College Advice

Recently I had a customer ask me for college advice as his son was a interested in a computer-related major.  I'm sure there are many better troves of such information online, but I thought I would post what I sent him in hopes that it may help someone else...

GPA really is that important
…especially in a technical field.  You may give up your social life for 4 years, but it will pay off when applying for your first few jobs out of school.  Come out of school with a good GPA, and you’ll have your choice of jobs and get paid more.  Get a poor GPA, and you’ll have to take what you can get.  Think of it this way: would you rather your doctor be a 4.0 student or a 2.5 student?

Don’t take a load you can’t handle
Employers care about GPA, they generally don’t care that you took a 31 credit hours in a single semester.  In fact, many hiring managers filter applications immediately by GPA.  You probably won’t even get the chance to explain that it’s low because you took a heavy load.

Don’t trust the generic adviser
Upon application and acceptance at a college, you will generally be set up with an appointment with someone to give you advice on which classes to sign up for.  Typically, this person works in the “counseling” office or something similar, and does that type of thing full time.  These people advise students pursuing degrees in many different areas, as such they may not be familiar with the nuances of your major of choice.

For example, when I started my Computer Science degree, I signed up for classes on the advice of one of these people.  Unfortunately for me, the adviser did not understand that there were two different “paths” within the Computer Science major.  One of the classes he advised me to take turned out to be in the path I did not choose.  As a result, I took a couple classes which I did not need (a significant waste of time & money).

Instead, ask to see a faculty adviser.  That is, a professor in the appropriate department for your major.  Note: this may be difficult if signing up for classes during the summer or last minute.  It pays to plan ahead.  If nothing else, try to get a short conversation with a professor the first week of school.  You can typically add/drop classes during that week without penalty.

Don’t rely completely on your faculty advisor
So you might be thinking, “wait, didn't you just tell me to use a faculty adviser?”  Yes, I did, and your faculty adviser is the best person to advise you.  That said, they advise many students in addition to their teaching responsibilities.  As such, they have limited time to look over your transcript, and think about the best plan for you in the next semester or two.

In my experience, it is best to get your transcript and the list of classes required for your major, put together a four semester plan, and then go see your adviser.  Nobody will look at it in detail as closely as you will.  You should have a plan before you go see your adviser and simply use that meeting to make any corrections necessary to your plan.  It is also a good idea to plan several semesters in advance (I suggest four).  Many smaller departments only offer certain classes once a year or even once every two years.  It’s important to know which of those you need and when they will be offered so that you have all your prerequisites out of the way.  After your first semester, you will meet with your faculty advisor before every semester, come prepared.

Also, build friendships with your professors when possible and win their respect by working hard in their classes and not goofing off.  A professor in your department can be a powerful ally.  A professor’s recommendation can go a long way in getting you an internship or first job.

Build your network
Contacts & especially friendships made in school will pay off your entire career.  Even if you’re an introvert, make the effort to build friendships with your classmates and keep in touch with them after school.  Most jobs are filled through a personal referral not a public job posting.  Often, even when a hiring manager posts a job publicly, he/she already has someone in mind based on a personal recommendation.

I had a family while in school and worked very hard for a good GPA, so I had little "spare time".  As a result, I passed up many opportunities to hang out with classmates.  I had heard the advice to build relationships in school, but I told myself that a good GPA would be all I needed.  Don't do this to yourself.  I wish now I had spent more time building relationships.  You end up with great professional contacts, but more importantly, you can end up with lifelong friends (with common interests).

Apply for all the financial aid you can
Every year, millions of dollars of financial aid go unclaimed simply because no one applied.  Apply for everything you can get your hands on and use student loans only when you've exhausted all other options.  There’s nothing worse than having the joy of a newly minted diploma overshadowed by the realization that you now have to pay back tens of thousands in student loan debt.

If you do need to take out student loans, try to get a subsidized loan.  This means that the government will pay the interest on the loan while you go to school and for 6 months after you graduate (You don’t pay anything until that time).

Look at the job market & pay scales before choosing a major
No, it’s not all about the money, but if you’re going to pour 4+ years of your life into getting a degree, make sure you can support a family with it.  You may not think of yourself as married with kids, but statistically, you probably will be.

Also, make sure the industry of your choice is thriving and has jobs available.  There nothing worse than looking for a job after graduation only to find that nobody is hiring.

Don’t major in Liberal Arts
Majoring in liberal arts tells employers that you essentially took 4 extra years of high school.  Some people will tell you otherwise, but, in my observation, many employers don’t see it as adding much value.

Don’t major in Business
I’m sure I’ll catch heat for this one, but for many students, majoring in business is code for “I couldn't decide what I wanted to do with my life.”  None of the business owners I know have a business degree; many of the near-minimum wage workers I know do.  If you must get a business degree, specialize in something.  Know what you want to do with your degree when you get done, and take classes that will set you apart for that particular career.

Pick a major early
Almost every college freshman I’ve met has not yet picked a major or is unsure of their choice.  That’s OK.  But, when I ask those people what classes they are taking, the most common response that I hear is “I’m just getting my basics out of the way”.  That is, taking general education classes which will (theoretically) apply to any degree they end up choosing.  The problem is that, in my experience, most students get done with general education classes and still have no idea what they want to do with their life.  And worse, usually they have taken classes that they don’t end up needing when they do choose a major.

I typically advise students in this situation to take a semester of classes from a variety of majors that interest them.  For example, before I started my bachelor’s degree, I took a semester at community college to try different majors.  I knew I wanted to work with computers so I asked a few professors which class in each major would give me a good taste of what a job in that field would be like.  I ended up taking a graphics class, a networking class, a programming class, and a video editing class.  All were enjoyable, but I knew immediately that I liked programming.  By the end of the semester, I liked it so well that I enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree program in Computer Science (and I still love what I do).

B.A. vs B.S.
That is Bachelor of Arts vs Bachelor of Science.  When I started my bachelor's degree, I didn't know there was such a distinction.  A B.S. will give you more math & science classes. If pursuing a degree in a technical field, consider going for the B.S.


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