College Selection Advice

post by atucker · 2011-03-09T22:13:54.783Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 48 comments

I, and a lot of other people my age, are currently facing a pretty big life decision -- where to go to college. Since this is probably going to have a pretty big impact on my life, I'd like to get some more information on this.

Seeing as a lot of people here have probably made this choice already, gone through with some of the consequences of it, and are rational, I decided to ask here.

My current considerations are:

 

My current situation is:
  • Accepted to MIT, University of Southern California, University of Maryland, Swarthmore, Harvey Mudd, Harvard, and CMU
  • Getting some form of scholarships at USC and UMD, amount TBD
  • Not likely to receive that much need-based financial aid
  • Probably going to start in Engineering, might double major with Comp Sci, Statistics, or maybe Math. If I go to CMU, probably Engineering and Public Policy
  • I also like and am competent in Economics, History, and English (though, definitely not getting a degree in the last 2)
  • Maryland is my home state, and I would know a lot of people at UMD
So if you have any advice, for me or in general, I'd love to hear it. If you have any questions yourself, feel free to ask them.

 

48 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-03-10T07:03:26.393Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see several people telling you to definitely choose a first rank university. I'm not sure I agree.

Here's my experience. I applied to just MIT and my state university (University of Washington). I got on MIT's waiting list but was ultimately not accepted, so went to UW. I would certainly have gone to MIT had I been accepted, but my thinking now is that if I did that, I would not have had enough free time in college to write Crypto++ and think about anonymous protocols, Tegmark's multiverse, anthropic reasoning, etc., and these spare-time efforts have probably done more for my "career" than the MIT name or what I might have learned there.

So if you are someone who can use free time productively, you might want to consider going to a college where you don't have to spend too much effort on your classes, where, face it, a lot of the stuff you learn will ultimately turn out to be not very useful for what you end up doing.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-03-10T13:13:48.559Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I endorse this but would modify this slightly: if you are someone who can use free time productively and who is unlikely to benefit from a community of intelligent and highly educated peers and mentors (for example, if your interests are narrow and not widely shared, or if you prefer to work on your own rather than consult others, or if you're so many sigmas out on the right side of the bell curve that other people just slow you down, etc.), then that's probably true.

If you're able to benefit from the community, it can be a pretty compelling factor though.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-11T06:36:56.268Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I could definitely benefit from having a smart community around me.

Would professors be enough? All the colleges I've applied to have them (of course), but I'm a bit worried about accessibility.

All of the schools on my list have a form of honors colleges, so I'd expect to meet some people smarter than me wherever I go. Some schools more, some schools less. What's the marginal utility of intelligent people in the community?

On the one hand, there's only so many friends and acquaintances which I can keep track of at any particular time.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of benefits come from having someone who's smart and interested in the same things you are, and that most of the usefulness of a large community is in being able to have a lot of people who are smart and similarly-interested.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-03-11T15:13:54.969Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not so much the "being surrounded by smart people," in my experience (though that has certainly been one of the great blessings of my life), but the "if I am interested in X, I can easily find someone who is as smart as I am who has already spent some time thinking about something enough like X that i can pick their brains and quickly prune the tree of false starts."

Professors can serve that role if you can engage with them, which some people are better at than others. I was bad at it as an undergrad, but I had peers who did it successfully.

That said, Wei_Dai's point about using the Internet is a good one; I am old enough that that wasn't quite an option in the same way it is now, and the modern world might really be importantly different in that way. (Can I just say how much I love living in the future?) This just might not be as much of an issue as it used to be.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2011-03-10T22:52:23.623Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In college I participated heavily on cypherpunks and extropians, so it's possible to benefit from such communities without necessarily going to MIT or Harvard. Of course this depends on whether such online communities exist in the areas that atucker is or will be interested in, and how much he values physical vs. virtual social contact...

comment by atucker · 2011-03-11T06:33:33.198Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is great advice for other people in the same situation.

I personally greatly prefer physical to virtual contact, at least for friendships. Not so sure about for general intellectual pursuits. Online communities have been great in terms of getting me to read things, but physical communities have so far been much more effective at getting me to actually do things other than read specific books, or write things.

