How to College: Advice, Mistakes, and Thoughts
I want to reflect on what worked for me during my first year. I also want to reflect on some of the things that surprised me and the mistakes I saw people made over and over again.
This essay works best as a guide, as something to read weekly, monthly, etc.
- Set Goals
This will determine where you go, who you talk to, and what you think every day. It’s scary to set goals and pick something (Is it, actually? I see you optionality). For example, I have daily, weekly, monthly, yearly goals, and so on. What are those? Daily: I write, read, and try to study every subject. Weekly: Weekly Reviews,Weekly Planning Sheet, Great Thoughts Friday.
Step by step. Other goals include finishing school or working on my startup/projects. Even wanting is enough for a goal. Most don’t decide what they want, so other people decide whether it’s your parents, your friends, or randomness.
Cal Newport interviewed the top students both academically and in extracurricular activities. This is a book to learn from other people’s mistakes.
I read it every week. I constantly iterate on my study and personal habits. That way, I accomplish my academic and personal goals. Academics aren’t that important, but if I’m able to “work smart,” I get more time to work on research, startups, and personal projects.
- College is a signal
College isn’t about learning.
I talked to Nir Eyal (best-selling author of Hooked and investor of Eventbrite, Kahoot, and others), and I asked him for advice on college.
He said, “Undergrad is about dedication and commitment to finish.” It’s not about learning. He then says, “It’s about signaling you can achieve something solid.”
A signal you can finish. A signal to employers you’re able to get through tedious work. A stupid signal.
Forget about your passion or calling, it’s about DISCIPLINE. And the discipline gets easier when you study a topic you’re curious about.
Why is college a signaling scheme? That’s how employers can filter who to hire. Horrible way to hire people but that’s more or less how the system works currently.
- Go to Office Hours
Go to office hours in the first week. “But I understand everything and don’t have questions.” IT DOESN’T MATTER. Go to meet the professor and learn how to do well in the class.
Go to office hours regularly. “But I’m a smartass and don’t need to go.” IT DOESN’T MATTER. You can do your homework as you can get help quickly and gain a deeper understanding. And, if you are genuinely curious, you can even build a nice relationship with the professor or TAs. We’re humans, and when they know you, they’ll grade less harshly. Sometimes, this makes the difference between a B and an A.
- Be a Determinate Optimist about your Future
Many of us are pessimistic about our future. Many of us are optimistic about our future, too.
Which is one, right? Well, that’s not a good question. Regardless of what you think of yourself as, most of us seem to be indeterminate about the future, meaning we know it’s going to be bad (pessimistic), or good (optimistic) but we don’t know how.
We should, instead, embrace determinate optimism where we think the future will be good and you work your hardest to make it good. How? You don’t go around trying to help other people. You help yourself by solving problems you have.
For example, college housing is expensive, and I can’t afford it. Of course, I’m optimistic. I could think someone else will solve it (indeterminate optimism). Or, I could try to solve it, helping myself, helping other college students, helping seniors, and helping the homeless.
But don’t confuse with being afraid to explore other things. We love optionality but being able to explore and to commit to start something and most importantly finish it!
If you’re ambitious, you’ll be doing a bunch of things anyway which will mean you will be working hard and you’ll be having a blast.
Determinate optimism is about wanting and making the future exciting and good. To do that, we work and build things, not just hope that it will be good.
- Ask a Question/Make a Comment in the First Lecture
Speaking up in the first class is scary. But speaking up in class 10 of week 2 is 100 times as scary.
The reason to do on the first day is to 1) lose the fear, and 2) gain momentum.
You’ll not be confident but you’ll get your questions/doubts answered.
But don’t be that annoying kid trying to outsmart the instructor or asking questions every second.
Delete social media and turn off notifications. It’s that simple.
About three years ago, I decided to make my phone work for me (and not me, for my phone) so I deleted social media apps, silenced all notifications, and it’s always black and white.
All with one goal: make my devices boring!
I want to be building things and working on projects. Not checking out the latest “breaking news,” or the latest “dope IG post.” I couldn’t care less.
Especially in college, I want to and need to be on the bottom of things, not on top of the latest gossip or news article. What I study engineering requires dedication and concentration.
Deleting social media means deleting the apps from your phone and logging out on your computer. Not necessarily deleting your account. Some social media is useful like Twitter.
- Change Your Phone to Black & White
I said it above but I need to reemphasize it. Make your devices as boring as possible. They’re designed to be as colorful and flashy as possible so you’re there all the time.
In Black & White, you’ll barely touch your phone.
- Be Friends with people in your class
When you’re friends with people in your class, you will perform better, and enjoy the class more.
It’s a tiny change with huge potential. How do you become friends with them? Say “Hi!” to the person next to you, ask for their name, and so on.
