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Advice for College Students (Part 1)

January 31, 2020
college courses are not croissants

Last semester, I spent time with some first-years who, upon learning that I was a senior, asked me if I had any accumulated “wisdom” to share. At first I found this funny, but I’ve nevertheless reflected on the question and decided to record my thoughts.

The items are arranged roughly in order of importance. Thus, this article has more high-level, philosophical sort of advice, some of which might seem obvious. You might want to jump right to part 2 if you’re interested in more specifics.

Prioritize Learning Before Grades

Unless you study outside the U.S., college is an enormous expense. It might not be worth it if all you’re getting out of it is a diploma. Yes, there are some schools and fields where degrees carry a lot of economic value. However, if you’re studying something like literature at a mid-tier university or if you want to go into a field where a degree isn’t required, you should primarily be in college because you love learning and want to grow as a person. If you succeed in this, college will be worth it.

I experienced High School mostly as an ordeal I had to get through so that I could go to a good college. Yes, a few classes, particularly in Art and English, impacted me in a deeper way, but many contributed to my personal and intellectual development about as much as the SATs. I checked my grades at least once a day, and on a few occasions I convinced my parents to let me stay home from school to have more time to study for tests. This approach is the exact opposite of what you should do in college. Unless you’re planning to go to Law/Med School, college is not a means to end. It is a rare opportunity in life to spend several years working with the end-goal of improving yourself: take advantage of it. The letters on your transcript are of secondary importance.

Understand that the optimal strategies for maximizing grades are not necessarily the most effective for learning. For instance, when I was a TA in 2D Game Engines, a lot of students would turn in projects that were not very polished or engaging as games1 but which technically met all the requirements for an A. They were acting completely rationally from the perspective of someone trying to optimize grades: any extra time spent on sprite animation or level generation could have been used studying for midterms. However, the students who “irrationally” chose to put in the extra work came out of the class knowing how to make great games that they could proudly include in a portfolio.

Some people will try to take easy classes because they’re protective of their GPA. My school tries to deter this by giving students the option to take any class pass/fail, which I think is a great idea. But even if your school makes you take every class for a grade, you should still not take classes just because they will be easy. This is not only a bad way to learn, but it might not even work: sometimes the hard classes aren’t what you would expect. For instance, I took Moral Philosophy because the subject interested me, but I didn’t imagine that it would be very hard. However, I didn’t do as well as I expected, partly because I still had a little of this guy in me.

If you take classes below your level and forget everything after tests, you might be able to leave college with a 4.0 GPA while having learned very little, but you would only be cheating yourself.

Go to class and do the readings

This should be obvious, but it’s important enough to be worth emphasizing.

Yes, there might be a few courses that you can pass without attending lectures. Many of my classmates in Software Engineering skipped class because the content wasn’t needed to complete assignments, which constituted almost the entire course grade. However, it was mostly the students who continued going to the lectures throughout the semester who stayed in Computer Science and would go on to become TAs.

Besides the direct value of course content, the routine of going to class is incredibly valuable: it motivates you to do the work you need, and it gives you feedback on how well you’re understanding the material. If you skip classes, you will end up sleeping during the day and just generally being dysfunctional.

Some classes might record lectures. Do not use this as an excuse to skip class: anytime you tell yourself that you’ll watch the lecture capture, there’s a high chance that you won’t.

Do the readings that your professors assign: they are the main homework in humanities classes. Skipping a reading is like deciding not to hand in a problem-set or a coding project. Also, understand that “reading” a text is not the same as “looking at it.” Even if your eyes passed over some words, your brain may not have learned anything. This will become clear on the occasions that you have to read something like this:

When we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, the notion of what the work cannot say becomes important. In the semioses of the social text, elaborations of insurgency stand in the place of ‘the utterance’. The sender – ‘the peasant’ – is marked only as a pointer to an irretrievable consciousness. As for the receiver, we must ask who is ‘the real receiver’ of an ‘insurgency’? The historian, transforming ‘insurgency’ into ‘text for knowledge’, is only one ‘receiver’ of any collectively intended social act. 2

Sit in the front row

If you’re too intimidated to sit in the front row, sit in the second row. Professors will remember and judge you better if you sit closer to them. I had one class where I sat in the seat directly in front of the professor, and as a consequence, he would individually greet me when I entered the classroom of 40+ people.

Besides making a good impression, sitting in the front will make it easier for you to ask questions, both because you’ll have an easier time making yourself heard, and you’ll start to find the professor less intimidating.

In the front, you’ll also be less tempted to look at your phone or stare into space. You will also have an extra incentive to go to class, because your absence will be noticed.

Speak in class

Speaking in class can be intimidating. Nevertheless, learning to speak elegantly in front of a group of smart people is an important skill, and college is one of the best places to learn it. This is one of the reasons why you should do the readings: you’ll won’t feel confident speaking in class if you’re behind.