I might be able to change this, maybe not. I haven't particularly tried to.

comment by Manfred · 2011-03-09T23:40:35.350Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a huge amount of uncertainty here. There is no perfect strategy - I think you have to just rank schools as best you can by your own preferences and then go to the top one you get into by some semi-arbitrary date.

That said once at college there are a variety of things that make a huge difference. Read important textbooks more than is strictly required. Experiment with learning strategies - study in groups or alone, taking notes, making flashcards. Read journals every once in a while to check your progress. Go to department seminars once you you feel comfortable. Play with math (or computers, or chemical syntheses) for fun. Go to at least one free dance lesson. That sort of thing.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-09T23:50:53.439Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted! For the entirety, but not least for the "free dance lesson" suggestion.

comment by James_Miller · 2011-03-10T03:16:50.510Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You should be extremely reluctant to turn down a first rank school in favor of a second ranked one. The only two real first ranks schools on your list are MIT and Harvard. Both have fantastic economics departments and there's no reason to prefer one to the other on this criteria. You'll probably have to do a lot less work at Harvard than you would at MIT plus you would probably have a better social life at Harvard at least if you're a heterosexual male.

If a second rank school does give you a full ride you need to consider why they are so desperate to have you, it's probably because they think you would be well above the quality of their average student.

I'm an associate professor of economics at Smith college.

comment by Marius · 2011-03-10T14:36:44.293Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you want to be when you grow up? You say "might get a Master's" - but what's the Master's for? The reason I ask is the following If your goal is academia, you are best served going to a top-tier school - Harvard, CMU, and MIT are the only ones on this list. If your goal is to get a job outside academia- what kind? If you want to be a manager, school prestige will be key. If you want to be an engineer, you will be judged more on the quality of your work. In that case you might be better served by a cheaper school or one that will [make you happier/give you a better education] than by the most prestigious school you get into.

I know you aren't ready to decide tomorrow - but think in rough percentages chance you'll go down various roads.

comment by erratio · 2011-03-10T06:46:39.259Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would recommend not going to UMD, precisely because it's your home state and you would know a lot of people there, although this recommendation is strongly dependent on how extroverted/outgoing you are. Basically, if you're the kind of person who can make a new friend every week or two regardless of everything else going on in your life, disregard my advice, otherwise it may be valuable for your goal of meeting cool people to start fresh and build completely new social networks.

comment by Mystfan · 2011-03-09T23:54:42.402Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mostly I'd just recommend the same as everyone else, but I'd also recommend you to pay close attention to the environment of the schools. It might not make a difference for you, but it could certainly hurt your studies to, say, be an asthmatic at a college that's 1/3 smokers. Especially watch out for colleges that get far different light exposure than you do at home. This can seriously mess with your moods and that's usually not good for your studies.

On a different note, also make sure you're ok with the weather patterns at all your universities. I personally know 4 people from warm climes who dropped out of my university and moved home because they couldn't take the snow; don't waste your money like that!

Best of luck in your choice and your studies!

Edit: Once you get in and pick a field of study, try and get to know some of the professors in the department. Not only will this help eventually get letters of recommendation for grad school, it makes getting help on a tricky assignment that much easier :).

comment by Airedale · 2011-03-09T23:12:07.319Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's often good advice, other things being equal, to go to the best school you get into. Of course, other things are rarely, if ever, equal. (Where best means most prestigious.)

The Harvard name, particularly internationally, is probably without peer among U.S. institutions. On the other hand, I think it's at least possible that for certain fields, including engineering, that an MIT degree, for example, would be viewed just as positively among those who are most likely to matter in terms of career advancement, etc. But people in engineering could speak better to that than I.

It's also my impression, based on conversations with friends who are alumni of the school, that one of the primary criticisms leveled against Harvard is its lack of focus on the undergraduate school as opposed to the grad and professional schools. One good friend of mine, while very happy to have the Harvard name on his resume, was somewhat disappointed in the academic experience at Harvard because of that. Of the schools I'm most familiar with on your list, Swarthmore, for example, would be the very opposite of Harvard in terms of its attention to the undergrad experience.

