- Math is awesome. I thought I knew what math was. After all, I’d been taking it for my whole life. But there’s so much more math than what you learn in high school! Number theory, game theory, probability, algorithms, topology…
In high school, I liked math and wanted to learn more math, but the guidance department told me that if I learned anything on my own I’d just be required to repeat it in school. But you can learn math that’s different from your curriculum, and it’s usually more interesting. Check out the Art of Problem Solving books, which help you prepare for math competitions. You can take an online math course from a great university (see here), such as Stanford’s “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking”. You can apply to go to Math Camp, which I’ve heard is awesome.
- Yes, you can learn to program! I heard my high school doesn’t offer AP Computer Science anymore. That’s too bad. However, most of the people I know at MIT who knew how to program before college taught themselves because they wanted to create a specific project. All of the ones who are good at it learned a lot outside school. Most languages have great online documentation. Think of something you want to create, pick a language (I suggest Python), and do it!
- Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors have a much easier time getting a job and make more money. But they generally have to work harder.
- The liberal arts scam. When I was applying to college, I heard over and over that a “liberal arts education” gives you a broad education in almost everything, develops your thinking skills, and makes you an appealing job candidate. First, check out this Forbes article on unemployment rates for different majors. And remember that if you follow your heart and do one of those high-unemployment-rate majors, you’re more likely to have to take a job that has nothing to do with your major.
Liberal arts advocates draw a dichotomy between “developing specific skills for a specific job” and “gaining broad problem-solving abilities”, and claim that a liberal arts education develops the latter (and implicitly, other programs don’t). However, it’s not true that a liberal arts education always makes you a better problem-solver, and it’s definitely not true that technical programs just prepare you for some specific job. It depends on the college and, mostly, it depends on you.
Take MIT, for example. Students must take eight humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) classes, distributed over different subject areas. Two of these must be writing-intensive, and they’re all hard. In addition, we need to take two communication-intensive courses in our majors. And our majors don’t just prepare us for a single job, but rather give us problem-solving techniques that are widely applicable. For example, learning to express yourself in the language of mathematics or programming forces you to be clear, logical, and consistent. No bullshitting allowed. On the other hand, many liberal arts programs demand that you take a wide variety of subjects, but it’s possible to take classes that are really easy, or so narrow as to be irrelevant. The “science for non-science majors” classes that students often take to fulfill requirements are generally a joke. In general, STEM majors have to know much more about the humanities than humanities majors have to know about math and science.
Basically, whether you learn to reason and communicate about a wide variety of subjects has more to do with what classes you choose to take than with what college you go to. But for goodness’ sake, take classes that will make you smarter and help you get a job, or you’ll regret it senior year. And unless you’re at a school like Harvard, don’t believe anyone who tells you that if you pursue your passion and major in creative writing or theater or anthropology, a job will surely follow.
- Take time to pick your major. Many people think they know what they want to major in, then change their minds when they discover something cooler. This can often result in graduating late. I recommend exploring many different classes in different majors early, then specializing only once you’re sure about want to major in. Some colleges require you to declare a major much earlier than others, and some require students to take so many classes in their major that they can’t afford to explore. Look into this before you decide where to go.
A lot of people pick a major that just continues what they did in high school. I made that mistake when I declared a physics major, then later discovered that I was much more interested in computer science and economics.