- Go Through These Two Templates Before Every Test
Check them out here.
- Think For Yourself, Independently of Others
A couple of things:
Know what you want: if you dismiss optionality, and figure out what you want, you’ll have a huge advantage. While others will be thinking about what’s a better option, you would already have explored and decided if it’s for you or not. If not, you’d be transitioning to others. If you know what you want, you’ll cut out the bullshit and get to where you want to go faster. I’m happy to help you with this question.
Be willing to be different and run your own race: if you know what you want, you’ll be running your own very different race. It may be scary because most people are following other people’s paths but get the courage to search, find, and follow your path.
Don’t be afraid to be alone: it’s crazy the things people do to not be alone. It’s better to be alone than badly accompanied. It’s better to be alone if you haven’t “found your people” yet. As Goethe said once, “Talents are best nurtured in solitude.”
- Don’t Be Afraid to not Do Drugs or Drink Alcohol
I won’t say whether you should do it or not. But if you can’t decide, the answer is probably “No.”
I don’t have a clear answer on this topic. I can’t make sense of it yet.
In college, everyone normalizes doing drugs and drinking alcohol. It’s the “cool” thing. It’s the “everyone does it” thing. But you don’t have to do these things.
Life is so precious. I don’t want to waste a single minute nor reduce my lifespan by putting poison in my body.
Some say I will regret it. But I don’t think so. The regretfulness, YOLO mentality is a consequence of our increasingly narcissistic society. There are some cases where you want to minimize your regrets such as asking that girl out or starting that company. But deciding whether to get “wasted” isn’t one of them. It’s not the same thing.
Don’t listen to me. Listen and think for yourself.
- Weekly Reviews
Think about your weekly review to reflect and learn from your mistakes every week.
The essay you’re reading right now would be perfect to add to your weekly reviews.
- Stay Away From People Who Look Like You
That’s not to say you should never be with people who may be similar or who come from a similar background.
But let me tell you something: we don’t even know if college is worth it anymore. Perhaps, the only value out of college is meeting and talking with people from all over the world. Or as a friend told me once, “College is cultural education.”
How sad would it be that you only talked to people who think and look the same as you? You create an echo chamber for you, your beliefs, and your perspective on the world.
Cultural and ethnic clubs? Yeah, they’re fine. But try to make friends in different ways. Your background and your past should not define who your present or much less your future.
Your ideas, aspirations, and ambitions are the new way to unite and connect people. Background, skin color, language? Those don’t matter anymore, and we should stop emphasizing them so much.
For instance, I’m Hispanic, and my community needs to adapt.
- Sleep Schedule
Everyone’s body and health are different but what I’ve found is that if you sleep earlier, you sleep less, and you have more energy.
In college, you’ll see many people go to sleep at 2 AM, 4 AM, and some, yeah they never sleep (“all-nighters”). They mess up their sleep schedule, their body clock, and become miserable.
I go to sleep before 10 PM. I wake up naturally (without an alarm) around 6 AM or 7 AM. I get more energy, I get more time and time to study, not zombie time at 2 AM where my mind and body are only thinking about sleeping.
You’ll see many people drinking coffee or energy drinks but if you’re able to take care of your sleeping schedule, you’ll never have to take any of that. At least, I haven’t nor ever want to.
This is a piece of boring and classic parent advice but one that works wonderfully. After all, they were right when they made us sleep before 9 PM in elementary school.
“But it’s hard to sleep enough with school, extracurriculars, etc.” Cut out social media, and you’ll have at least one more hour a day. Cut out movies and TV shows, and believe me you’ll have enough time to sleep.
- Decide on Your Major
This is a major stressor for college students. So stupid. 1) They force us to decide on something, and 2) No one tells you that what you choose kind of matters (more on that soon).
How did I choose my major? I didn’t want to come to college but my parents forced me to so:
I tried to find something I could only study and learn there,
I tried to find a field with demand in the workplace, and
I tried to find a major I found interesting.
I chose engineering, specifically systems engineering with a concentration in computer science. Why? I didn’t like the other engineering majors so I chose one that was broad and flexible.
People will never tell you but most majors don’t have a demand, which means no one will hire you because those jobs are nonexistent. Of course, you should never be based your decision on statistics. But it’s something to keep in mind because you’ll get loans, and whether you find a job or not, you’ll have to pay them.
To be honest, I didn’t put much thought into my major. I knew anything else besides engineering was ruled out. I sort of considered economics but I like engineering more. So I focused on the engineering majors, and because I didn’t like most of them. I chose the one I liked (or disliked less).
Regardless of what you choose, your life path is open, and you can decide and change the trajectory of your path at any moment. I love this graphic from Wait But Why because we spend so much thinking about the closed paths but barely think about the ones that are very much open, especially the future ones.