I do interviews for my undergrad college, and always advise people, once they've narrowed down their list using whatever criteria they've determined are most important to them, that they won't go wrong by going with their gut in choosing among the remaining contenders. Maybe that doesn't sound like rationalist advice, but again, this is after you've already applied your rational analysis and narrowed your list down to just a handful of schools. (Of course, your analysis may leave you with only one school on your list anyway, in which case, no need to resort to the gut.) At that point, I recommend going with your gut, particularly if your gut feeling is informed by visits during admitted student events, which I highly recommend if you can swing it, and which, while not giving you perfect insight into the school, give you a different way to evaluate than just comparing schools on paper. Talking to current students and alumni is also useful.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-09T23:28:15.506Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's also my impression, based on conversations with friends who are alumni of the school, that one of the primary criticisms leveled against Harvard is its lack of focus on the undergraduate school as opposed to the grad and professional schools. One good friend of mine, while very happy to have the Harvard name on his resume, was somewhat disappointed in the academic experience at Harvard because of that. Of the schools I'm most familiar with on your list, Swarthmore, for example, would be the very opposite of Harvard in terms of its attention to the undergrad experience.

It's funny that you say that specifically, I have a friend who's mom taught at Harvard for a stint who said the exact same thing. Said friend is very enthusiastic about Swarthmore, I really hope she gets in.

I do interviews for my undergrad college, and always advise people, once they've narrowed down their list using whatever criteria they've determined are most important to them, that they won't go wrong by going with their gut in choosing among the remaining contenders. Maybe that doesn't sound like rationalist advice, but again, this is after you've already applied your rational analysis and narrowed your list down to just a handful of schools.

That's how I chose to play the Clarinet instead Flute.

I find that I'm pretty easily swayed by college visits, in that I can easily imagine myself being very happy at every school I visited and applied to (Swarthmore, Harvey Mudd, CMU, USC, UMD). So I think I did a pretty good job of narrowing them down.

I need to do another analysis after hearing back about admissions and financial aid, though.

On the other hand, college visits provide a really good impression of what campus life is like, particularly social life and student's study habits. On top of that, little details like food availability and class starting time make a difference in day to day happiness, and pretty much don't get mentioned anywhere else.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-09T22:30:56.983Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you get into Harvard, you should accept. Figure out a way to pay for at least a semester. Even if you drop out, you still went to Harvard, which carries more weight than graduating with honors from some fine schools.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2011-03-09T22:52:10.246Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you unpack your thinking here a bit? Is it just prestige-related ("carries more weight")? It's not clear to me that Harvard (despite of course being one of the world's great universities) is preferable to all other schools in a hands-down, no-need-for-further-questions kind of way. So I'm curious what general kind of advice lies behind this.

I would especially disagree that it's generally thought more highly of to have dropped out of Harvard after one semester than to have graduated with honors from some other schools of at least "fine" quality.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-09T23:23:12.896Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In case there was any doubt, I never went to Harvard.

Not everybody should go to Harvard, even if they could be accepted. Some young American adults who know themselves very well would be quite right in preferring (for example) Julliard or Annapolis or not going to college right out of high school (or ever).

You're right in thinking my suggestion was mostly prestige-related. I'm under the impression that the libraries at Harvard are amazingly excellent, that the student body has an unusual amount of interesting people (which this poster regarded as a factor) and that the actual undergraduate classes themselves are at least pretty good. I'm not under the impression that a freshman-level class at Harvard is necessarily much different or better than a comparable class at a good, unknown state school. However, for better or worse (no doubt worse) as a brand, Harvard is the H-bomb. I think the Harvard name can get a resume through an otherwise impervious human resources wall. A Harvard dropout seeking funding for a startup can invoke Bill Gates. The more recent success of Facebook doesn't hurt.

