College discussion thread

by benkuhn1 min read1st Apr 201419 comments


Personal Blog

It's that time of year when high school seniors are thinking about colleges, and by extension, everyone who knows any high school seniors is thinking about colleges as well. So let's let Less Wrong join in!

Do you have:

  • questions about choosing, preparing for, or attending colleges?
  • sage advice about choosing, preparing for, or attending colleges?
  • announcements of which college you'll be attending or visiting and when (for instance, so that you can meet local LWers)?
  • other things not worth their own post such that 'people who clicked on the "College discussion thread"' is an appropriate audience?
Please post them below!
19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:34 PM
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Meta-college-advice-advice: Treat college advice, whether online or in person, as a literary genre. Deconstruct it.

  • What are the probable motives of the advice-giver? Might they be trying to enlist Effective Altruists, future FAI researchers, political allies, or future low-wage employees, graduate students, code monkeys, CAD monkeys, or foot soldiers? Might they be misrepresenting the opportunities for promotion out of said entry level grunt positions? Basically, are they trying to manipulate labor out of you, or are they offering you friendly advice out of the kindness of their generous hearts? If they obviously do have an agenda, can that be okay, and why?

  • Does the advice-giver seem to share your values? Related to but distinct from the first bullet point, you will have a deluge of advice aimed at convincing you to make the "best" choice, from fifty different perspectives, rarely with any of the advice-givers pausing to reflect that when they say "best" they of course mean "best" according to their own complex criteria.

  • Does the advice-giver seem to be inextricably trapped in a doldrums of hindsight bias and/or anchoring? For example, do they seem to think that it's patently, blindingly obvious that everyone should specialize in plant cell membrane chemistry, and maybe if you want to take a risk you could specialize in animal cell membrane chemistry, but you would have to be an utter fool to do something like engineering? I find this attitude to be incredibly common even in extremely intelligent people. I think from the inside it feels like, "I wouldn't be doing quantum spectroscopy if quantum spectroscopy weren't the correct choice."

  • As far as I can tell there is now literally a giant machine somewhere pumping out propaganda aimed at convincing young people to do start-ups. Rather than saying my opinion on this, I will simply urge that you apply the same level of scrutiny to this breathless, manic material as you apply to your dad's pitch to go to law school.

As far as I can tell there is now literally a giant machine somewhere pumping out propaganda aimed at convincing young people to do start-ups. Rather than saying my opinion on this, I will simply urge that you apply the same level of scrutiny to this breathless, manic material as you apply to your dad's pitch to go to law school.

Lol, this is so true. There are so many "wantrepreneurs" at my University.

This overlaps the third point, but does the person giving you advice have current information? Are they thinking about ways the future is likely to be different from the present?

I would say REMEMBER THE SUNK COST FALLACY (in fact, get it tattooed on your hands so you're forced to look at it whenever you're typing some boring paper you don't care about). If a subject is surprisingly uninspiring, college is a great time to realize that isn't what you want to be doing for the rest of your life.

The majority of my best friends and I ended up in suboptimal majors, even though we realized they were suboptimal in time to switch. What's sad is that we all knew about the sunk cost fallacy, and even discussed it, but didn't take our realizations seriously enough soon enough. Eventually it will be too late to change (at least without taking extra time) but there's usually a window where you will have misgivings, but will want to squish them furiously so you don't have to go through the mini crisis of faith.

Listen for those misgivings, and take them seriously when they pop up. Look at the long-term benefit of doing something else, not just the short-term logistical and psychological hassle it'll cause.

This might all seem super obvious, and it was to me, but I still did it all wrong, and short of projecting "SUNK COST FALLACY" across the sky like a rationalist Bat-Signal, I'm not sure what more I can do for you.

I don't know if this applies so much in America, where you don't choose your degree ("major"?) until after starting university ("college"?), but I'm sure there are other UK/elsewhere people reading too, and perhaps this has some broader relevance as well. So... one thing that I wish I'd borne in mind when I was making decisions and torn between going into several different fields. Switching between fields (mid-degree, after your degree, for your graduate degree(s), whatever) is totally possible and loads of people do it, but a general pattern I think I've observed is that it's a lot easier to switch from a more technical field to a less technical field. So, all else being equal, if you find yourself wavering between two or three choices of study area, I would be inclined to advise you to pick the most technical one. (I'm aware that there's some potential handwaving here about what "technical" actually means. I think the useful interpretation of it probably correlates very strongly with more maths.)

I was completely unaware of this pattern myself and have now managed to orchestrate two successive switches from a less to a more technical field, so it's absolutely not impossible, and I don't regret the path I've ended up taking for various reasons. But I reckon academically/career-wise I'd have made things a bit smoother for myself, and given myself more choices, if I'd started out with the most technical of the things that I love.

If you don't mind, I have a few questions to ask you:

  1. What field did you switch from each time, and what is your current field?
  2. How did you academically prepare yourself for the switches?
  3. How would you rate the level of difficulty involved each time?
  4. What inspired these switches?

Any information would be helpful, as I am currently considering a switch myself. Thank you.

If you're in the US (I don't know about other countries) you can take Advanced Placement (AP) tests while in High School and then have those count for credit at many colleges. Most colleges will publish a list of which AP tests, with which scores, are accepted and the number of units/credit hours they are worth and the degree requirements they satisfy.

These tests are, in general, not very hard for above-average high school students. If you have taken a regular (non-AP) course, it should be possible to pick up the AP test study book, review for a couple weeks, and then pass the test.

As a personal anecdote, when I was in high school, I took biology my freshman year. My junior year, I picked up the AP study book and put in 2 weeks of work on it, then took the AP test, scoring a 5 (perfect score). This was worth 8 units (2 university courses, out of 180 units required to graduate) and satisfied some other requirements.