- Exercise Regularly
I exercise every morning from Monday to Friday. This habit will make you feel better, look better, and do better academically. Last week, someone asked me if I experienced, the “freshman 15,” and I was so clueless. When he explained what that was, I experienced the opposite and lost weight because I was exercising, sleeping, and minimizing my stress.
Many don’t exercise, eat, or sleep and are stressed as a pulled rubber band. It doesn’t have to be like this. You can break this cycle by never falling into it.
- Time Management
The best time management advice is simply to get your tasks done. But sometimes strategies can help. Here are some methods I’ve developed throughout the years:
- Breakdown of the 168 hour week, and how to allocate your time to things you care about or have to do.
- The strategy of how I break down my 168 hours with a weekly template.
- Laugh EVERYDAY
College life can be exhausting. Maybe you didn’t do well on a quiz, woke up late, or didn’t get to eat lunch, and on and on.
But don’t forget to laugh every day. Doing so will improve your days, your week, your year, and your time at college. Learning how to laugh and have fun even during times of stress is a superpower.
If you don’t find anything funny or have anything to laugh at 1) Laugh at yourself, or 2) Find a mirror, and start smiling.
- Fuck Clubs. Work on Projects.
Clubs are a waste of time. Everyone does them, which may be scary if you don’t. But think for yourself.
Clubs are meetings and meetings, and not doing much. People join them because “looks good” on their resume, and it’s simply what they’re supposed to do. But you know what, fuck this mentality. These are the same people who think the future will be good or bad but don’t know how. These are the same people who think everything is random and is not worth working hard because everything is luck.
Instead of joining a club, work on a project of your own. Have something you want to see in the world? Have a problem that annoys you?
Working on projects may be frightening because you may think you don’t know enough or you’re not qualified. My response? You’ll never know everything (learn while you’re doing), and remember you’ll always be unqualified for things you haven’t done.
“Recruiters want to see my involvement in my field, right?” Look, what would look better, a super cool app you developed solving a real problem or that you joined the club everyone joins on campus?
The answer is simple. The app you made. Why? It shows initiative and it shows you can get stuff done. Both, which will be more convincing to recruiters. That is if you ever want to get a job/internship but if you keep working on projects, you may not even need a job for the rest of your life.
There are exceptions. I can think of two. 1) Car clubs, where I’ve seen members work hard and do stuff. 2) Social clubs where the purpose is to meet people. 3) Fun clubs where the only purpose is to have fun and mess around.
Are there more? Probably.
Think for yourself.
- Seek Fun. Be intentional
If you’re thinking college is going to be like you see in the movies with wild parties and nonstop fun, you may be facing a different reality. If you’re not intentional about seeking fun, the fun won’t come to you. As simple as that.
In How to Win at College, Cal Newport said it best:
The key to avoiding this tedious fate is to actively plan unpredictability and adventure into your life. This may seem a little counterintuitive, but it works, and it's better than the alternative. Gather groups of friends to make a circuit of weekend room-parties, buy outfits for a themed frat party, take road trips with ill-defined directions, see movies at odd times, track down random area landmarks that are only rumored to exist, visit the local bars you have never been to, invite out new people, throw parties yourself, and best of all, perpetrate epic pranks. When unplanned adventure leaves your life, replace it with planned adventure. Seek out fun, and your college experience will be greatly enhanced.
- College Networking?
Remember these rules. 1) Fuck networking. 2) Remember rule #1.
There are way too many people who come to college for “networking.” Whatever that means.
What ends up happening is that not only are their interactions glib, but you can also feel that they’re trying to see how you can help them now, or if you seem “smart” how you can help them in the future.
You end up being fake, and a nasty self-interested narcissistic individual.
Find people you want to be friends with but who also want to be friends with you. That being said, don’t be afraid to be alone. Being alone is great because you get more time to learn more about your interests, and work on great projects.
For more extended thoughts on networking, read my networking essay.
- Create GroupMe groups in your classes
Take initiative and help each other learn together.
Sometimes people may misuse these chats so I’d recommend using an anonymous GroupMe account.
- Syllabus Week
Take Syllabus Week seriously. Remember the first week defines the semester.
Take time to read the syllabus and understand what you need to do to get good grades in your classes. Some classes may require a bunch of worthless assignments, and if you have to decide whether to study for a test or do a worthless assignment, studying for a test is a better option.
Use this template to gather the information from the syllabus and understand from top to bottom
- First Week Habits
The first week defines your semester. If you want to break bad habits, create new good habits, and overall reset your life. The first week of college is a perfect time.
Think about what habits you want to establish, and what habits will help you where you want to get to. Many of us don't lack time or "motivation." Many of us lack the lifestyle (habits) that yields productivity, deep work, and satisfaction (or whatever else you want).
