Advice for High School students deciding about where to go to university in Science and Engineering.

Advice for High School students deciding about where to go to university in Science and Engineering.

DeHon

last update: June 2016

[Translation: Latvian Danish Swedish]

Soundbytes:

  1. Aim high
  2. Go to the best school right out
  3. You can work out the finances
  4. Ratings aren't the whole story
  5. Apply widely, avoid statistical fluctuations
  6. There are good faculty almost everywhere
  7. (for LSMSA or other elite HS students) LSMSA's reputation helps, but won't carry you
  8. Don't go to college just to do it; go because you want to learn and are ready to work for it

Short Discussion:

  1. Aim high. Make a serious effort to apply (and to attend) the best schools you can find in your area. Don't self-select yourself out of the running. I've seen numerous people with the potential who simply didn't believe in themselves enough to shoot for the best they could obtain.
  2. Go to best school right out. Don't think you'll go to a lesser school first and go to the better school for graduate study or as a transfer.
    1. Your student colleagues are an important part of the learning process; you want to be challenged and supported by the best.
    2. Don't retard your own learning. Much in your capabilities and world view gets set early in your life. Don't handicap yourself or your mind by giving it less than the best possible, the earliest possible.
    3. Useful recommendations are one of the key reasons not to go to a lesser (lesser known) school first. Selecting students to admit to graduate school is a tough job for faculty. Of course, they'll get letters saying you are great. But if they don't know the professors writing them or the caliber of the students you are being compared against, they have trouble sorting through who really is worthwhile. If you go to a school with a known reputation and work with known prof's in the field, their recommendations can carry real weight--- simply because they are people that the graduate admissions committee knows and whose judgment they know they can respect.

      At the risk of being too blunt, a key thing that makes a difference in graduate school recommendations is how they value the judgment and assessment of the recommender. We can all whine and complain about how unfair this may be, but, pragmatically, it matters. They are trying to figure out how you will stack up with the students (faculty) at their university. A recommendation from someone who knows the caliber of students at their university (and whose assessment they feel they can trust) is much more meaningful to them (and carries more weight) than a recommendation from someone who doesn't. I'd suspect that this "prestige" of the recommender (on a good recommendation, of course) carries more weight than the "prestige" of your degree.

      And, I'd take that into account when considering internships/coops. If you're going on in academia, working with (and impressing) someone whose opinion the academics will value can be a net asset. Who are they going to value? -- again, practitioners who will have known the caliber of students they are looking for (so often from the "elite" schools they respect, if you will).

    4. Even if you are not going to go to graduate school, the entrepreneurial options are greater for those who network at the more prestigious schools. You're more likely to find worthwhile peers to team up on your venture, and your peers and profs. help give you the contacts you need.
    5. Graduate school (at least in engineering) will almost certainly be paid for by someone else [teaching or research assistanceship or fellowship], so don't think you need to save your money at the undergraduate level to attend a better graduate school. Doing well at a better undergraduate school will better assure that your graduate education is covered by someone else.
  3. You can work out the finances. The MIT educational counselor with whom I interviewed told me ``No one from this area has failed to go to MIT for lack of funds.'' Once admitted, I called him on it, and he helped. In the end it was a win-win scenario. I'm sure he got more than his money's worth, and I was debt-free before finishing graduate school. I tell this story not to imply your situation will work out exactly like mine, but to say that I've seen people from all kinds of financial backgrounds; each had their own story; and each found a way to make it work.
  4. Ratings alone aren't everything. Especially, differences of a few positions in someone's rating book matters less than other issues. For example, consider MIT and Stanford. Two schools who run neck-and-neck for the top slot in computer science and in electrical engineering (and are just a few positions apart for overall undergrad.). From the numbers, they're very similar. Culturally, they are night and day, and that difference should be the deciding factor not the ratings. MIT students pride themselves in being good focused nerds (and this is a wonderful thing!), while Stanford students pride themselves in "having lives" beyond engineering. (That's an oversimplification, of course, but it's just intended to get you thinking about the right issues.) The most succinct distinction I can give of the difference in philosophies between Berkeley Computer Systems research and MIT's is difference between Gail Wynand's Banner (UCB) and Howard Roark (MIT) in Fountainhead.
  5. Apply widely. There is quite a bit of noise and variance in the admissions process. You protect yourself by not allowing statistical fluctuation to do you in. This is especially true today (2016) where admissions rate for elite schools is below 10%...and depending on area and other details can be 1%.
  6. There are good faculty everywhere, so even if you don't get into a top 10 school, you can still get a great education and be prepared to move up for graduate school. However, it will require more discipline, work, and selection on your part.

