Some thoughts on college education

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I wrote this answer on Quora today in response to the question “I’ve completed my freshman year of university with a 4.0 GPA, yet I feel something is missing. How do I make college the most fulfilling, enlightening experience possible?” You can read the answer on Quora here. Although I don’t mention it in my answer, the strategy outlined in my answer is essentially one I am taking now at the University of Washington. File this under one of my things I wish I knew earlier.

It’s hard to give advice given so little information, but I’ll take a shot. Unless you’re at a prestigious institution, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be enlightened by your courses (or your peers), especially during the first year (again there are exceptions: if you’re already taking advanced undergraduate or graduate level courses, then maybe this doesn’t apply to you).

Education is all about signalling, so most people shouldn’t really expect to get much out of it besides the diploma. See “The Present Value of a Sheepskin” by Bryan Caplan for more. Caplan has some other good posts that you might want to check out, including “How I Love Education”, “What Every High School Junior Should Know About Going to College”, and “Page One of My Next Book”.

Also unless you have some special reasons for doing so, getting a 4.0 GPA is likely to be a huge waste of time and effort. See Andrew J. Ho’s answer to What are the disadvantages of having a high GPA? for more.

One thing I would recommend is establishing an online presence (if you haven’t done so already). You might find Cognito Mentoring’s page on this topic helpful: Maintaining your online presence (disclosure: I’ve contributed to the page). Making a personal website can lead to some benefits in terms of networking and getting experience (with writing, setting up the site, etc.) which you might consider fulfilling. You will also want to take advantage of places like Quora and Facebook (see Using Facebook effectively; again, I’ve made edits to the page).

If you’re looking for the “liberal arts education” that many universities tout, you usually won’t find it at the university. You’ll find that instead by reading the right books and blogs, and talking to the right people (who will most likely be online). As Katja Grace says in “Advice to aspiring undergraduates” (intended for high school students, but still relevant):

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.

As for activities in university outside of courses (clubs, spending time with people, research), it’s hard to say. If you like research, you might find that fulfilling, but otherwise it might just be a waste of time (but not much harm trying it out at least). Clubs and socialization depend heavily on what sort of people you can come across. Again, unless you’re at an elite school it can be very difficult to find people who are worth interacting with for long periods of time. In that case, just look for people online.