P.S. It occurs to me that my theory is testable. Not that I have the time or inclination to do the hard work. But an intrepid researcher could concoct a few hundred fake resumes, some alluding to prestigious schools, some asserting high achievement at unknown schools, to a selection of companies and government agencies and nonprofits and so on and record the proportion of responses. I wonder if such a study has already been made public.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2011-03-10T00:19:16.810Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's no doubt in my mind that something like the Harvard effect you're describing is quite real. What I'm skeptical of is the proposition that it's so extreme that it outweighs a similar MIT effect (for example) even in the case where MIT is objectively the better fit for the student in question.

comment by gwern · 2011-03-10T02:32:50.607Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The nice thing about MIT as an example is that in that case, you can have your cake and eat it - MIT is close enough to Harvard you can take classes at both or transfer if you want. (IIRC, Richard Stallman did just that.)

comment by Randaly · 2011-03-10T04:02:39.601Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's worth noting that you can only attend MIT but take classes at Harvard if MIT doesn't offer them; if you're only attending for one semester of your freshman year, you probably won't be able to take any classes.

Edit: Not actually true, see below. My apologies!

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-11T05:23:31.891Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's worth noting that you can only attend MIT but take classes at Harvard if MIT doesn't offer them;

As an MIT student, I can certify that this is false. You can take any Harvard classes that you want as long as you're willing to make the commute. What you may be thinking of is that you often can't get specific credits (e.g. satisfy a humanities requirement) by taking Harvard classes that have equivalents at MIT.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-09T22:39:31.590Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Harvard has a pretty nice financial aid system that would make attending affordable (for my parents/me) for all 4 years. If I get in, its pretty high up on my list.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-09T23:02:51.215Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In any case, congratulations on being accepted to the three schools you mentioned! You're not in bad shape, not at all.

I'd be interested in hearing from any LWers who are attending or who have attended MIT . . . is the whole "praise-free zone" reputation still deserved?

Also in general, I'm under the impression that USC is pretty expensive, without an extraordinary educational/reputational benefit to match -- unless you're committed to staying in the Los Angeles area (or if you were thinking of going into film, which I don't think is the case). In Los Angeles, they have a big base of alumni, but you're going to have to talk football to take full advantage of that.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-03-10T00:28:25.047Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Re: MIT... well, I went there, but it was >20 years ago, so I can't speak to what it's like now with any significant credibility. That said, I am at least peripherally involved in its social milieu... in fact, I'm having my wedding reception there later this year... so I guess I'm not completely disconnected.

The impression I get is that the "praise-free zone" nature of the place hasn't changed and isn't likely to. There's a strong cultural bias towards what I think of as the UNIX attitude towards feedback -- "there's no reason to provide any return values on success; if something had gone wrong we would have told you" -- which means that creating your own reward structure is an important skill.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-11T05:32:44.904Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure what you mean by praise-free zone, so I'm not sure if I'm answering the right question here.

When I made top 12 on the Putnam, the professors who were aware of it congratulated me; I don't think they congratulated people in general who made honorable mention, although possibly because that consisted of several people. In my lab, if someone wins an award we generally send out an e-mail to the lab mailing list congratulating them. A particularly clever insight will elicit someone saying "that's a nice way of thinking about the problem". (I should also note that I'm probably one of the more capable undergrads so I might receive more positive feedback than the average person.)

Of course these sorts of things are difficult and probably only happen a few times a week (on the level of insights) and much rarer on the level of meaningful awards, so if you want someone to be praising you every time you do well on a problem set then MIT is probably not the place for you.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-11T22:21:02.368Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I only know MIT by reputation...I'm sureTheOtherDave knows the real deal on whatever the origin of the "praise-free zone" story may have been.

Congratulations on your achievement on the Putnam. I have no reservations about praising you for that.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-11T22:19:34.305Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I only know MIT by reputation -- I ...I'm sureTheOtherDave knows the real deal on whatever the origin of the "praise-free zone" story may have been.

Congratulations on your achievement on the Putnam. I have no reservations about praising you for that.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-09T23:21:50.727Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks!

I forgot to mention that I'm under scholarship consideration at UMD and USC, so that's some of their main draws.

