Advice for the college bound

Your kid is going away to college for the first time (Yana is going to Franklin and Marshall, by the way; boo-hoo but of course we are proud of her).  What advice do you offer her (or is it me?), keeping in mind that all strictures must embody economic reasoning in some form or another?


Take calculus in college, even if you placed out of with AP.

The marginal utility curve for studying is steep at first, then reaches a fairly flat plateau.

Major in one of the "hard" sciences: Mathematics, Engineering, Chemistry, or Physics so that you have something to show for your four years. If you want to major in English, by all means do it, but do a double with Math. I speak from personal experience. After finishing a political science degree, I realized I didn't have anything tangible (or testable) to show from it and dove into mathematics.

I sincerely believe that a major or minor in one of the hard sciences makes a student much more employable - people are more likely to think they're smart. And judging by lists of the highest paying undergraduate degrees, I'm on the right track.

Take generic freshman courses (English 101, Math 101, etc) at a community college and transfer the credits in. As long as you pass the credits will transfer, but the grade won't affect your GPA.

This way you don't have to worry about being in a lab or class run by one of the hundreds of grad students who aren't that great at teaching.

I agree with Steve L - Office Hours, internships, study abroad.

I'll tell you what my parents told me. You need to know that we are Scots.
1) Mum: "Keep yourself (pause) clean, dear."
2) Dad: "Be sure to take out English girls: you can afford beer but not whisky."

The education is free the degree costs so take free classes on line or even audit in classes and CLEP what you can for the degree.

I agree with TC. Major in a hard science. I didn't. now I'm forced to go to law school to make my UG seem worth wile.

I'm sure she will value your empirical experience the most (tell us it if you will). As a chem prof and freshman advisor at a selective school, I suggest she take at most a moderately challenging course load first semester. I see some students who want to sign up for semesters from Hell, not being calibrated on how hard the particular average course is. Where possible, choose courses based on the lecturer, not the subject. A good teacher will make any course worthwhile. If interested in the sciences, try starting research as soon as possible, even the second semester. It is better to create new knowledge than recycle old knowledge. I somewhat disagree with Mark S. A great introductory course can create the cognitive organizational framework to really understand a discipline, and that is more likely to be found at a place like F&M. Perhaps someone else can turn this into econ-speak.

What degree she goes for should deeply depend on her interests and on what university she attends.
Compare the marginal value of a unit of effort, not the absolute value of a degree.
State school students may be more employable earning an engineering degree, but a student at an Ivy will be much more employable by studying with an English major, a math or finance minor, and the 3.8 GPA that enables, than with an engineering degree. Also, they will have far more time to make the contacts which provide the main value added from their degree. The extra 20 hrs a week for partying pay much better returns per hour than they would earning the same GPA in a harder major.

Real education is free, so maximize degree quality when in college and learn later unless you have self-motivation problems

I don’t buy this stuff about the obvious value of a BA in a hard science. The least employable people I knew out of university were people with Chemistry BAs. Over qualified and under trained to be lab technicians and way under qualified for the reality of ‘being a professional chemist.’ I imagine the same is true of biologists and probably a lot of physicists. This is especially true if you live in a country that is not like the U.K. What seems to matter there is where you went to school and not at all what you have studied. London is apparently full of management consultants with BAs in Latin, etc†¦. How is it on this front in the US?

The main question to ask is ‘do I want a specific and clear career path out of university or do I want an interesting education.’ If it is the first thing you want become an engineer of some sort, a pharmacist, a doctor, a lawyer, etc†¦. If you choose philosophy, economics, political science, cultural geography, etc†¦ be aware that it is going to take you a little longer to find your way once you are out. There is just nothing more annoying than a poli-sci grad surprised and complaining at the end of four years there are no obvious political science jobs.

I also agree with TC. I was an English major that went on to grad school in Computer science and then Finance. Luckily for whatever reason I did calc through diff. equations as an undergrad despite my major. Steve's got some good advice too.

I disagree about the hard sciences. They are getting increasingly technical and narrow. Physics is still probably a good bet for a "prove you're wicked smart" major, but math and philosophy are better for that, if she can swing it.

She should decide relatively quickly what she wants to do after college, and shouldn't be afraid to take some easy classes in order to get the grades that will put her there. (You should probably make this point to her personally; students with academics in the family tend to have trouble treating learning as a cynical attempt to further one's life goals by assembling a CV that provides good signals.)

