This post is the first version of what I hope will serve a helpful guide for aspiring college students embarking on their college careers. If you like what you read or would like to hear more on a certain topic, I would like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
After an email from my high school college counselor asking for my perspective on engineering in college, I was inspired to write this guide for aspiring college students. I aim to cut through the noise surrounding college advice and reveal the most important factors to consider when navigating the college landscape. Here we go:
The Purpose of College
Despite what you may have heard, the point of college goes beyond philosophical self-reflection and partying. While all that must happen, the purpose lies in why you’re spending up to $60k+/year: to obtain a valuable degree. My advice embraces the idea of maximizing the post-graduation doors you can unlock with your degree and college experience. Fortunately, you don’t have to lose yourself in the process. Waltzing through college with a long-term strategy and an idea of where you’re going is empowering, fun, and achievable.
Choosing Your Major
I’ll start by saying this: you don’t need a degree in “X” to enter the “X” industry in most cases. In aerospace, for example, there are many paths to working at companies like Boeing or SpaceX. Many of their employees have backgrounds in electrical, software, and mechanical engineering. After all, airplanes and spacecraft require all types of engineers and programmers to build.
You should choose your major based on these factors:
- Your Interests. Obvious, but this is important because natural curiosity helps you cope with the work. What if you’re not passionate about something? That may not be as big a deal as you think. Often, passion is not inherent but rather the product of repeated success or enjoyment in a particular course of action. Be open but dedicated to developing interest, and take advantage of the first year to explore major options if necessary.
- The Lifestyle Enabled By That Degree. Although you craft your own life journey, many graduates of a certain major will have common experiences in their post-college lives. Some of these include: level of exposure to public, amount of work hours/week, degree of spur-of-the-moment decisions, level of wealth, amount of travel, etc. Understand what your professional life would entail, but don’t rule out the inevitability that you will grow as a person the more you escape your comfort zone in college.
- The Economic Value of the Degree. College is an INVESTMENT. Like any investment, you spend money today for a greater return in the future. Too many people in our generation are making major decisions while ignoring this important idea, only to find themselves wallowing under crushing debt and few employment opportunities. The market for college tuition is experiencing a bubble, and we are facing an economic environment where uninformed decisions like pursuing worthless degrees can have grave consequences. Majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) maximizes your chances for return on investment, but there are some viable options beyond STEM. Don’t treat your decision lightly. Whatever you choose, know what to expect.
Here are some increasingly typical stories as the college tuition bubble inflates:
- Low-Paid Grads On Tight Budgets Switching to Discounters
- Wealth or Waste? Rethinking the Value of a Business Major
- The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps
- A Graduate Student With $88,000 in Student Loans Speaks Out About College Debt
- How Debt Can Destroy a Budding Relationship
If you want to go beyond what 99.9% of college applicants are doing, you can do the following:
- Develop a sense of the type of companies for whom you’d like to work.
- Contact your target schools’ career centers inquiring about employment statistics for their senior class. Many career centers keep statistics on percentage of students employed upon graduation and companies that recruit the most on campus. You can use this information to guide your application decisions, but don’t let it be the deciding factor.
- Read entry-level job descriptions on company careers sites to get a sense of the type of people your ideal companies seek. But beware, if you find yourself bored reading the descriptions, know that HR people are notoriously bad at writing them.
Choosing Your College
Of course, try to get into the best college you can, but know that admittance is not an end-all. All college enables is the opportunity to take advantage of a university’s resources. How you apply yourself and use those resources count more than the college from which you graduated. That said, a degree from MIT does have more inherent appeal than a degree from a state college holding all else equal, but things are rarely equal with so many factors in play. This guide aims to help you understand how to make those factors work for you.
I won’t elaborate fully on the process of researching schools because many other guides do so. I will say that, in my opinion, the top three criteria are: 1) post-graduation opportunities for you, 2) active student life (e.g. large number of clubs and organizations, presence of student union), 3) availability of financial help.
