My Protips for College

Last week I gave a lecture to prospective undergrad students here at UT Dallas. At the end of the talk I gave some pro-tips for undergrads — things if I could go back in time and talk to myself this is what I would say. Here are those points, with a bit more personal elaboration than I gave during my talk. This is for undergrads going for a four year degree, it is not really applicable to graduate students (and mostly not applicable to community college students).

Pick a Major

My first major piece of advice is that all students should pick a major. You should not go undeclared.

Personally I did not have this problem — I haphazardly picked criminal justice and enjoyed it enough to stick with it. I had several friends though get stuck in the quagmire of never being able to decide a major.

There are a few reasons I have this piece of advice. One is that you should really think about why you are going to college in the first place — you should have some cognizable career aspirations that guide why you are there. Those aspirations will obviously guide what major you choose. You don’t have to worry though if you are not fully committed to that major. It is totally normal for an 18 year old to not be mature enough to make that sort of commitment. If you go for biology, realize that lab work sucks, you can change majors. So picking a major at the start is not like marriage — it is more like going on a date.

Part of the issue of going undeclared is people have the expectation that they will figure out a subject they really like later on (via a class) and then choose a major. Haphazardly taking classes does not guarantee this though. This is especially the case with introduction classes — which can often suck compared to higher level classes. Going again with the analogy to dating, you should have multiple dates (classes) in a particular major before you decide if it is/is not for you (you could always get a crappy teacher in one class as well). Being undeclared you only get minimal exposure to any particular subject. So it is better to pick something, with the mind that you might change later on, as the class that changes your mind may never come.

Finally, you should always have those career goals in mind. You shouldn’t decide to be a professional tennis player because you liked that GenEd tennis course you were randomly assigned. So ultimately you need to base what you want to major in on factors outside of how much you like the subject material. Some career opportunities are not strongly tied to a major — you can be a cop with an English degree if you want. That is not always the case though.

An additional point related to this is that you have more opportunities/majors in larger universities. If you pick the small private university and you decide you don’t want to major in education, you will be hamstrung in what other potential majors you can choose from, which leads to my next point.

More Interesting >> Easier

Second piece of advice — don’t pick easier classes over ones you think will be more interesting.

For college students, this is really the first opportunity you have in your education to shape your schedule. (You have some agency in high school, but nothing like college.) When you go for a four year degree, about half of your college courses will be general education (GenEd). For example at Bloomsburg IIRC I had to take a collection of four classes in each area of Humanities, Math & Sciences, and Social Sciences — as well as additional writing classes. These you have to choose a particular subject area (e.g. Economics, History), but any class in that department counts towards your GenEd requirements.

Now the seemingly obvious choice is to take the introduction classes in these majors, as they will be easier. This is a mistake I made. First, the intro classes can be mind numbingly boring. Second, they aren’t guaranteed to even be less work than higher level courses. Third, and most important, it ends up being much easier to do the work/show up to an interesting class than it is to wade through a really boring one. Let me say that again another way — you will not go to class if it is really boring, and maybe fail. It is easier to put the work in for classes you enjoy.

This works the same when picking a major. STEM has a reputation as being harder. Yes, aero-space engineering is really hard, but the STEM field is not filled with geniuses — they are normal people. I’d hasten to say writing English good is easy not so. (Most social sciences you will write — alot.) Painting something people want to buy is probably alot harder than learning about biology. Teaching elementary children is madness. Take chemistry if you think it is interesting — don’t be afraid because of some stereotype that you think it will be really hard.

The example that most comes to mind for me was a history general education requirement. I had the option one semester to do either a 300 level course on Japanese history, or the 100 level course on something like 16th century western European history. I chose the western European course, being concerned the 300 level course would be more work. It was a terrible decision — the 100 level course was quite a bit of work, requiring writing several essays and reading very boring material. This variation is pretty typical — variation between teachers is much larger than variation in how hard the 100, 200, 300 level courses are. About the only guarantee is that a mass lecture course will be less work (mostly exams) compared to smaller courses, but those can be real stinkers. (Do research on the professors, grab a syllabus, ask someone who took the course previously, go talk to them during officer hours or send an email. You can often weed out if it is good class or a stinker before having to sit through it. Avoid generic classes taught by someone for the very first time.)

Some courses have pre-requisites, but in many cases you can ask permission to take the course even if you have not fulfilled them. You should just use your best judgment about whether the pre-requisites are really necessary or are just bureaucratic. My communities and crime undergrad has a pre-requisite for introduction to criminology, but I highly doubt an engaged student would not be able to follow along. Differential equations you should probably have a good grasp of calculus though (but something like linear algebra would probably be ok to take with just high school mathematics, so it is just dependent on the context).

In retrospect I would have also chosen various stats/econometrics courses in the economics department over the introduction to macro economics. It is really hard to convince yourself to wake up at 8 in the morning Tuesdays and Thursdays if you really hate the course. Again I did not take those higher level econ courses as I was worried about being able to pass, although I shouldn’t have been. Which leads to my next point.

Don’t be Afraid to Fail!

Third piece of advice is related to the second — don’t be afraid to fail. So you should not forgo a particular path because you are concerned about failing. It is ok to fail.

It is ok to fail for a few reasons. One is that most universities have built in the ability to drop courses. So if you take a physics class and can’t keep up with the material, you can drop the course about half way through the semester. It is pretty easy to make up those credits over the summer (if you even need to make them up at all). The system is made so you can fail a few times and it has no impact on your GPA.

The second reason it is ok to attempt harder classes is because it is ok to have B’s/C’s. Students have been primed for their whole education about the importance of grades. I’m here to tell you now that grades don’t matter all that much. The sky will not fall down if you get a C. The difference between say a 3.3 GPA and a 3.8 GPA means very little for the majority of potential career opportunities.

Now, I’m not saying you can totally stink up the joint with grades (many schools have a minimum GPA requirement), but most folks aren’t trying to get into John Hopkins medical school — you will be fine if you take a harder course and get a C — and you will probably learn more in that hard course than taking something easy but boring. You are ultimately paying for your education. You might as well take advantage of the opportunities to learn.

I do have a few C’s on my undergraduate transcript. One is that macro-economics I talked about earlier — I only showed up to around half of the classes. Another though is the Design of Experiments — the first statistics course in the math department I took. I had to get permission to be in the course, and I did not understand everything. But after the semester the professor told me I was one of the best students in the class (despite the C – the material was difficult). I subsequently took quite a few more stats classes from that professor (I got all A’s from then on out I’m pretty sure). Taking those harder classes really prepared me for graduate school compared to many within my cohort, as well as gave me a leg up in many more research oriented positions while I was at SUNY Albany.

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