Don't stay together with anyone longer than, say, six months. That ends poorly for everyone.

Keep it difficult: Better to do average in above-average courses than to do above-average in average courses.

Rationale: Labor markets are efficientl employers see past mere GPA.

What Eric said, but splurge for 2GB of RAM.

For Yana:

The marginal utility of partying diminishes rather quickly past a certain point. Spend no more than three nights a week at the bar and/or other place where booze is available. This leaves four nights for study, and that probably works out about right. I spent five nights a week at the bar, my ability to do course work (except, oddly, statistics) suffered.

Drink to excess on occasion. Being drunk is really quite pleasant at times, and no long-run harm will come of the infrequent bender. Do not tell your father about this, for it will only cause him to worry.

Develop a taste for good liquor and beer, as those provide the most pleasant experiences if you're not in a particular mood to drink to excess.

For Tyler:

Avoid worry, you've done all you can to this point, so the lessons will have taken or not. All of that is sunk-cost, and what do you gain by worry whilst she's off someplace else?

Recognize that she will likely drink to excess sometimes, try to avoid calling early in the morning, especially on weekends. That will keep worry to a minimum, and your interactions at the margin will be much more pleasant.

If you want to make good money, these are your options upon graduation:

1) Management consulting

These jobs don't require you to have any real skills, but you do need to be motivated and detail
oriented and be a good communicator with good leadership qualities. In order to go this route,
you'll need to have a whole bunch of leadership experience, so join some organizations and take leadership roles in them ASAP.

2) Investment banking

Similar to (1) but pays better and is more work. It helps to have a good technical background to get these jobs.

3) Graduate degree

Go to law school, med school or get a Ph. D., or at least a master's, in econ, statistics, or one of the hard sciences. If this is the path you want to go, make sure you take tough left brained courses and get some research experience and programming experience as an undergrad.

And one parting word... Life may be a lot harder than you realize. WELCOME TO HELL!

8) oh yea, take as many "sminar" style courses as you can.

Know why you're going to college. My reason for going to college was "because that's what comes after high school". I would have been a lot more successful if I had thought of a better reason beforehand.

1. Don't take foreign language classes. Getting older and the lack of immersion means you don't learn as much, and what you do doesn't stick.

2. Don't repeatedly show up late to lecture/section. You lose a third of a grade -- and over 4 years, that adds up. Similarly, go to office hours for each class at least twice even if you don't need to -- worth a third of a grade boost.

3. Try a lot of new activities freshman/sophomore year, even if you don't think you'll like them.

4. Be risk-averse towards the big stuff: Don't put yourself in a situation where you're drinking and driving, don't get an std, don't get pregnant, don't try to take 21 shots on your 21st birthday.

My suggestions:
Backwards induction

Backwards induction - figure out where you want to be with your life both workwise and personally and then determine how to use college to get there

Options - The upfront cost is a little tedious, but make a list of courses you want to take next semester/year or whatever, who will be teaching it and then go sit in on a few lectures in the cycle before taking it to determine whether it is appropriate for what you want and whether the person can teach.

Also, there are $20 bills on the ground occasionally, but only if you look for them. Some of the most interesting courses are the ones that seem most unusual. My experience - History of War to the Napoleonic Era. My brother - Minor authors of the Italian Renaissance

Be careful how much you pregame before parties, especially if you are joining a sorority. There are many young men who will take advantage if are pregame too much.

Get a credit card and spend your future earnings today. Nothing like some good consumption smoothing...

Oh, and I don't have a job. So if that's important you might want to major in something other than math.

The discount rate for the future costs, in embarrassment and lost earnings, of those Facebook pictures that you post as a freshman might be close to zero.

If you are frugal avoid your instincts when purchasing the following items: beer, deodorant, toilet paper, and coffee.

"(1) Don't freak out freshman year. Read Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" before you go. No, really."
For the record, that book horribly depressed me and freaked me out more than anything else.

My suggestion: The marginal utility of 1 hour of sleep may seem like a lot when lying in bed, but missing an hour of class often means losing one-third of class time for the week, which is a lot more useful.

Also: Master all the econ pickup lines. I have a couple myself, but I'm not sure they are suited for a family-friendly blog.

Also: The large number of socialists is, in fact, due to an information cascade (is that how it was put in Infotopia?)

Joey is absolutely right.

I forgot that about college basketball -- and for the observant there is a lot to learn about spatial awareness, group psychology, fads, economics, physics, and art in college basketball games.

