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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Went to College

Gabriel is a guest speaker for the SPARK program at ABLE. He has a bachelor’s degree in applied math from UCLA and he currently works as a market researcher. He is passionate about data science, machine learning, AI, language learning, consciousness and music. Last month during our SPARK monthly group meeting, he shared what he wish he knew before he went to college.

1. You will never be the smartest person in the room

In high school, I was above average. In college, I was average. After you go to college, you will constantly find people that are more intelligent than you are. For example, some students can play three games of chess in their heads, or solve calculus problems mentally without writing anything down. I remember I was in a guest lecture and a student walked into the lecture, answered a question posed by the professor, then walked out of the room. You might feel discouraged and defeated, that’s why it’s important to pursue what you really enjoy. So please don’t compete with other people. Compete with yourself.

2. How difficult exams would be & how vastly different the grading scale would be compared to high school

In STEM classes, it’s possible that you might get 40 out of 100 on a midterm. But now, 40 is the new A, 30 is the new B, 20 is the new C. This was the grading scale used by one of my professors.

3. The jump in difficulty from high school to university

There is a huge gap between how you learned in high school and how you are going to learn in college. In high school, your teachers help you study for exams or provide study guides. In college, you have to figure out how to prepare for yourself. High school encourages rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. But in college, if you don’t know how to think critically about what you are learning, you might get a lower score. You have to be mentally prepared so you won’t freak out. For example, while I was preparing for an exam for my Econ class, I took one example from the lecture and had to consider all possible examples that my professor didn’t go over and weren’t in the textbook.

4. All nighters are not worth it and you should avoid cramming

Sleep is essential for us to learn effectively and do well in college. Cramming while pulling an all nighter can quickly lead to burnout or a lower grade in a class.

5. Don't take too many classes in freshman year

You have to evaluate the difficulty of your classes, adjust to the new environment and start building new routines. I wish I narrowed my focus and learned how to prioritize during my first year.

6. How to deal with a class with a professor who doesn’t know how to teach

Some professors are good researchers but they are not good teachers. In that case, you should seek out other resources that could explain things better. You can also talk to the TA. You have to be more proactive when you need help.

7. You should be aware of how you might change during the four years of college

As you go through college, you will discover more about yourself. You need to notice the dynamic nature of self-discovery. One lecture from a good professor might influence you to change your major.

8. Engage with your coursework every day

This will look differently for different subjects. For example, in STEM classes, you will have to read your professors’ lecture notes and the textbook, and solve problems regularly. You can’t just do this in the first week and stop. If you want to excel, this has to be a continuous process. It takes self-discipline to form this habit. You also need to have your questions ready before class. Don’t assume it’s not important.

9. Go to as many office hours as you can

Office hours are where you can build connections with your professor, get hints on challenging homework problems, or simply ask questions that could lead to an interesting conversation. For example, by going to office hours, you might discover a new undergraduate research opportunity. Going to office hours regularly will improve your grades and help you get letters of recommendation.

10. If you’re unsure about your major, you can consider interdisciplinary majors

For example, if you’re stuck between biology and statistics, you could try majoring in biostatistics. And if you’re interested in a third subject, you could possibly add that as a minor.

At the end of his presentation, Gabriel said that he hopes everyone can enjoy their lives while being on the lookout for ways of thinking that can change the way they see the world, such as complexity science and effective altruism. He encouraged our SPARK students to continue developing authentic hobbies, and discover more about themselves through what they love in the world, such as people, technology, science, music, concepts, and cultures.

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