    One phenomena which you should be aware of is the "spreading" of faculty. The big universities produce most of the PhD's, but only employ a small fraction. Consequently, Prof's with backgrounds from the top schools end up everywhere. In this sense, the variation among students and student culture among schools can be larger than the variation in faculty talent.

    What you miss at a "lesser ranked" (or teaching/non-doctoral) school is uniform faculty quality, uniform student quality, the strong cultural value of excellence, and facilities. But with work, you can find the excellent faculty members, the best students, and get a great experience out of it. Talk to the experts in your fields about who to look for at these universities (esp. use LSMSA alums who may be experts or practitioners in the field to act as experts or help you identify experts).

    Returning to the recommendation issue above. If you can work with someone at your university who is known and respected by faculty at the more prestigious schools to which you may wish to apply for graduate school, their recommendation will be meaningful, reducing the problems I detailed above.

  7. LSMSA's reputation (or probably any other high school) helps, but won't carry you. Your LSMSA imprimatur can get you serious consideration at many places, but they won't take you just because you're from LSMSA. You still have to show that you are a strong individual who made the most of LSMSA.

    While you were chosen for LSMSA as the best-and-brightest of Louisiana, for college admissions you are competing against the best-and-brightest nationally and internationally. That puts you up against students from other math and science schools, from some excellent normal high schools, and from dedicated, private college preparatory schools. My experience upon arriving at MIT was not that I was ahead of my peers, but rather that my LSMSA education brought me up to equal starting terms with my peers from around the world. I have been surprised at what is covered in some of the "normal" public high schools outside of Louisiana. Coming straight from normal Ouachita parish public schools, I would have arrived at MIT with a sorely deficient background, and more likely, would not have been seriously considered as an applicant.

    The benefit of going to LSMSA is not that you get to take college-level courses, but that you get a high-school curriculum on par with the best high schools in the nation so that you are ready to attend the best universities in the nation.

  8. Don't go to college because it seems like it's the thing to do. You'll get the most out of it if you want to learn -- you have things that you are passionate about. Don't go to get a degree---go to get an education.

    I have now seen many examples of students who aren't really ready for college, and who are doing everyone (themselves, their parents, their university) a disservice in going through the motions. Often it's just a case of maturity---they should really wait and come back when they are older and more ready to learn. The same people 2--4 years later will be excellent students.

    I count my brother as one of them. The first time through college, he wanted to play around. He didn't have anything that excited him or he was passionate to learn about. He got bad grades and exited with an associated degree. Then he worked for a while doing technical drafting. He found something he liked, and he found that he didn't have the knowledge and skills he needed to be anything other than someone else's draftsman...and these guys weren't smarter than him, they just knew some stuff he did not. The second time through college, he had a mission. He had something he wanted to learn. This time it was fun. The courses were all good stuff (even the math!) that he had a use for. ...and, when you want to learn the stuff, the grades are secondary (but tend to fall into place). He now has a Master's in Architecture and has found a life calling which he enjoys.

    For another (excellent) description of this phenomena, see Phaedrus' demonstrator in chapter 16 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsg).

    Unfortunately, our university system is setup largely to review and accept students right out of high school. I'm sure older students who have taken some time off after high school will have some different challenges with the college admissions process.


An earlier draft with some different perspectives from students and faculty in the humanities.

About Author

See my web page below for details. Most relevant, BS, MS, PhD from MIT in Electrical Engineering in Computer Science; 3 years at UCB Computer Science as postdoc, 7 years Asst. Professor of Computer Science at Caltech, over 10 years as Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. I review graduate student applications, and I oversee the undergraduate curriculum in Electrical and Systems Engineering.

André DeHon