Advice for a first-year college student
Thoughts on academics, comparison, and careers from an alumnus
This is the talk I wish someone had given me before my freshman year.
Yes, the year I entered MIT, 1970, is figuratively a million years ago. But everything statistical in this column is an indisputable fact.
You have been the best student in every academic class since kindergarten. At the very least, you were in the top 1%. I am going to tell you something you could easily figure out but aren’t motivated to think about because you don’t think it applies to you. It does. Even though MIT stopped publishing class rankings shortly before I arrived, you’ll have a pretty good sense of where you stand relative to your peers.
If you go to a private university with a cohort of 1,100 students, the odds are one in 1,100 that you will be the top student in your class. There’s about a 10% chance that you will be in the top 1%. It’s a simple statistical fact. If your very identity is based on your being the best student (as mine was), you are in for a rude awakening. You have been a big fish in a small pond. You are now a small fish in a big pond.
This is likely to generate anxiety and perhaps even depression. You can and should seek help if you need to. Yes, you can motor through mild anxiety and depression by yourself or with the help of your friends. But they are not trained mental health professionals, and if either your anxiety or depression is severe, get free help from a counselor.
Here are several things I was told that made my MIT education go better and might smooth your college journey:
“Statistically, someone has to be in the bottom percentile.”
“We wouldn’t have admitted you if you couldn’t do the work. You can do the work.”
“Do you know what they call the person who came in last in their class in medical school? Doctor.”
This does not mean you should not work hard and strive for the best grades possible. You should. You will be amply rewarded if you graduate, no matter what your GPA. Admittedly, I never worked in science or engineering, where the situation is different, but I was never asked for my transcript until I applied to be a teacher. (Turns out you need a C average to be a teacher in California. I just made it.) Still, except for my job teaching eighth grade U.S. history, every job I ever had stemmed from the fact that I graduated from MIT.
While we’re on the subject of jobs…
If you’re lucky, you’ll find your passion in college (or even earlier if you are really lucky). Your parents are good people and probably will support your career choice, no matter what your passion is — I hope.
I am a first-generation “passion” job holder. My father literally woke up every day of his adult life hating his job. I literally woke up every day of my adult life anxious to start work because I loved my job.
Some parents will object if you pick a career in art, music, show business, or some other low-status career field (hopefully not your parents). My parents were concerned I’d never make any money as a journalist. Turns out my earnings peaked in 2000 at $100,000 a year, which was big money back then.
Don’t pick a career based on how much money you can make. Weird Al to the contrary notwithstanding, money can’t even rent happiness. Do work you love, and you’ll be happy your whole life.
In conclusion, let me say that my four years at the ’tute would have gone better had someone told me this all at once before I arrived, rather than dribbling it out over four years.
Paul E. Schindler, Jr. earned a B.S. in Management in 1974, after serving a term as editor in chief of The Tech. He can be found at www.schindler.org.