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:
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.
Economist Bryan Caplan thinks education is mostly pointless showing off. We test the strength of his case.
College advice for people who are exactly like me
The Value of College
Survival in the immoral maze of college
Many Undergraduates Should Take Light Courseloads
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.)
Summary of our thoughts on how to pick a degree
What You’ll’ Wish You’d Known
Advice for undergraduates
The topic is not the content
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:
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.)
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.
What I Wish I Knew in College
Why I left Harvard early
A Student’s Guide to Startups
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.
When to Say “Yes” and “No”
How to Create More Luck
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.)
Advice for ambitious 19 year olds
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!
"I realize that the tone of this post may come off as very cynical. "
I actually thought the tone of your post was very optimistic and exciting, that is until you ended it ironically by saying "since this is too cynical, let me lighten it up a bit by reminding everyone here that life is hilariously short and you'll all die so you better enjoy it!"
I do not agree that talking about the greatest sadness in life somehow is a positive nice happy thing, despite people's attempts to twist it in that direction. ("You only can appreciate things that are limited!")
I believe aging is an illness and should be fought against not just accepted as a encourage you to "have fun" and experiment with "innocent-looking gummies".
But to end on a /not mean/ note, this was a really great post (up until the "Enjoy Yourself" subheading) and I very much liked the amalgation of links you found and separately went to go read a lot of those articles. Was very close to saving this in my favorite articles collection due to how well cultivated the quotes and articles in the first bit were.
Thanks for this comment. I was hoping that segment would come off as a genuine reminder for undergrads to loosen up a bit and enjoy the fun parts of college after reading a chunk of heavy material that likely goes against many commonly held preconceived notions.
But I appreciate this pushback; it's one I haven't encountered much in my social circles, which usually view the "life is short" sentiment in a positive light (see: Kurzgesagt's Optimistic Nihilism video). FWIW, I find that this perspective encourages me to try harder and be better.
This is a very good collection and distillation of rational college advice. However, there is very little advice from you, about your year, advice that's the title made me expect.