Advice to Uni applicants

A friend asked for some advice, it’s quite personal to me and a bit exaggerated, but yeah…

Hey Rob,

I’m glad you asked. Of course I have time!

I still remember it like it was yesterday that I was shopping in Primark for a new wardrobe to go to university and reinvent myself. It was a really exciting time. I was excited to create a new world and I was excited to learn what was behind the veil that is hung in front of you at school.

The best thing about university is that you suddenly have complete freedom. You can decide how you are going to spend your time and what kind of person you want to be with your time. This is going to be really really hard. No doubt every day you will have a choice between doing something fun and doing your homework or reading that 1,000 page book you took out of the library because you liked the title which said something like “An introduction to Nuclear Power Plants”. There’s SO much to do! So little time.

This excitement will be your life, and this decision will constantly dictate it. Or so it might seem.

In light of this, what I say to you now will be forgotten the moment you walk into that first lecture hall and meet your friends for the next 3 years and maybe for the rest of your life. But maybe when you’re in your room and you feel like you’ve hit a wall, have a pile of homework on your desk for a bunch of different subjects and you’re tired and feel that university wasn’t all it cracked up to be. Maybe you feel you’re not learning much, maybe you feel your friends just aren’t what you’d hoped or maybe you feel stuck in a system that doesn’t understand you and you’ve got 2 whole more years of it!! Either way, maybe then this will shed a bit of perspective from someone who both loved and hated university.

1.

University does NOT dictate the rest of your life. It’s a few years of your life. It’s the years when you understand yourself the least. You haven’t learnt about anything in depth before, how could you possibly know that what you’re studying is what you want to do for the rest of your life??!

Ironically learning is all about fostering a good attitude and finding the desire to learn and understand the world. This CANNOT stem from a desire to better your peers, this is a superficial drive that will only get you so far. Solving tough problems is not done by competing, it’s done by collaborating. I found that I had a real competitive drive and that held me back. I only wanted to do better than someone else, I never actually enjoyed the material itself. I ended up attending around 5% of all the lectures, which I calculated cost about £10 a pop. I was always frustrated that I didn’t have a role model, a university professor that I wanted to be like. Sadly the environment for students is, generally speaking, one of a second class citizen in terms of learning. You’re not there because you’re going to be the next Einstein, you’re there because you’re helping fund your professors research, and largely, this is how I felt with the exception of one or two professors that actually took an interest in me (or rather, I confided in them and they passively lent me some advice – they don’t care about me anymore!)

I didn’t even understand the scientific method until after I graduated!

I don’t understand much about the world even now! How could I expect to just “get it” at university?!

How you do at university only really matters in order to get your first job. And even then, it only really matters that you got a 2:1 or higher, except for some super super competitive jobs which, imho, you’re only going to enjoy if you’re a natural and you find all the work a breeze. That’s totally awesome if you do. Please please don’t stop yourself from striving towards being the best you can be. I’m just saying, don’t force it. The people who forced it ended up getting a 1st class degree in the end, but ironically they were the worst engineers. They were very driven, but they weren’t motivated. The difference is that motivation is when you connect with the elegance of a subject, whereas being driven simply means that you have invented some kind of incentive for yourself to do it – typically for those students, it was to be in the top 5% (of grades!! not of any useful measure!!). This is the entire fault of the education system.

The education system is a factory process, and quality is assured by providing its constructs with a list of questions which they must answer in order to prove their quality. But there are a lot of ways that this simply fails to prove anything about intelligence or creativity. For example, memorising answers to similar questions from previous year exam papers to make yourself look like you figured it out yourself, or getting help from friends in the year above who have done the same exam, if you don’t know already, you’ll soon find out the rest.

The result is that the factory produces people who cannot think for themselves. They are not given open ended questions, or questions that we don’t know the answer to yet. They are given some material to learn through memorising and a bit of creativity in order to grasp it. You then regurgitate what you “learnt” onto a page. Anyway, this is the sad and boring reality of education – it doesn’t empower individuals with a critical mindset, it tells them some stuff that someone else figured out and makes them think it’s really important because it gets you a number called a grade. It doesn’t educate.

