in Musings

Advice for Incoming College Students

I felt like answering a question on Quora about what you’d tell someone about to start college. Here it is, reproduced below.

This is what I’d tell my sister, who’s about to start college in the fall this year. Note that I haven’t read any of the previous answers so as to not influence my own, so forgive me if I’ve repeated anything.

1. Good grades ARE important.
The people who harp about how GPAs don’t matter are (usually) the same people who land mediocre jobs or no jobs out of school. Besides, why would you not put your best foot forward and gain an advantage over others if you have the chance to? That being said, 3.7 is often good enough; I wouldn’t kill myself to obtain an extra 0.1 or beyond. Spend that extra time developing other skills, learning new hobbies, and meeting interesting people.

2. Actively find and make amazing friends – which includes your professors.
I believe one of the most important reasons for going to college these days is the network that you build during those years. You may not know it now, but that person in your first year frosh group or your dorm mate can turn out to be a very important person later on. They may become an eventual business partner (see: Peter Thiel & Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg & Eduardo Saverin, etc.) or a future spouse. You may be tempted like I was to stay inside on Thursday/Friday nights, but don’t fall into the trap of complacency. Do something scary at least once a week and try to have a conversation with at least one new person a week.

The difference between college and high school is you won’t see the same people in every class. You won’t know the names of most of the people you see, nor will you ever even get a chance to speak a word to them. So it’s up to you to actively find and meet people you want to be friends with. Note that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the people in your classes or even in your year. Once you leave the confines of college, anyway, you’ll realize that it’s only during school years that your friends are exclusively people your age. Get used to making friends with people older and younger than you.

3. Be very careful about your ideologies.
At 18, despite thinking you know everything, you’re still *very* easily influenced. You’re bright-eyed and hopeful, and may have lofty dreams of fighting for social justice and becoming an activist for what you believe in. It’s admirable but just be careful. There’s a great article here: “Everything is problematic” | The McGill Daily about one student’s experience with political activism and how it almost ruined her.

I’m not going to go too much into it here, but the key is to keep an open mind and not become too affiliated with any group. It is very easy to get peer pressured into becoming someone you are not, fighting an “us” versus “them” battle that leads nowhere. Focus on what you can control, and how you react to things.

4. You don’t have to know your life purpose.
A lot of young people, myself included, get stuck trying to figure out what their broader purpose in life is. Others wrestle to find their passions, with the mantra ‘do what you love’ echoing inside their heads. However, these thoughts can often be a detriment and hinder progress.

You have to realize you won’t know what your passions are without having tried a lot of different things. You might have to take some shitty internships to determine your ideal career, but these will lead you closer to discovering what you really like to do. The key is to keep *moving* and focus on getting good at things. Don’t worry about getting pigeonholed in something – just try things, fail at them, then get up and try 10 more.

5. Spend time building your skills.
You’ll never have as much time as you have now while in college. It’s tempting to waste away your days marathoning TV shows or staying up late for no reason (only to wake up at noon), but doing so will build really bad habits and be a complete waste of your most precious asset – time. Think of college as four formulative years you have to really, really plan out your life and build the foundation for what you want it to look like. If you merely go through the steps and do what everyone else does in college (namely party, waste time, get poor grades, procrastinate), you’ll get what everyone else gets – underemployment or unemployment. If you instead invest your time and energy into meaningful activities, you’ll be miles ahead of everyone else by the time you graduate.

6. Learn to ‘game’ the grading system.
At my college, there are a set of recommended courses students have to take every year to fulfill the graduation requirements for our intended major. What happens is students look at that list and follow it step by step, so virtually all the students have the same schedule every semester. By following this pre-set schedule, it’s actually harder to get a higher grade, as all of the top performers skew the grade curve.

The better route is to invert your courses so you’d take a course normally taken during the fall in the winter. The reason why it’s easier to get a better grade this way is because those that flunked or dropped the course in the fall are retaking it in the winter – so you’re effectively competing against people that fell on the lower end of the grade curve.

Another easy way to ‘game’ the system is to simply rehash your professor’s views on a subject back to him/her in essays. Like it or not, it’s what often works.

7. Go on exchange and travel as much as you can.
One of my biggest regrets in college is not going on exchange when I had the chance to. In fact, I didn’t even consider the possibility until it was too late to do so. Now that I’ve graduated, I’d love to take an immersive trip somewhere but the fact is life is already much more harried. It’s difficult to take time off, and I already have a ton of responsibilities that weren’t on my plate in college. So go explore other countries, experience other cultures, and broaden your horizons while you have such a great opportunity to do so.

8. Read as much non-fiction as you can.
Fiction is great, but non-fiction books are what will cause true change to your life. Read self-improvement books, mindset books, career books, anything that will help you develop as a person. Making money can actually be a learned skill, as is so many other things in life you wouldn’t think of. All the information is out there, you just have to read it and implement it (see myBooks list or PM me if you’d like some recommendations).

9. Obtain internships and work experience.
Ideally you should have at least a 2-month internship every summer during college. You do NOT want to be one of those people who has a 4.0 GPA with no work experience and can’t land a job after graduation. Just having the name of a prestigious company on your resume can open a lot of doors.

10. Exercise at least 3 times a week.
Make use of the gym, pool, and other facilities available to you. Consider joining an intramural sports team. Try new hobbies – squash, archery, curling, Quidditch – and kill two birds with one stone by making new friends and working out. There are countless studies proving the benefits of exercise, not just for physical health, but also for cognitive and mental abilities. Going to the gym was my keystone habit throughout college. I’m glad I developed that habit early on, because the older you get, the more difficult it is to start working out.

Additionally, here are some miscellaneous tips:

-Spend more time outside your dorm room than you do inside it.

-Take your life seriously. It’s tempting to think you’re still young and are being coddled by mom and dad, but treat yourself like an adult. You’re a student, yes, but you’re there for a purpose. This is hard to understand at 18, unfortunately, but it’s why older people who attend college get more out of it.

-Don’t limit yourself by thinking you *have* to get a job after college. If you followed #5, you’ll have started side projects that may eventually turn into something bigger.

-Realize that your parents, or you, are literally paying hundreds of dollars for each class you’ve enrolled in, as well as for all of the various services campus has to offer. Make use of them.

-Email people you admire and ask them for advice or to grab a coffee to learn more about their industry. Everyone loves to help college students, and people don’t look at you as a threat. It’s a great way to develop contacts.

-Regrets will often come in the form of having NOT tried something than having done something and looking dumb momentarily.

-Avoid drama and gossip. My residency in college was infamous for being a gossip hole. Everything was passed down the grape vine. Don’t get involved and avoid talking about people behind their back.

-Getting wasted is fun for all of two seconds. Don’t be scared of alcohol, but don’t be pressured into drinking more than you can handle.  And of course avoid cigarettes and hard drugs.

-All nighters are usually never necessary and are a result of bad time management. Others will exclaim how late they stayed up finishing something, but there’s really nothing to brag about.

-Going to law school or grad school should not be an escape/excuse mechanism, and should be deeply considered beforehand.

-Don’t feel as though you need to settle on a specific career because it’d make your parents proud. That’s a recipe for a life of regret.

-Take a variety of classes outside your major, or just walk in to lectures that interest you.

-Call your parents and siblings periodically, especially ones who offered you great advice before starting college.