Given the economic climate, college is more difficult to afford than ever before. However, do not preemptively shut yourself off from applying to your top schools because you think money will be an issue. Financial assistance like scholarships and awards are more plentiful than you think, and many schools try to lessen the burden for incoming students. Taking it a step further, you can do like Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich and try to win $100,000+ in college scholarships.
The Top Three Factors to Maximize Opportunity
In order of importance, employers evaluate college students for entry-level employment based on: 1) amount and rigor of technical experience, 2) academic performance, 3) leadership experiences. What this means: in addition to performing as well as you can academically, you must pursue opportunities in college that allow you to start building technical experience as early as possible. In addition to the usual class projects, this can happen through: engineering clubs and organizations, undergraduate research opportunities, summer internships, and co-ops.
Very important point: these technical experiences do not have to be within your chosen major. Employers don’t necessarily expect students with highly specialized knowledge, rather just a demonstration that they can carry out technical work well. This most commonly happens with internship experience. Similarly, graduate schools want to see you can research successfully, the topic of research aside. However, if you find yourself delving deeply into something specific out of passion, that is definitely great!
As for research opportunities, start talking to professors about what they’re working on and that you’re looking to get involved with research. Many professors are always looking for help. If you can’t find anything, you’re not looking hard enough.
Opportunities vary based on college, so definitely dedicate time to explore what’s available your first week. You can even be proactive by exploring the online club directory at your school before setting foot on campus. Either way, don’t miss your school’s activities fair! If there is a national competition that interests you, perhaps one of NASA’s student design competitions, consider starting a club or banding together classmates to compete. That entails leadership and technical experience!
Leadership experiences, even if not within a technical club or organization, are still valuable because they reflect your ability to work with, manage, and inspire people. Employers desire people with a high level of interpersonal skills, and the best way they infer this before your first interview is through your leadership experience. Valuable opportunities include: starting and leading a club, being President or a high position within a club/organization, being a recognized leader in your fraternity/sorority, leading a research/engineering group, and so on.
Once you decide to stick with an extracurricular pursuit, you should strive to reach a level of involvement where you have a measurable and tangible impact, ideally coupled with a formal title like President or Engineering Lead. This is important because you want to use metrics when representing your experiences on your resume (e.g. grew club membership by 50%, raised $10,000 to support two engineering projects for club of 20 students, published two papers for journals with readership of 5,000 biologists).
Building Relationships on Campus: Your Future Network
Many students don’t fully realize that their college peers will become their colleagues post-graduation. In many cases, some will even become your co-workers. Getting to know your peers positively, ideally as friends, will pay dividends in the future. I’m not condoning that you become a slick-haired, business-card-shoving “networker,” but do be open to meeting new people. Sharing ideas and inspiring/becoming inspired by your peers is a beautiful thing! After you graduate, your college relationships turn into connections for your personal network, giving you more leverage when trying to accomplish goals like entering new companies, starting a business, or anything else you can imagine.
The same goes for professors and advisors. Get to know them (either though seeking advice, doing research for them, or casually visiting during office hours for homework help), and they can serve as great guides. Just don’t be grubby. Desperation universally turns people off.
Preserving Mental Health: Become a Relaxed Rockstar
I know I elaborated on many points. You may feel some pressure to “do all the right things,” perhaps all at the same time. College is rife with opportunity, and it is easy to let yourself go and become overwhelmed with work and overextended with expectations from others. This is a common trap many college students fall into, and I would like to remind you: quality of experience >> quantity of experience.
To reference one of my favorite thinkers on student achievement, Cal Newport, his ideal student is the Zen Valedictorian, the relaxed rockstar who purposely underschedules his time, strives to be interesting but not widely accomplished, and focuses on a small number of areas to become outstanding in them. Take some time to explore Cal’s blog on student achievement, Study Hacks. I highly recommend it as he outlines specific strategies and techniques for making the most out of the student experience.