On Graduating or: What to Optimize For
Last weekend, I graduated from UIUC with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science. Thus brings an end (for now, at least) to my formal education career. It still hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m “done,” but I am looking forward to traveling a bit this summer, and then starting my full-time job in the fall. This will be kind of an unorganized post, as many of my ideas aren’t completely formed yet, but I wanted to write down some reflections on my college experience.
- Always worrying about “what’s next”. When you’re in college, you worry about finding a job/internship; when you’re in high school, you worry about getting into a good college; when you’re in middle school, you worry about adapting to high school. This chain of “what’s next”-ism goes back to the beginning of one’s education (and probably, I assume, continues through one’s professional career). It’s prudent to think of the future, but I’ve found it to be a mistake to optimize solely for it. A healthy balance of considering the future, while still experiencing and appreciating the “now”, is probably the best approach.
- Starting assignments late. I would argue that the most reliable predictor of student stress is when they start assignments. If you have an assignment with a hard due date and start it with just enough time that you think you’ll be able to finish in time, you’re likely in for nasty surprises. The biggest tip to reducing stress I’d give to an incoming student is to start assignments when they’re assigned/released. You don’t have to finish them super early, but getting started and doing a good amount of work on them right after they’re released will allow you to come up with better estimates for how long they’ll take, and will allow you to then allocate your time better.
Valuing Your Time
The biggest change in my workflow I experienced in transitioning from high school to college was how much more control I had over my schedule – and how much more free time I had.
There is value in giving your time away. Especially when you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s valuable to be generous with your time. Contribute to an open source project. Volunteer with a student organization. Help teach an introductory course. You might not see immediate returns from these projects, but over time these types of activities tend to create opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
There is value in hoarding your time. On the other hand, it’s important to say “no”. “Hoarding” might be too strong a word here, but I definitely experienced benefits from learning when to say “no” to time sinks. Periodically, take a look at the way you allocate your time and prune any tasks you’re investing time into that don’t provide you enough value to justify the time spent. Additionally, protect your sleep time. Find which activities are non-negotiable to you, and plan around them accordingly. For me, these things were sleep (early to bed, early to rise), time to exercise daily, and a bit of time to work on a side project several times a week. With these non-negotiable things scheduled, I could fill in the rest of my schedule as opportunities came up.
- Take classes outside your normal “areas of interest”. This is a cliche, but some of the most valuable experiences were in courses that I took outside my major. I still remember (and regularly use) ideas that I got out of my microeconomics and ethics courses, despite them having no immediate applicability to my computer science major.
- Take classes that reward you for the time you put into them. Not all classes reward your time equally. There are some classes, especially those heavy on content memorization, that will consume a lot of your time, but aren’t especially valuable/fulfilling. On the other hand, project-based classes may or may not demand a lot of your time, but are valuable to the extent you put effort into them. Talk with peers to find out which classes reward the time you invest in them and plan your electives accordingly.
- Be wary of “easy” classes. Whenever it was time for people to plan their course schedule for the next semester, there’d invariably be a bunch of posts on my college’s subreddit about which “easy” courses they should take. I found that courses that have the reputation of being “easy” often were actually quite boring. Courses can be “easy” because they don’t make demands on you – and can be quite boring or mismanaged as a result. In contrast, some courses are “easy” (perceptually, at least) because you are engaged in the content you’re learning. If a course has a mass-perception of being “easy”, be hesitant.
- Take a balance of theoretical and applied courses. Understandably, there’s a spectrum of courses on the theoretical-to-applicable spectrum. Taking a semester of all theoretical or all applied courses can be frustrating. Too theoretical and you feel like you aren’t learning anything useful. Too applied and you feel like you’re learning things you could figure our on your own (or with internet resources). Personally, I did a lot of “applied” learning outside of school via working on side projects, so I counterbalanced this by having a slight preference for theoretical courses in my academic schedule. Your mileage may vary, but in conversations I’ve had with peers it seems fairly common to forget to consider this balance when selecting classes.
- Get involved in teaching a class. I was involved in teaching a couple of courses while in college. I had different levels of involvement – from being an insignificant course assistant to giving lectures and designing coursework. It’s a valuable experience to be on “the other side” of the student/teacher dynamic. If nothing else, you get an appreciation for the logistical challenges that go into teaching a large class (and you might be less likely to complain to a professor for “taking too long” to grade exams as a result). There are myriad other benefits to being involved with teaching a course: teaching really forces you to know the material, it’s a great way to practice leadership and organizational skills, you have opportunities to develop the muscle of public speaking, and you learn to deal with criticism (believe me: even if you’re doing a good job, you will be criticized).
Grading in college is weird. If you’re not planning on going to grad school, the common wisdom is that (above some fairly low threshold) “grades don’t matter”. Judging by my actions, I did not hold this view – in fact, I stressed about grades way more than necessary. So, this is a total “do as I say, not as I do”.
Should you study an extra few hours or put some more effort into a group project to improve your grade? Of course. Should you devote an unreasonable amount of time writing papers for a class with capricious grading policies? Probably not.
I believe that there is value in getting good grades, even in college, even when they don’t “mean anything”. Many internship applications request your GPA, getting research/TA positions is easier with a good GPA, etc. But, the point of diminishing returns for grades in college is much lower than in primary school. At a certain point, you’re just doing it for yourself. This can be a good thing: grades can be a good carrot/stick to keep you engaged in a course you otherwise would blow off. However, it’s good to develop a healthy relationship with grades, and really internalize that you are not your grades.
In high school and early in my college career, my GPA was a number to optimize. Later, I developed enough maturity to realize that the thing I should optimize for was understanding course material, not the grade itself. I still probably spent too much time stressing about grades than was necessary.
A Final Note
Going to college has a ton of cultural emotional expectation associated with it. High school students spend 1.5-2 years of their life devoted to getting into college: taking standardized tests, visiting their “reach” schools, bleeding their hearts into (what later read as cringey) personal essays, dismayal at getting rejected from their dream school(s), elation when they are accepted into a top program, budding tribalism when they wear their soon-to-be-college’s sweatshirt to “decision day”, etc. The college application/acceptance process was one of the most onerous, emotionally charged periods of my life; it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on an enemy.
Then, when you arrive at school, you’re inundated with people offering hyperbolic pronunciations like “these will be the most important 4 years of your life”, “the friendships you create here will be lifelong”, and how various people met their spouse at [YOUR SCHOOL]. It’s probably healthy to eschew much of these expectations.
But the reality of actually being in college is pretty great: you have an enormous amount of freedom. You have an opportunity to “start clean”, both academically and socially.
Learn what you like doing, do a couple of things that make you uncomfortable, develop your skills, and gain experience. Take everything as a learning experience, and you’ll have few regrets when you graduate.