Ethan Fast

Advice for Undergrads

13 May 2011 -- Vienna, VA

My time at UVa has proven surprisingly useful. Not so long ago, I was a high school senior, counting out paths to a poorly defined ambition. I’ve learned a great deal since then, but the most important lessons were not at all what I would have expected as a high school student. And so I say ‘surprisingly’. What’s useful is not always obvious at first.

So how ought you to use your time in undergrad? In the most basic sense, I’d advise you to treat it as an optimization problem. How you follow though depends on what you want. For myself, I optimized on research. I did what I could to maximize the time I spent working on academic problems, with the end goal of moving on to grad school. Others might want to optimize on grades, social life, or simple interest (by which I mean finding the most interesting classes, and taking them). These are all reasonable choices.

Despite the variance in these choices, however, I think that the way in which they impart value shares a common denominator. What you are paying for, in college, is not so much an education, as it is a series of interactions. (You are also paying for validation — in the mode of economic signaling — but put that aside for the moment.) College offers the unique advantage of giving you time to cultivate unusual experiences. So whatever your end goals are in undergrad, I’d advise you to seek out interesting people, and talk to them.

In my case, doing research lent itself well to these kind of interactions. Professors are likely some of the most interesting people you will meet. Many of them are enormously one-sided, and this is precisely what makes them so fun to talk to. The common averageness of the general population is largely filtered for at the level of tenure-track academic. So if you can, build friendly relationships with professors. You may come to know, and to think about, things that before you hadn’t appreciated as thinkable.

Where else can you cultivate these experiences? The next obvious place to look is among your peers. Form deep friendships. I see a number of ‘friend-groups’ formed through proximity (e.g. the people in freshman-year dorm), and this isn’t a bad thing, but I’d recommend you befriend people for reasons beyond the randomness of housing selection. Such friends may prove more valuable.

So my advice is twofold. Decide what you want, and optimize on it. But in the course of your optimization, seek out interesting experiences. Some of the most interesting (and useful) things to think about, you don’t even know are out there. The trick is to find them.