Focus on creating this lifestyle the first week.
During the first week, I’m usually thinking about:
Writing/Reading every morning
Doing Assignments as soon as they’re assigned (procrastination)
Asking a question on the first day of the lecture
Saying “Hi” to new people
And the list goes on.
Create a lifestyle that yields what you desire.
- Do Assignments The Day They’re Assigned
Have you heard of procrastination? In college, it’s easier than ever to do so.
The best way to forget about procrastination is to do assignments right after they’re assigned. You don’t have to finish the whole thing but at least work for five minutes. That early start will crush the thought of even of starting, which is what most procrastinators struggle with.
But guess what? When you’re coming back to work on this, you’ve already started it, and know how much time it will take, and even the difficulty level. Instead of thinking, you make progress on the assignment, and you finish.
- Dress Well
If you’re dressing like you’re going to sleep. Guess what? You’ll brain will want to sleep and relax.
But if you dress well, you’re ready to tackle the day head-on. I practiced this in high school, but this is another one, Cal Newport described fantastically:
In How to Win at College, he writes:
Why bother dressing nicely for class? Two reasons. One, it makes you feel better about yourself. If you look good, you can imagine that cute guy or dimpled girl in the front row shooting some glances in your direction. This will make you happy. And when you are happy, you have more energy and pay attention better in class. Two, it makes the day official. When you look like you just rolled out of bed, it's all too easy to imagine rolling back in. If you dress nicely, you are sending yourself the message that you are ready to get started and attack the day.
- Asking For Advice & Learning From Other People’s Mistakes
College is the beginning of a period where you start to figure things out on your own. Therefore, you’ll want to know how to ask for advice and the meaning of good advice.
Good advice is context-specific. Your background, what you’ve done, what you like, what frustrates are things, formal advisors won’t understand. That’s not to say their advice is wrong, and it’s not just good enough.
Yet there’s a better alternative if you do get advice, ignore it. Understand their assumptions behind the advice (i.e. why they’re saying what they’re saying, and how they arrived at that conclusion).
Once you learn how to ask and get “good advice,” you can now start learning from other people’s mistakes.
How? Find older people who have been where you are. Sometimes, I call them Future Selves.
You can find them on LinkedIn (don’t be weird and superficial), clubs, as TAs in your classes, and anywhere on campus. Don’t be afraid to say “Hi,” and start asking them questions. If you’re genuinely curious about them, you’ll learn a ton, and most importantly learn from their mistakes so you don’t repeat them.
They’ll tell you things like what professors to avoid, what classes to take at a community college, how to do research, how to find an internship, etc.
Be grateful to them but don’t put them on a pedestal. Remember, take their advice, and ignore it. Then, understand the assumptions behind their advice.
I’m extremely careful because 1) no one can know what I want (only me), 2) I’ve found most people take fewer risks than I do. That is to say, they fear asking for what they want such as emailing a professor, or simply showing up at a professor’s office.
For the latter, I have a story. One day, I was walking around an engineering building, and I would think I would love to talk to these people and learn about what they do. I would read their nameplates, and look them up. If they seemed interesting enough, I would email them or stop by. Once, I found a professor working on a solar power startup. I emailed to ask him about his background and his company. He invited me to meet at his office, and since then I’ve learned a ton about his company, why he did what he did, and has been a huge influence on my major.
People want to help, especially those who are ambitious and genuinely curious. And if you know what you want and also know how to ask for it, you’ll be unstoppable.
- Take Cold Showers
If you take a hot shower in the morning, you’ll want to go to sleep. In the mornings, you want to be uncomfortable, and ready to tackle the day. I’ve been taking cold showers for years, and there’s nothing else that makes me as excited to start my day, especially in the winter.
If you take cold showers in the winter, you’ll be more used to the cold. Hence, have a better time.
- Make Your Bed
Listen, your parents turned out to be right. If you make your bed every morning, you’ll have a better day. PERIOD. But also it helps build momentum as you’re getting one thing as soon as you wake up.
It makes your room look nicer, organized, and clean.
Other People’s College Advice
Alexy Guzey’s 17-20: a Retrospective on Four Years in College.
Other essays I’ve written about college:
- How to Think for Yourself in College: an exploration of what it means to think for yourself in an environment that forces you to be like everyone else, to forget who you are, and question nothing.
- Am I Going to College? Yes. Should You Go to College? Maybe Not: thought process behind why and how I chose my major.
- The College Manifesto: Becoming a Successful Student: a plan for things I want to do or to keep in mind during college.
- “I Guess That’s What You Do When You’re in College.”: understanding why college students mimic others, and how to choose what to work on.
- How to College: Advice, Mistakes, and Thoughts: notes from study tips, how to choose a major, why you need f*** clubs, and work on projects.
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