot of startups grow out of schools for this reason.”
- “There was a famous paper written by a guy named Granovetter about how people find jobs. It was called “The Strength of Weak Ties”. He found out that it’s not your BFFs who help you find work, because you already know all the same job leads they know. It’s the people you are friendly acquaintances with who get you job leads. They are well disposed to you (being friendly) and they know things you don’t, being as they are enmeshed in different families and friendship groups than you are.”
- “People talk about the strength of friendships made in college, and that may be true. But the big economic value of social contacts made in college is the huge wealth of friendly acquaintances – Granovetter’s ‘weak ties’.”
- “Seek out explicit mentorship and advice; it is always easy to find people to tell you what they think you should do, just pick ones whom you have reason to believe know what they’re talking about. And then use their advice. Assume that there are better and worse ways to do everything, and ask other people in your target class explicitly what they are in any particulars that come to your attention.”
Chase the excitement
Go after interesting opportunities, even if it seems like a long shot. Make stuff. Don’t do things out of obligation. Engage in 1:1 chats now and then. Send cold DMs and emails. Filter out bullshit and instead work on tangible problems, relationships, and opportunities. Find the others, and let the others find you. Most importantly, have a bias towards action.
Maybe this sounds too hustle culture-y and pre-professional. Basically: college is the best time and place to try shit out. For many people, it’s four years of being able to do whatever they want and not having to worry about making money. Take advantage of this privilege.
- “So the best thing you can do in college, whether you want to get into grad school or just be good at hacking, is figure out what you truly like. It’s hard to trick professors into letting you into grad school, and impossible to trick problems into letting you solve them. College is where faking stops working. From this point, unless you want to go work for a big company, which is like reverting to high school, the only way forward is through doing what you love.”
- “Early in your career, you need to jump into every opportunity you can get, so you say yes to everything. Even the things that seem kinda dumb or pointless or weird or inconvenient. You say yes and do them anyway. Because you never know what doors they will open. “
- “Then, as you start building your skills and reputation, you begin to find yourself in situations where you have more opportunities than you need. This is when you begin to strategically start saying ‘no.’ By saying ‘no,’ you’re able to focus on the opportunities that present the biggest upside and you get even further, faster.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “Perhaps the most ambitious goal would be to start some kind of project…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.”
- “I now realize that something does change at graduation: you lose a huge excuse for failing.”
- “The problem with starting a startup while you’re still in school is that there’s a built-in escape hatch. If you start a startup in the summer between your junior and senior year, it reads to everyone as a summer job. So if it goes nowhere, big deal; you return to school in the fall with all the other seniors; no one regards you as a failure, because your occupation is student, and you didn’t fail at that. Whereas if you start a startup just one year later, after you graduate, as long as you’re not accepted to grad school in the fall the startup reads to everyone as your occupation. You’re now a startup founder, so you have to do well at that.”
- “If you have a choice between entering two rooms, choose the room where you are more likely to be the dumbest one in the room. Once you are in the room, talk less and listen more. Bad for ego, great for luck. Good things tend to happen in these rooms.”
- “‘What the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.’ – @cdixon. Observe the weekend projects of the smartest people in your circles. These are a looking glass into the future. Make asymmetric bets.”
- “The best things in life come to those who create value with no expectation of a return. I don’t know how it happens, but when you put out good energy, it tends to come back to you—multiplied. Be genuine. Create value. Good things will happen.”
Everyone is doing their own thing
People have very different life goals, backgrounds, paths, incentives, and beliefs. I think this is freeing because it heavily decentivizes comparing yourself to others.
I wouldn’t advise deliberately trying to be unique or special — but if you find yourself interested or involved in endeavors that don’t fall into the default patterns of college behavior, know you’re not alone.
(Also: it’s depressingly easy to get intimidated seeing your peers do a bunch of seemingly impressive stuff while you…can’t seem to get out of bed for an hour. But it might help to remember that everyone is just some dude. They’re working off their best guesses, just like you.)
- Most people think about risk the wrong way—for example, staying in college seems like a non-risky path. However, getting nothing done for four of your most productive years is actually pretty risky.
- If you stay in college, make sure you learn something worthwhile and work on interesting projects—college is probably the best place to meet people to work with.
I realize that the tone of this post may come off as very cynical.
But I want to emphasize that what I’ve written is not fully representative of the college experience at all. Also, optimizing for networking, career-oriented goals, and schoolwork is probably not the best thing to do for yourself as a person. Everyone has different levels for the amount of slack and optimization they are comfortable with.
So go enjoy yourself. Embark on spontaneous adventures with friends. Sleep in. Go out on the weekends. Stay up way too late sometimes. Experiment with, uh, innocent-looking gummies and funny-tasting water.
Life is short. Enjoy it!