I was so happy with this discovery, that I did the same thing for many more classes the next year and entered college with 56 units (out of 180) complete, allowing me to graduate in 3 years and save almost $30,000 dollars.

Taking AP's on your own is totally doable. My school didn't offer any and I took six. In my experience, as nydwracu said, AP Psych is easy. So is Environmental Science and English Lit (if you do well on the english sections of the SAT). World History is interesting, and easy if you like memorization. I've heard Human Geography is easy too. The AP exams of languages that are commonly spoken as first languages in the US (Spanish, Chinese) tend to be harder than the ones that aren't (Latin, German) because native speakers drive the average up (it's not exactly graded on a curve, but they don't want too many people to get 5's, far as I can tell). The language ones can very often get you out of the language requirement in college, which frees up a lot of time.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Along a similar vein, if you are in high school, look for AP italicsclassesitalics. Not only will these (assuming good teachers) be more interesting and probably allow you to earn a few credits through either the classes themselves or the AP tests, they will also help you transition from the "high school" mode of thinking to the "college" mode of thinking. If you can manage to dual enroll for actual college courses, that is even better. We often underestimate the mode switching that goes on in the mind of a student transitioning from high school to college. Better to immerse yourself in college thoughts, methods, and challenges now than when you are studying full time.

I took three dual enrollment classes in high school, which translated to five university courses when I transferred. I also spent the summer taking a dual enrollment course sponsored by my school, which gave me an additional course, so don't be afraid to ask about opportunities outside of normal school hours. If you think you can handle it, go for it!

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Right. Replace regular classes with AP classes wherever possible -- and if it's not possible, you can still get the book and self-study. Some high schools will cover the cost of AP tests, but even if they don't, they're much less expensive than college courses.

When I was in high school, AP Psych was considered the easiest of the tests, so I self-studied for it in 9th grade and took the test. (Even though they prohibited high school freshmen from taking AP classes. All I had to do was get my parents to ask the school to let me take it.)

Also, if you/your parents have the money for it, it's never too early to take the SAT -- you can take it more than once and only send your highest score. (Some colleges will let you send in your highest score for each subtest if you took it more than once, but I don't think that's universal.)

SAT-IIs (do they still have those?) are usually hard -- but there are exceptions. My high school let me take up to three SAT-IIs in one day, with, I think, no added cost past the first, so I signed up for the English one, didn't study one bit, and got a fairly high score on it. (I also signed up for the history one and bombed miserably, as well as the Latin one that I was actually there for, so I think this is specific to English. It was mostly basic grammar and reading comprehension IIRC, so if you know how punctuation works, you'll be fine unless they've changed it.)

If anyone's admitted/visiting Harvard, let me know! I go there and would be happy to meet up and/or answer your questions. There are some other students on here as well.

A similar offer for anyone admitted/visiting Yale!

You might be able to negotiate a better financial aid package from a college that accepts you.

A great way to reduce the cost of college is to take summer courses at a cheap college near home and use the credits to graduate early.

This is true, but for classes like these in particular, you need to stay focused on getting useful things out of them. This is important for any college class, of course, but at colleges like this, the classes are likely to be geared to a student population with wildly varying abilities and knowledge. If you allow the class to be what determines how hard you work, you (if you visit a site like this) will probably learn a whole lot less in the time than you otherwise would, because the class will be focused on pushing students who need to learn more.

I say this as a community college instructor myself. I do push my best students as much as the struggling ones, but they could pass the class without getting as much out of it as they would at a more prestigious college.

Of course, if the class is just a general requirement you're taking to jump through the appropriate hoops, this may sound good to you. Still... please think carefully about what skills you might get out of the class anyway, and whether you might have a use for those skills later. Even if literature bores you, for instance, being able to write well is a useful skill... and while writing about literature isn't a very useful skill, you can still learn other, more useful writing skills even while writing about literature.

I'm interested in entrepreneurship and startups. What should I major in? The most obvious candidates for me are:

  • Computer Science/Computer Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Applied Physics

Are there any data on which majors increases chances of success?

Here's how I conducted my college search, and I think the process worked well.

1) Decide what general discipline I wanted to get into. (Engineering). If the school is large and has other programs, that could be of benefit if you're not sure what you want to pursue.

2) Find a list of the best [engineering] schools in the US and write down the top 25, to use as a rough measure of degree recognition and prestige.

3) Use sites like to rank these schools by factors such as % of graduates who would return, perceived quality of education, and expected earnings after graduation, as well as softer factors such as campus social life, weather, and attractiveness of student body (or whatever floats your boat, but these softer factors are important, as you'll be spending 4 years of your life there). If you're looking for a data-driven approach, this site is great because it slices the data a lot and lets you weight different factors by importance. I also used to get more student reviews.

4) Take the top 10 schools after this filtering process, visit as many as you can, and apply to all of them.

Hindsight bias notwithstanding, I'm very happy with where I ended up both in terms of career trajectory and enjoyment of the college experience, as compared to a naive sample of my high school friends.

[-][anonymous]7y 2

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I'm planning on returning to college (Hendrix, since you asked) in the fall. I'm mostly worried about funding.

Whether or not I shoot for one semester or two will depend on the rate of progress toward my goals, by some point before December 2014. Hopefully, I can come up with a relatively objective way of quantifying this, so that if it winds up in a gray area, I can go with the highest-value decision.

I have several goals, here, and though I distinctly remember hating college the majority of the time, I'm pretty sure the reasons are things I more or less have an idea of how to combat. That, and I identified my biggest academic failing to the right people, and they've displayed an eagerness to help play to my strengths instead (e.g., I can fulfill my outstanding requirements in French with phonology and grammar rather than culture and literature).

In the unlikely event that there are enough LW-ish people in easy reach, I'd be interested in setting something up.