So, the smartest people I knew at university got a 2:1 because they spent a bit of time learning, grokked it straight away, and then spent the rest of their time doing stuff they love like going to gigs, playing an instrument, going for a bike ride, socialising or eating a kebab. Please don’t feel initimidated by grade seekers, and don’t buy into the competitiveness of education. But DO try very hard to connect with the elegance of your subject. For me, Computer Science is incredible because a computer is a universal simulator just like your brain. What you can conceive of can be realised in code. Reductionists like to claim that a computer is just bits flipping over a million times per second. Your brain’s neurons can send bits at around 14 times per second, and it can do the most amazing things – herein lies the beauty and the power of great design. This is another deeply elegant aspect of Computer Science. Without harping on, connecting with these ideas is what is going to motivate you. It is NOT some stupid fucking grade that someone decided tells all the companies in the world that that is how clever you are. Simply, fuck that.

tl;dr I love teaching and I love learning, and I didn’t see much of either at university. So create it for yourself. Teach a friend, teach yourself, learn from others and learn about yourself.

2.

University is fucking fun.
With your immense freedom you will have the opportunity to do anything you want. I up and went to Portugal with my best mate in the middle of term time. I made some friends abroad and would up and go on a complete whim because the only thing you have to do is some assignment that’s due in in a month’s time. I took up a bunch of hobbies that I couldn’t do anywhere else. You should go on a ski trip with uni, 500 people all going on an epic trip. Organised fun is very fun indeed. I learnt to play the guitar. I built many groups of friends. This allowed me to learn from all different kinds of people.

I think this is the bestest thing about university. You’re up close and personal with so many different kinds of people in a way that you will never be again in the rest of your life. You will have deep insights into the differences in your upbringing and path to where you got compared with other people. People will confide their deepest feelings in you and you in other people and you will grow in ways you couldn’t have imagined and you will grow together. Don’t miss out on these opportunities! So so much to learn and so much room for growth. Don’t let yourself be held back by a fear to get involved in lots of different things and with lots of different people.

3.

With 1 and 2 in mind, you should not read too much into where you end up going to university. You can make of university what you like, just use your imagination. I err on the side of going to a less competitive one for these two reasons which I have basically described above anyway: 1. there is less of the competitive crap that goes along with learning and generally just clouds your ability to connect with your subject cos you’re so busy trying to get ahead of someone else. 2. you have more free time to have fun and grow in all those other ways that don’t belong to the education system. I’d say that growing in these ways is 100x more important than getting a good grade. That’s because a) you are going to be much smarter when you’re older, and far more capable of learning things – education is wasted on the youth, and b) developing a good attitude is important to learning later in life (connecting with your subject etc.) and this requires emotional maturity. Also on what might seem a tangential note, people who end up lonely, isolated or emotionally deficient in some way or another later in life, generally haven’t had the opportunity to explore themselves because they’ve been in harsh or competitive environments where they weren’t able to express their feelings or make mistakes or just damn explore.

Sorry that the picture I have painted is quite drastic. But hey like I said, you’ll forget it anyway 😛

All that said, you can still do everything you want and achieve lots of stuff wherever you go, you just have to try that much harder if the environment you’re in is against you. I’ve often felt that the environment i’m in restricts me and this is a source of pain and misery. Try and rise above it and connect with yourself.

This is largely a stream of consciousness so excuse me if it sounds like i’m drunk or something. Better that I ramble my feelings than create some sort of illusion! This, and putting yourself into situations that you feel uncomfortable in, are both part of growing as a person. So go to university and 1) do stuff that you never saw yourself doing 2) make lots of friends 3) spend time doing stuff you enjoy, if you’re not enjoying a particular subject, so be it, just scrape by in it. 4) If you’re feeling shit, confide in people, and speak to people who have been through it, I’m sure you’ll know who that is at the time. 5) don’t take it so seriously, it’s a few years of your life and you’ve ended up where you are through a series of narrow funnels. You’ll be out of them soon and onto something great, be that a career or just travelling or just sitting around and figuring out what the hell happened in the last 20 something years of your life.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of stuff out but hey, if I told you then I would be making the same mistake the education system makes – hopefully I’ve told you enough that you can figure it out for yourself when you’re there.

I hope this was of some use. Feel free to reply or contact me at any time. I’m not doing your homework for you though 😛

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