Things I Wish I Knew as a College Freshman

It’s finally happening! After this week, I will have wrapped up four years of college to graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

During my college career, I’ve learned a lot about myself and my interests, and overall I’m pretty happy about it. However, I wish that I was given some advice back before freshman year. So with the knowledge and experience that I have four years later, here are the things I would tell my freshman-year self.

The advice here is mainly tailored toward computer science students, but I think they’re still generally applicable to all incoming freshmen.

Don’t take grades too seriously

The effort it takes to earn a good grade in college is substantially greater compared to that in high school. If you attend at least a decent college, you will meet people who seem smarter than you and who consistently earn better grades than you. For the sake of your sanity, don’t compare yourself to them.

If you were an overachiever in high school like I was, you will feel somewhat disappointed when you earn your first non-A grade. And your parents might be even more disappointed. Don’t worry about that. Unless you are looking to go to grad school, grades don’t matter much. There are plenty of software engineering jobs that pay well and don’t require a masters or PhD. Focus on learning, focus on side projects, and focus on your well-being instead.

Done is better than perfect

Earning a B—or even a C—with medium effort is better for your sanity than busting your ass off for an A. Don’t let the longer assignments and projects gnaw away at your mind; try to complete them as soon as possible with the minimum acceptable effort. Everything that you turn in doesn’t have to be masterpieces. In the long run, an assignment completed is as good as an assignment completed perfectly.

Take the interesting classes

If you happen to spot an interesting course when you’re browsing through the course catalog, consider taking it! I think they’ve provided some much-needed variety in between hard classes during the week. During my college career, I’ve taken elective classes such as intro to media studies and capoeira. And one of my biggest regrets is not having taken more of these interesting electives.

Your interests might change, and that’s fine

My first introduction to programming was through programming games, and I felt passionate about it. Therefore, I felt like I wanted to go to college to become a video game developer.

However, when I got to college, my interests were pulled in a different direction. I was assigned a web development-related project in my freshman honors section, and suddenly I liked web development.

Throughout the rest of my college career, I was introduced to many different applications of computer science, from data science to distributed systems, through classes and projects done outside of school. And I kept an open mind to all of these options.

You will struggle at times, and that’s also fine

Some core classes are hard and will get the best of you. I remember struggling super hard in my systems programming class. I went to office hours a lot, and they definitely helped.

So it’s OK if you find yourself struggling in a crucial class. As long as you proactively seek help from TAs at office hours, you should be fine.

Network early and often

When I was a freshman, I attended career fairs and honed my elevator pitch. But I wish I had also connected with recruiters from the companies that attended these career fairs and kept in contact with them. Many of these recruiters are specifically assigned to your college/region and will most likely return to campus for subsequent career fairs. Building a network of these recruiters early in college would’ve made finding internships easier in later years. So network early and often.

Get out of your room and get off of campus on the weekends

It’s easy to stay cooped up in your room on the weekends playing Starcraft or Fortnite, or staying within the confines of campus 247. But I found that I enjoyed weekends where I went out and explored the areas surrounding campus. I particularly enjoyed exploring the bars and cafés of downtown Champaign, which I didn’t do much of until junior year. I wish I had done that earlier.