If you identify a class where you have trouble contributing, be sure to take advantage of times when the class shifts to a topic you know more about. For instance, I had a lot of trouble following the math-heavy lectures in my Computer Graphics class, so I made sure to answer the professor’s questions when we talked about art history.

Put away the laptop

I like computers. I spend most of my time in front of one. I’m even part of the small minority that reads ebooks more than paper books. Nevertheless, I recommend putting away your laptop in class.

Some professors will say that they don’t mind laptops, but virtually none prefer that you use one. Taking notes by hand will give a better impression, if for no other reason than that it’s certain that you’re not using Facebook in class. (If you do use Facebook in class, spend some time thinking about why you’re in that class—or in college generally.) If you take notes by hand, you’ll be less distracted and you’ll feel closer to your professor due to not having a barrier in front of you.

A lot of people like to use laptops because they think they can take more detailed notes. This is probably less important than you think. The main benefit of note-taking is that it helps you pay attention and remember what you learned: you’re more likely to remember something that you wrote down by hand, even if you never review your notes. There’s probably something better to review than your own notes anyway: a textbook, lecture slides, notes you get from a classmate, etc.

Even if you’re the type of person who gets a lot out of typed-up notes and doesn’t get distracted by a laptop, screens have a captivating effect that can distract other people in class. 3

And one last minor note: your college notes can be an opportunity to improve your handwriting. I started college with awful handwriting that I hated: now I regularly get compliments on it.

Continue working on fun stuff

When you’re in college, you’ll almost always have schoolwork that you “should” be doing. (If you don’t, you should probably be taking more advanced classes.) This can sometimes make you feel as if you can’t justify putting effort into things besides schoolwork. After all, how can you read a book for pleasure when you have three other books to read for your classes? How can you spend time learning to make a website when you have a project due this week?

Resist this type of thinking. As much as it might feel like it, you almost certainly don’t spend every free minute on your schoolwork, and any time you “save” by not reading a novel is more likely to be wasted scrolling through internet feeds.

Formal education is kind of a weird way to learn. It’s super useful, but the way that people naturally learn is by exploring, playing around, and trying new things. You should continue doing this even as you’re in a formal learning environment: you will learn twice as much. I learned JavaScript while I “should” have been working on Syntax homework, I learned LaTeX while I “should” have been writing papers, and I wrote about half of my blog posts while I was procrastinating on another task.

Incidentally, this also goes for social relationships. When I’ve turned down invitations because I “have work to do,” I’ve almost never accomplished whatever it is I wanted to do in the time I gained. In fact, I’ve probably lost more time wallowing in loneliness than I’ve ever saved from not being around other people.

In fact, even if you really did have to make academic sacrifices for your social life, that’s usually going to be worth it. No one on their deathbed wishes that they had spent more time studying and less time with friends and family.

I realize that there are some people who need to hear the opposite advice: the type who see college primarily as a way to meet attractive people their own age. However, I somehow doubt that many of those people read blogs hosted on gitlab.io.

Take “artisan” classes

Artisan classes are those that are designed and taught by a single professor. These tend to be more niche subjects in which the professor is a passionate expert. It’s a very good sign if the course contains information that the professor personally discovered, invented, or theorized: there’s likely no better way you could learn that specific material. Sometimes, it will be slanted towards the professor’s particular views on a subject. For instance, my syntax professor spent a lot of time on Categorial Grammar, which is not the most mainstream theory. However, it’s better to get great coverage of one viewpoint than poor coverage of many.

Avoid “mass-produced” classes. These are ones that have many sections, are offered every semester, and have large class sizes. They are less likely to have you do meaningful work, as the grading burden will be huge. They are often taught by adjuncts or grad students who would rather be doing something else. The less your teacher cares, the less value you get from taking a class rather than just reading about the subject on your own.

(To be clear: Grad students can be great teachers—my first two French classes were both taught by grad students, and they were both excellent. But those were small, highly intimidate classes, not the type I’m talking about here.)

You might need to take this sort of class as a requirement for your major or a pre-requisite for other courses you’d like to take: that’s why so many people need to take them. I recommend that you see if you can have the requirement waived or replaced by a different class. You might be surprised, and there’s no harm in asking.

A “real” croissant rolled by hand will cost more than one molded from frozen dough in a factory. But college courses are not croissants: you generally pay the same for a lovingly-crafted seminar as for a detached, uninspired lecture.

Continue to Part 2


  1. To be clear, a lackluster project didn’t necessarily mean that a student wasn’t learning. Some students had less experience programming and had to put in a lot of effort to meet the minimum requirements: they also learned a lot, just different things from the more experienced programmers.

  2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak

  3. Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” Computers & Education 62 (2013) p. 24-31