I'm familiar with the rules of football, and would be willing to talk/learn about it if doing so would be helpful.

comment by VincentYu · 2011-03-12T04:03:31.220Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I faced a similar choice last year. I was accepted to Princeton, MIT, Rice, Georgia Tech, and the University of Rochester; I am now going to Rochester.

For me, an important consideration was whether I would be an average student or an exceptional student at the college. This may sound petty and shallow, but I think I would be unhappy and unmotivated if I were not a top student at the college that I went to. Here at Rochester, I am the top scoring freshman in my courses and math competitions, but had I gone to Princeton or MIT, I would probably be an average math student; certainly not exceptional (this can verified from previous Putnam Competition results). Of course, you may have an opposite personality to mine. Perhaps you are more motivated if you are not already a top student.

I think you should also consider whether you would have more opportunities as a top student at a second rank university, or as an average student at a first rank university. Some people say that you get a lot more academic and research opportunities by going to a first rank university, but I don't agree. Certainly, the average student at a first rank university will do more research than the average student at a second rank university. But remember that by going to a second rank university, you will not be an average student.

Of course, there are other important considerations. The points I mentioned here are those that I consider important, but haven't been mentioned yet.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-13T04:10:59.795Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting point.

One thing that USC does an excellent job of is pampering its scholarship recipients. They get a nicely located dorm, and their "Thematic Option" (basically, honors but different) classes have hand-picked professors chosen to teach classes no larger than 20 or something.

In USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, people who qualify for Merit Research get $50,000 attached to them that goes to whatever professor sponsors their research or lets them work in their lab. So if I get one, professors are very strongly incentivized to take me on, and there's pretty much no worry about research availability.

UMD has programs with similar attitudes, though not with as much money thrown at them.

comment by VincentYu · 2011-03-14T22:56:26.006Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

From your description, USC does seem to offer a lot for its scholarship recipients. Rochester offers much less. I was given the 'top' scholarship - a merit-based full scholarship, but there is not much else attached to it; no priority for housing or courses. Even the research grant that I was given is rather meager compared to USC's - $3000 compared to $50000.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-12T02:39:50.607Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Disclaimer: I go to MIT and am probably biased.

I think the set {MIT, CMU, Harvey Mudd} dominates all the other places you are considering. Roughly speaking, MIT/CMU are the clear best in terms of academics, but if you are worried that the academic programs would be too difficult for you to have time to explore other topics on your own, then Harvey Mudd is a more laid-back school that still has good academics and the sort of quirky student body that might appeal to LWers.

I will also note that MIT is probably unique in terms of the ease with which undergraduates can do research.

In more detail: first, you almost certainly shouldn't go to Harvard. Harvard is an excellent school, particularly in terms of theoretical math and physics, but it doesn't focus much on engineering. You also probably shouldn't go to USC, UMD, or Swarthmore, because the only reason to choose those over MIT/Harvard would be to have an easier degree program, which Harvey Mudd provides while having a better academic program. Note: I am not completely sure of this statement, look up the relative rankings of engineering at USC, UMD, Swarthmore, Harvey Mudd yourself to make sure.

In terms of overall strength of academics as well as student body, {MIT,Harvard} are better than the rest of the colleges you listed, with CMU comparable enough to not rule it out entirely on academic grounds. As I already noted, Harvard is not an engineering school, which rules it out. Therefore, if your goal is to have the best engineering education possible, and to be surrounded by the brightest possible group of peers and instructors, you should go to MIT, or possibly CMU. Further, if undergraduate research is important to you, this is a further reason to consider MIT.

The only reason to not go to the best school possible is because better schools probably have more difficult classes, which might give you less free time. I personally have not run into this issue except by my own volition (I'm currently taking five classes, play sports, and spend 10+ hours/week on research; you only need to take four classes/semester to graduate on time). However, I could imagine this being a problem, especially if you come in without much background and choose a major with many graduation requirements.

