Jonathan Lam

EE/CS @ The Cooper Union


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Advice for college freshmen

On 10/2/2021, 1:53:54 AM

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I've had the opportunity to tutor for the various CS-related courses. Unsurprisingly, the tutees overwhelmingly come from the intro-level programming class for non-engineers. This is my primary point of contact with underclassmen, and even if it isn't necessarily a representative group, it is enough to hear secondhand about the drama of freshman year (and, to some degree, relive it in the memory).

At this point in the school year (a month since classes started) the academic existential dread has begun to set in. I've heard multiple accounts of "why did I choose my major," or, more generally, "why did I choose engineering?" And I've heard the horror stories of the uncooperative roommate, the slave-driving professor, the bell-curving professor, the textbook-reading professor, the black-hole-email professor, the confidently-wrong project partner, the constant one-deadline-too-many, and so on. And I will say two things about it:

I was asked earlier this evening about general advice for a freshman, and I was (embarrassingly) caught off-guard by the question. I have decided to collect my thoughts, stemming from that conversation, into this blog post.

In no particular order, here are a few points that come to mind (at two in the morning, so this list is probably incomplete):

In a way, a lot of this may sound like becoming a teacher's pet -- these are things only the "goody-goody" students would do in actuality, and nobody really needs to do in practice. But as much as I felt that some of these were superficial in earlier years, not participating in these activities has bitten me in the butt and I've come to realize how much richer the academic experience is when you engage in an active discussion with peers and professors. Of course, I have not gotten great at practicing these skills (or many others -- notice that time management and prioritization are not on this list, because I am very bad at them and cannot speak to their efficacy). It's a lot easier said than done, and any number of things (traffic making you late to class; loud construction making it hard to sleep; following COVID restrictions and guidelines; contracting COVID; etc.) may throw off your ability to do a number of them.

Notice also that grades do not fall on this list. Grades are important (especially for graduate school) but they should not be the driving factor. You do not want to force yourself into the seat of teacher's pet to entice them to giving you a better grade (or any other form of devious and hopefully-not-illegal means of improving your grade); but following these practices should generally correlate with higher grades and a better relationship with the professor. If you really do care about grades (as they are a great stressor, and good grades would ease your state of mind), then I have two auxiliary recommendations towards this goal:

As a final disclaimer, this advice is mine alone and not backed off of any research and may not be representative of all high schools or colleges. I have not consulted other people's advice on the matter -- this is simply a 2AM blog post off the top of my head, and this may either be redundant or contradictory to the common advice. But I hope that this is good general advice for the engineering college freshmen who is worried about being able to continue in their major, and more generally for all engineering college freshmen.


Footnotes

1. I get most of my quotes from Typeracer.

2. I don't have a reference for this, but I've definitely heard someone say it.

3. I argue that there are stupid questions. But seemingly-stupid questions may lead you to interesting places and not actually be stupid. Here I am referring to questions where you are intentionally not attempting to think about a question before it is asked. In an academic context, it is useful to try to answer questions on one's own before posing openly, both to reduce load on the lecturer but also to improve one's reasoning skills.

4. I hope to write an entire blog post about this, and in particular about my experience as an intern this summer. It is still a post stub at the time of writing.


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