5 things I learned the hard way in my 4 years at the University

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Since I am in my final semester of my Bachelors in Computer Science Engineering, I thought to write down the 5 most important things that I learned the hard way during my 4 years at the university. Well, technically 3 years because of this pandemic. I hope these will be helpful who is at the university or about to join one.

1. Be smart with your work 😎

This might sound like a piece of generic advice that everyone tells. They tell you to work smart and not hard, but this is especially true when you are overloaded with information and tasks at hand during your time at university. This first tip might be obvious to you if you are familiar with the Pareto Principle, which according to Wikipedia states that - "for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes (the “vital few”)."

The Pareto Principle

Now, let's break it down into a few pointers -

  1. Choose which class to attend. 🏛 Now luckily, my university had a 0% attendance policy and that meant that I could choose not to attend any classes without getting any academic penalty. This gives you the superpower to skip classes that are too boring or classes that have a more practical component to focus on. For example, in my first year, we had Engineering Graphics lectures in which they would tell which options did what on the software in most of the lectures. In short, boring stuff that you could read in minutes from the slides or in some cases don't even need to read it at all. This was also covered in practical sessions for the same course and so going to classes was futile and you would end up sleeping anyway.
  2. Take notes. 📓 Taking notes is a very important exercise when attending lectures. If you are like me who dozes off in slightly boring lectures then taking notes will help you immensely. Also, your personal notes will beat textbooks 10 out of 10 times when preparing for exams or going into open book exams. Making notes is an art that I am sure you all have mastered before coming to the university. If not, ask your friends for notes just as I did.
  3. Prepare the important.✅ If you are low on time to prepare for exams and you can't read the whole content from the books, find the previous year papers and solve them. You will obviously not be able to solve most of them but that's perfectly alright. When you get stuck just consult the textbook, slides, or your friends and learn the concept at hand.

2. Don't make a decision in a hurry ⏰

During your university years, you will have to make decisions like

  • whether you should join that club or that student chapter
  • whether you should leave that club or chapter that is taking a toll on you.
  • Whether you should take up that internship.
  • Whether you should break up or commit to a relationship.

Never ever take important decisions in a hurry. If you have a decision to make, sleep on it. Take a good night's sleep before making the decision. If you are an impatient person like me, chances are you will make a decision you will end up regretting in the long term. Here are some pointers to think about when making a decision that will help you reduce your anxiety after you have taken the decision and will minimize regret. Write answers to these questions with a pen or on a Google Doc if possible.

  1. If the current situation goes on as is, will this end up taxing you more: emotionally or physically?
  2. What will be the profits you gain if you don't take this decision and let time run its course?
  3. Were you forced to take this decision because you were feeling an extreme emotion (Anger, hate, etc)?

These questions will help you look at the problem at hand from a more calm and understanding perspective.

If you have a really big decision to make, then I would highly suggest this regret minimization framework that Jeff Bezos used when he thought about creating Amazon -

Will you in X years, regret not doing this? If (YES) ⇒ do it. If (NO) ⇒ Don't bother.

Now, this value of X can be different depending on the severity of your decision or on the individual. Jeff had X around 80. If he would regret not starting Amazon when he is 80 years old, so he did it. Now it is your turn.

Get some work experience 💻

One of the most important things I learned a bit late is that you must get some work experience while you are completing your studies. I cannot stress this enough. I was lucky that my university curriculum requires us do two internships one of 2 months in summers and one of 6 months later on. However, I still think this is not enough. So if you have little to no work experience here is what you should do -

  1. Keep an eye out 👀 for root emails you get in your university email inbox that is about internships and positions at known or relatively unknown startups or initiatives by your fellow seniors. Even if the pay is low (which will most likely be), go for that job simply for the work experience. This work experience will help you a lot. It's like climbing a ladder where you have to start from the bottom rung. But make sure you don't commit for the long term until you are sure it is a suitable job. If you feel you are getting overworked or you can't manage your studies and this on-campus or remote internship, let them know. If things don't work out, terminate your work relationship, on good terms if possible.
  2. Whenever getting into any agreement with anyone, carefully read the NDA 🔍 or any other document you sign. People are usually so happy about getting that job or internship that they wanted, that they end up signing without reading these agreements. Some of them are too restrictive and might prevent you from mentioning the work you did in your resume. This is usually a red flag. 🚩 You should read more about NDAs before signing one.
  3. These internship opportunities are kind of like corporate ladders. Don't get stuck, keep moving. Start from a not a good internship but keep improving. Also if you don't feel like the field of work, now is the time to switch. Maybe from 3d modeling to web-dev or design to code.
  4. Freelancing is also something you can try. It will help you learn the basics of your desired skill-set without a long-term commitment. I would personally suggest trying it out for experience but not as a long-term career choice.

How to choose if an opportunity is good or not?

If you are just starting out and this is your first work experience, then don't bother much when committing for a short term. However, if it is relatively a big decision, make sure you have your priorities set up correctly. For me personally, things I value in the order of priority are -

  1. People - Very important that the people you are working with have high integrity. I look for mentorship, network (important), and passion.
  2. Idea - Is it something you can imagine devoting your time to without getting bored?
  3. Your job - What you will actually end up doing.

This framework is similar to what Alex Cohen shared here on Twitter.

Don't self reject 🤞

Whether it is the perfect job or internship at your favorite startup or company or you have a crush on someone from a lecture you share. Never self reject. Leave that to the other person as this is not your decision to make. Let's make another list to explain it more -

  1. Apply to that impossible job/internship - I can't stress this enough but you really need to stop self rejecting for positions where you consider yourself less prepared. Most job requirements are a wish list which almost none of the selected candidates possess. I have gotten to interviews in one of my dream companies (wink wink DeepMind) just by applying with minimal skillset. All it takes is a clean resume and a few rookie projects.
  2. Go ask your crush - There is a bit of chance that you might get a yes and high chances that you might end up getting rejected. But that's alright. Now that you the clarity on this issue, you can focus on other important things in life and stop using important mental energy bandwidth on thinking about whether or not they are interested in you as well.

Don't stress and enjoy your time🎓

When people say that these years in your university are going to be one of the most memorable days of your life, they really mean it. I can say with confidence that this is true for at least 80% of the people. You will be making new friends based on common interests you share or classes you both attend, staying up all night playing only to grab breakfast in the morning and then sleep, planning trips instead of preparing for the exam the next day, and all other seemingly stupid stuff, which in retrospect would be some of the most cherished memories of these years.

If you take away only one thing from this whole article, it should be that you don't need to stress about your future. Even when things don't go the way you want (they won't), you are not getting grades you wish (you won't), you didn't get into that club or group, you didn't secure that internship that you wanted so badly, even then you have to have faith. Because I can only tell you this - It will all work out. Just have that faith in you. I have seen people do great even with a bad GPA or some medical or family condition that affected their time at university. A single rigid evaluation system can not evaluate millions of students that come in all shapes and sizes. If you aren't doing great, maybe this is not the correct platform or system to evaluate your talent. So have that faith in you. You can always reach out to me on Twitter or by email.