The question then becomes how to determine if going to a top university would be an enriching experience or just suck up all your time for 4 years. For this you may want to consider your current background. Are you generally mathematically mature, or will you spend your first semester taking introductory calculus? Do you know at least one programming language? Can you pick up new information quickly? Have you taken at least a couple AP science courses? If you answered yes to all of these, you're probably reasonably well-prepared for any university. If you answered no to all of these, then you probably would not have a good time at the most rigorous universities like MIT/CMU. If it was a general mixture, you could get an improved estimate by looking at typical classes on OCW and seeing if the pace is reasonable or not.

Finally, please don't underestimate the relevance of being able (at a top research university) to interact with the world experts in most fields, as well as extremely bright students. I've discovered numerous academic gems through conversations with these people that I would have been unlikely to get by participating in online communities or reading papers off of google scholar (including entire fields of study / research programs that I didn't know existed).

comment by atucker · 2011-03-12T04:10:27.555Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the reply.

I'd hope that you're biased towards what you had decided for yourself :P.

In short, I entirely agree with everything you said about MIT ultimately being the best school in terms of providing the best education, smartest peers, and probably not destroying my free time. If my only goal were to become the best technically-skilled person I can be, MIT, CMU, or Harvey Mudd (prolly MIT) would hands down be my top choice.

I'm somewhat concerned about my ability to maintain my non-traditionally-technical skills at MIT though, particularly in fields like writing.

However, the main argument against the best schools is that they're also more expensive, and less likely to give me any money. Going to MIT would probably cost at least $200k, and I have a sibling, and parents who'd like to retire (they're in the range of a decade away from that). I'm not sure if my going to a more expensive school would be worth their working for the rest of their lives, but I'd have to talk to them about that.

Alternatively, I could just take out loans. The main argument against this seems to be the fact that I'd then need to pay them off, and doing so would probably require me getting a job. I'm not worried about my ability to do so, but I might prefer to have a few years of freedom during which I don't need to worry about paying off any debts, and only need to make enough money to support myself.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-12T04:38:34.599Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see, so the potential issue is financial. I have been fortunate enough to not have to deal with financial issues, so I'm not sure I'm particularly qualified to comment in this area. One comment is that you realistically don't know what you're going to be doing with your life, and if a better college has, e.g., a 10% chance of improving your decision-making in this area significantly then that is fairly worthwhile (unfortunately the actual probability is pretty hard to measure, so it's hard to put a specific value on this).

If you feel particularly competent academically (e.g. plan to take more than four classes per semester), an option is to graduate in under 4 years to alleviate debts somewhat, or to spend your 4th year as a Masters' student so that MIT pays your tuition (this latter option might only be possible for CS majors at MIT, and otherwise is college-specific). But $150k is probably still a substantial sum.

Class-wise, your concern about writing is probably valid; we have plenty of writing classes, but my impression is that the grading in said classes doesn't usually incentivize quality, at least from my perspective. But there are at least some humanities professors that take writing seriously, so if you can find them and take their classes, you could get good feedback. Otherwise, if you don't care about feedback and just want to practice, you could take the opportunity to get easy A's in (some of) your humanities classes.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-12T04:46:43.887Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, pretty much. I don't feel like a better college would substantially improve my life-choice decision making, but I'm pretty sure that it would have a big influence over what life-choices I notice myself as having, can follow through on, or have available to me.

$150k is $50k less, which is probably a year or so of post-graduation income, so its pretty significant. Thanks for the advice.

Writing improvement could probably be done over the internet.

And if I fail at finding those professors, I could probably convince one of my English teachers to hang out with me after I graduate.

comment by childofbaud · 2011-03-10T04:20:37.340Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A general suggestion is to not put too much emphasis on money. The good schools will work with you, and if you demonstrate financial need, they will shoulder at least some of the burden.

Furthermore, student loans may seem scary, but graduating from a top tier school with loans is often preferable to graduating from a more mediocre one in the black, because your earning potential will be that much greater. There are websites that track graduate salaries according to alma mater. The difference is often quite large, even more so when you consider how it adds up over the years.

Plus there are all the intangible benefits you will obtain from the more prestigious institutions. Access to world-class faculty and facilities, beneficial social opportunities while on campus and alumni networks afterwards, the brand name of the school, etc.

