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What Not To Do During College

October 1st, 2010

I spent a very long time on campus getting my two engineering degrees. As an undergrad I alternated classes with co-ops and internships, eventually finishing my last two semesters as a part time student. While working on my masters I had a full time job, got married, and two pint sized tornadoes named Woody and Teddy showed up.

Given my extended stay I had a lot of time to reflect on what I was doing. Here are a few things I learned.

Don't Assume the Rules are Absolute.

The summer before my last two semesters as an undergrad I was working full time at the company I would eventually get my first post college position at. We were busy, as usual, and they wanted me to keep working part time when the fall semester started. I had read in big bold letters in the student handbook that in order to graduate you had to be full time during your senior year.

However if you kept reading the student handbook there was fine print that seemed to indicate that rule was not absolute and under special circumstances you could get permission to go part time. I spent days agonizing about wither to go back to school full time or keep working. Eventually I worked up the courage to get an appointment to see the dean of engineering school. I had a very well rehearsed sob story to tell the dean but it was completely unnecessary. In five minutes I had my waiver to work part time as a senior. It probably helped that I took several of his classes and my boss was an ex-colleague of his.

The point is that it never hurts to ask or in some cases ask for forgiveness later. No rule is absolute. Note you still have to use common sense here. Academic misconduct is the road to nowhere.  

Don't Panic

My academic life before college was pretty structured. Unlike larger schools in bigger cities, in small town Wisconsin there really were not a lot of options for classes. In my high school you took the elective or you  took the study hall. I always took the elective.

Once I got to college I thought my life was still pretty structured, which was contrary to what everybody was telling me about how I was on my own and free and responsible for myself. Yeah me and the rest of the freshmen could go out and have fun without having to worry about sneaking back into the house without waking up the parents but we basically had a prescribed full time job with lots of hand-holders named TA and Prof. It wasn't until I got into my junior and senior year when I thought I was really on my own.

If I could send back one message through time to my high school self it would be don't panic.

Persistence Will Develop or It Won't

I had several friends during my early years of college that disappeared due to one reason or another. I can remember the exact moment when I decided that I was going to graduate. I had just cut down to University Avenue next to Lathrop Hall at about 5:00 pm in the afternoon during the late fall semester of 96. I was walking back from Helen C. White Library (now called College Library).

Normally, I really didn't hang out on that side of Campus unless I was drinking beer at the Union. That day I was picking up an article for a letters and science breadth course I was taking. As I was making the long walk back to the engineering campus I was thinking about all the looming engineering exams in the next few weeks. For the first time I wasn't worried about them. It was just another end of the semester crunch.

I had got to the point where no matter how much they poured on it didn't matter, I was there for the duration. Once you get to that point it inoculates you against most of the midterm and end of semester stress. Its still hard work but knowing you will finish makes the non academic metal part easier.

Don't Get the Wrong Job

Get a job. I am not advocating that its great to have a McJob while you are going to classes. When I had the funds available I never worked during the semester. I figured I would have decades to work later so when I could afford or loan it I didn't work at all while I was talking classes and I never regretted it.

However a relevant job during the summers or and couple extended internships half way through classes should be the third highest priority you have during those years (just behind staying alive and getting the diploma). In my book work experience trumps just about anything else you will have on your resume coming out of college.

In engineering there is no excuse not to have some real world experience by the time you are a senior. In fact I would say engineering undergrads are completely spoiled when it comes to this. We get well paid internships thrown at us every year during several on-campus job fairs. In many other disciplines you're considered lucky to get an unpaid material internship.

As an engineering undergrad if you suddenly find yourself about to graduate and you have never had a internship, co-op, or at least done some work in a hands-on student organization, do yourself a favor and stay on for the masters and make it a point to get some useful experience before the next degree is over.

Don't Spend All Your Time on the Engineering Campus

I remember looking over my class requirements as a second semester freshmen and groaning when I saw the required non-engineering breadth requirements. At that point I was completely committed to being a technology geek and I had no time for communications classes or ethnics studies. I put off those classes until my third year and through the first week of classes I really didn't want to be there.

When I finally signed up for a folklore class to meet the ethnic studies requirement by week two I was completely in to it. Half the class time was reading folklore stories (i.e. fiction) which is something I did in my spare time anyway. The class was probably the most writing intensive course I took as an undergrad but it wasn't "six hours a night in Wendt library intensive" like some of my weed-out engineering courses. I still remember the German speaking Amish storyteller they brought in for one of the classes talking about how his dad had "smuggled" a radio into their house so he could listen to classical music on public radio.

I have lots of memories from my engineering classes but they were more along the lines of illuminating, character building, or horrific. The letters and sciences courses were memorable in a more delightful sort of way.

Don't Think its Going to Stay Easy

I was a straight C student all the way through the 8th grade. My freshman year of high school something just clicked and school got way easier (that and I had a great math teacher named Mr. Caulkins who showed me how easy it could be). After that it was straight A's till I graduated in high school and looking back it didn't take a lot of extra effort outside of class time. I got high scores on all the standardized  test (SAT, ACT, even the ASVAB) and I really wasn't worried about if I was going to get into a decent college. I was mainly worried about how to pay for it. I remember going into college thinking it was going to be so easy. Even when the speaker at the Freshman "welcome to the engineering campus" lecture said over 60% of the people in the room would wash out I thought he was talking about everybody else, not me.

I was right for about two years. My first semester I got straight A's except for an AB in calc, which I convinced myself was just bad luck on one exam. I had the highest midterm score of over 250 students in my freshmen chem course (thanks Mrs. Schnurr). My second semester was about the same.

Then the second year started. At the end of the fall term I had my all time low GPA of 2.5. Moving out of the dorms and into an apartment was probably a contributing factor. What I didn't realize what was happening during the first year and a half was the equalization that was going on.

In all those freshmen classes there were people like me who were coasting along, ridding their "I am so smart s-m-r-t" egos from high school. At the same time other people were ramping up their effort and also a good percentage of the curve droppers were dropping out. By halfway through the sophomore year the effort required to get an A in a class roughly doubled.

That was the easy cut to make. Next up for me as an engineering student was the shift from competing with the general UW-Madison population to competing with just the other gear-heads as I started to take my advanced math and physics courses and intro engineering classes. During this time I dropped my first (and only) class of my college career after completely blowing a midterm. Again this was another doubling of the effort curve just to get the same grades.

By my junior year I was into taking the weed-out engineering courses. In my opinion those courses put the emphasis on piling on the work to see which bodies were still standing at the end of the semester rather than genuine learning. I would say at this point the level of effort went up by another factor of two just to keep even.

After that the required effort leveled off until I went back for my masters, which was another rough 1.5x increase. This probably had more to do with working a full time job while taking classes rather then the difficulty of the material. Either way by that time it didn't matter. I showed up, I finished the class regardless.

Anyway the point is that once you get into college plan on it getting harder if you are an engineering student. On the bright side the slope increase happens gradually over semesters so it is possible to adjust. Even if you think its unbearable the effort required is finite and well worth it. Also when you are at your lowest think back to your high school jobs where you were completely bored out of your mind. You can always go back to a job so you might as well make the most of the education while you are there.

Also know that at some point later in your life you are probably going to look back at your college years and lust after all the free time you had. This will probaly happen if you end up trying to change the world at a start up company or if a few toddlers show up in your life.