Advice to aspiring undergraduates

Katla ungratefully believes her undergraduate studies could have been better, and that those of many of her acquaintances could too. Even without them being something other than undergraduate studies. She demands I let her warn future students. Here is her advice.


Consider far away universities. The task of choosing may be significantly more difficult if you open up the competition to places not in your home state, but it will probably be worth it.

There is no particular reason the best university will be in your city or nation, but it seems many people use such borders as the bound for what to consider.

Don’t worry much about where your friends are going. If you are normal enough to have friends by the time you are leaving for college they are probably easily replaceable. Your brain probably says they are not, but it is lying. That’s how friendship works. It is harder to replace your family, but families don’t seem to be that easy to lose track of even when people devote a lot of attention to it.

If you are moving away from everyone you know, this is a good time to review your personality.

Don’t use the apparent altruism of a course or degree as a strong sign of its usefulness for the world. Apparently altruistic courses are the ones  concerned with climate change or poverty or species extinctions or social stigma or genocide or so on. Many people are apparently altruistic as an excuse for not doing difficult courses, and the coursework will be designed accordingly. Part of designing coursework for people who aren’t up to difficult courses is understanding that they do not need tools for solving important problems in the world, but rather for getting a job at all.

Also, courses about problems such as climate change or third world development naturally will not include much material on how to solve these problems, as they have not been solved. Instead you and your ‘altruistic’ acquaintances will probably have to discuss how to solve them yourselves, or if your teacher recognises that you are not up to this, to learn to describe how difficult and complex they are. On the upside, solving the problems will be easy because you are probably too ignorant to constrain them much. On the downside, your solutions will not improve the world.

If you have some particular ambition, for instance to be a lawyer, find a lawyer or several and see what they are actually doing and if it is at all related to your imaginary career. Ask them what kinds of experience or degrees or talents will be useful rather than listening solely to the advice of people who are not successful at anything remotely similar to what you want to do, such as probably your teachers and parents. Hardly anyone seems to do this, so maybe there is some large downside Katja is missing, but then wouldn’t someone have mentioned it in the comments?

Ask a prospective university to put you in contact with students who study what you are considering studying. Ask them what they do, what they enjoy and loathe, and what particular second thoughts they are having about the whole thing.

How prestigious a university you go to matters a lot for many things. If you have any ambitions about things that fit this category, or think you might one day, don’t go for a less prestigious one because it’s closer to your mother’s cooking or has a better bar. This is common knowledge, but surprisingly not among high school students in many places.

Course descriptions tend to describe courses in the most optimistic light possible, or even more optimistically. If you are just starting university, your interpretation of course descriptions will probably add further shades of optimism. Try to imagine the worst course that could be semi-plausibly described in a given way. The real course is probably somewhere in the middle.

The fact that everyone else is partying hard every night probably doesn’t mean that doing so is much healthier than you thought. Some of your friends will be noticeably worse for wear by the end.

In case you actually want to learn things, it is not clear whether university will help or hinder this on average. There seems to be a lot of variation between people. If you are unsure whether having someone talk at you for hours at a time while you struggle to write down what they said ten seconds previously helps you learn, sit in on some lectures before you sign up. Doing so is usually free.

If you are ambitious and/or idealistic, and like being so, realise that university seems to often destroy these characteristics. Or perhaps that’s just the adult world. Anyway, be wary of accidentally picking up the impression that ambition and idealism are arrogant naivete inappropriate to the subjective, intellectually impenetrable real world, in which a person as small as yourself should be eternally grateful if someone finds them worthy of pushing papers. Unless you see good evidence for it of course, or would find it useful for enjoying your career in paper pushing.

6 responses to “Advice to aspiring undergraduates

  1. Oh Katja, you’re lovely. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Good advice. I’d put a little stronger emphasis on choosing to attend a status brand school, the best you can get into. It speaks volumes — superficial or not. People pay attention.

    • Mitchell Porter

      What matters is quality, not status. As it happens, status does sometimes correlate with quality. But if you’re choosing university on the basis of status, you shouldn’t even be attending it.

    • SOME people pay attention. I hire software engineers. There are maybe a dozen schools in the world whose names would catch my eye when placed next to a Computer Science degree, the rest are interchangeable. In fact I’m more interested in the resumes without a CS degree, and since I have no idea what the prestigious universities are in Chemistry, or Aviation, or Hotel Management (real degrees of people I work with), 100% of them are interchangeable.

      I would quibble with the assertion that your friends are easily replaceable. This is true for most people, but not all. If you’re an introvert or on the Autism Spectrum, consider very carefully before abandoning your established social circle.

  3. @katja: great post, especially loved the altruism part. many social/environmental scientists are experts on how things does not work…….cause those problems have not yet been solved. hahaha.

    @noah: as an introvert i can tell my experience. when i left home for college i created an “extrovert shell” for myself. since nobody have met me before in the new town, i easily reinvented myself as a joke-teller, drink buddy, easygoing guy. only my exes have noticed how an introvert i am when I’m not in a party with 20 people, but just with one girl. anyway, not much trouble after all. still good advice to leave your high school friends. and this sentence MUST be on a t-shirt: “Your brain probably says they are not, but it is lying”

  4. I’ve had thoughts more than once about whether we’re matching people to careers in any kind of optimal way:


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