What do you mean by flexibility?

comment by atucker · 2011-03-10T04:27:20.179Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By flexibility I mean the ability to switch majors or something if I find out that I have different interests.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2011-03-10T00:05:01.708Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you are interested in grad school and money is a concern, a good strategy might be to go to the subsidized state school, zip through in 3 years, then go to grad school at a big name place.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-12T19:17:55.902Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have evidence that this actually works? Graduate school admissions are extremely selective at top universities (much moreso than undergraduate admissions).

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2011-03-13T01:23:05.785Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My evidence is anecdotal: I have observed many grad students in Tier-I schools come from Tier-II undergrad backgrounds. A determined search could probably verify this by looking through a bunch of online grad student biographies.

I don't think a person who is smart and disciplined enough to get into a Tier-I school, but instead goes to Tier-II school for undergrad, will suffer a big penalty in terms of acceptance chances at Tier-I grad schools. Not because the admissions people don't take the prestige of the undergrad university into account; they surely do. But a Tier-I capable individual at a Tier-II school will receive a lot of counterbalancing benefits as a result of standing out relative to his/her peers. Such a student will probably get better grades, and receive more positive attention from professors, including letters of recommendation and summer research opportunities.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2011-03-13T04:17:11.212Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, thanks!

comment by atucker · 2011-03-10T00:07:59.605Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not entirely sure how committed I am to grad school. I'd probably go as far as a Masters, but I feel like a PhD might take up a lot of time and not be particularly useful if I don't stay in academia.

comment by CharlesR · 2011-03-10T08:17:43.926Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't forget to consider the weather.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-03-10T12:56:52.125Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just make sure you realize you're considering it.

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-03-10T11:44:35.996Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is, the worse the weather the better, since you will have an easier time staying inside and studying.

(There's a reason the University of the Balearic Islands has a pretty terrible reputation... though it somehow doesn't prevent it from being an extremely popular exchange destination)

comment by orthonormal · 2012-01-06T16:31:26.777Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What did you eventually decide, and why?

comment by atucker · 2012-01-06T19:08:10.713Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, awesome question.

I'm taking a gap year, and then going to Harvard.

First, I decided to go to Harvard.

The main reason was for better positioning for rationality outreach. A group of Harvard and MIT rationalists would be awesome, so that's what I'm aiming for. Harvey Mudd already had a group, and it was isolated from other schools.

I'm also less certain that I want to be an engineer growing up. In fact as of right now, I pretty definitely do not want to be one. Maybe a programmer. Academically speaking, Harvard gives me more options than Harvey Mudd or MIT.

If I absolutely couldn't give up becoming an engineer, I'd probably have gone to Harvey Mudd, and done grad school in Boston.

On the gap year... Originally my parents wanted me to do it so that I could get a job and make some money before going to school. I'm kind of doing that now, but that's not why I would recommend taking a gap year.

Basically, I'm using it to prepare for college and life.

So like, most people try to get a degree to fit a job they might like. Other people try to stay flexible, and get a more general degree.

This is silly, because you can find out what you want to do right now. So I'm trying out a few different possible jobs before going to school.

I'm also having fun learning skills that I think would be useful, that I probably would rationalize not learning while I was in school, like NVC or IFS. There's a bunch of information like how to interview that you can learn so that you'll be more prepared to get a job out of college, rather than hope that your degree/resume will speak for itself (it probably won't).

comment by Marius · 2011-03-10T14:36:54.625Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you want to be when you grow up? You say "might get a Master's" - but what's the Master's for? The reason I ask is the following If your goal is academia, you are best served going to a top-tier school - Harvard, CMU, and MIT are the only ones on this list. If your goal is to get a job outside academia- what kind? If you want to be a manager, school prestige will be key. If you want to be an engineer, you will be judged more on the quality of your work. In that case you might be better served by a cheaper school or one that will [make you happier/give you a better education] than by the most prestigious school you get into.

I know you aren't ready to decide tomorrow - but think in rough percentages chance you'll go down various roads.