Follow the basic rule - because there is an unlimited supply of food at the dining hall, your demand for those foods should decrease, NOT increase. In other words, exercise and beware of freshman 15!

Make sure that higher education is what she really needs. A lot of very good, interesting and high paying jobs are based on experience not education. Why bother going through 4 years of college if at the end you are going to start at the bottom of the ladder along with the kids that just got out of highschool. College is for educators and researchers, most jobs are about hard work and who you know.

Knowing what you want to do with your life is helpful, and if you truly know what you want to do with your life, it's not that hard to plan accordingly. I didn't have a clue until I was 25.

If you don't know what you want to do with your life, take as much time as you need to figure it out. College is a fabulous place to do that--I second the suggestion above to take interesting professors over practical courses. It's much more important to come out with a well-developed sense of self than a well-developed set of skills. Once you decide what, exactly, it is that you want to do, it's really easy to pick up the skills.

- Study abroad. Not because it looks good on a resume but because a) it will give you a different perspective and b) the challenges you will face and the people you will meet (depending on where you study) will serve you well in areas you can't yet imagine. Also, this might be your last chance for a while to spend a significant chunk of time outside the country.

- Participate in an intramural sport both for socialization and health reasons. If not that, join the school's ski club or something along those lines.

- Take a manageable courseload your first semester. Ignore the urge to rush out of the gate and instead spend the extra time in socializing/getting the lay of the land. Many people have made this point so I won't belabor it.

- Explore the campus. I tended to hole up in the one or two buildings where most of my classes were held, and regretted that toward the end of my stay. Don't miss the hidden treasures.

- Take road trips with friends every once in a while (to Phila, Pittsburgh, wherever). Getting off campus is refreshing.

- Make friends with as many international students as possible. You'll have better options for summer/holiday breaks. (I'm semi-kidding about this. Having close friends is obviously important; if one happens to live abroad it's just gravy.)

Here is a site I made out of advice to incoming Grinnell College students from current students and relatively recent alumni:

It's organized by category and keyword-searchable. Some of the advice is Grinnell-specific, but much is not.

Academics: Learn how to study. In all likelihood, you have no idea how, and have never had to try. Nearly none of the majors at college will ask you to study. Find one that does. An engineering major is a good option, but math or science is better.

Make a point to learn how to study in your freshman year. This means take difficult classes, and learn how to work at them. Learn that those who are successful in life aren't the smartest, but those who learn how to work hard. Specifically, take Honors Freshman calculus, EVEN if you placed out of it. DO NOT skip ahead. Do not cash the AP credit. Learn how to be in college by studying. Cashing the AP credit means you won't learn until you it's too late.

Social life: Pick your friends. Do not let them pick you. Even if you choose poorly, this is a better path to take than if you let them pick you.

Decide what you want to get out of living in a dorm. If the reasons are people, lifestyle, friends or something other than strict convenience to campus, consider how you could move off campus and still have those things. Plan to move out before the 4 years are up.

"I am Charlotte Simmons" is a much rosier picture of campus life than most. It's quite accurate. All it takes to be in those situations is to fall into who your friends are, rather than figuring out how to find the ones you want. Practice makes perfect.

Your opportunity costs for traveling around the world are pretty low right now. Take your studies seriously, but make sure to get out and about.

Keep asking your parents to send money.

For her:

1) Take lots of Math.

2) Do things you didn't think you'd do (clubs, athletics). I wrote a play and started springboard diving in college, both on a whim. Both were great experiences.

3) If they are free at F&M (sometimes they are at a liberal arts school) take extra courses. 5 per semester is very manageable, and at my college, it didn't cost anything extra.

The best economic move a young person can make in college is to identify a suitable candidate for spouse with high future earning potential. This ensures a lifetime of high household earnings. Worked for me - I married an economist!

My number one recommendation is: take courses intended for that departments major. I noticed very early on in my college career that there are two kinds of classes in any department: those taught for it's own majors (whom the department tends to care about) and those taught as a service for those majoring in other subjects (whom the department typically doesn't care about). You *alway* want to be on the 'cared about' list. The easiest way to do that is to take the courses intended for the majors.

In addition I generally found that 'Show up, show interest, show promise' opened a tremendous number of doors for me. Most faculty are were they are because they love their field. If you show up, show an interest in their field, and show promise of being good at it they will fall over themselves to help you.

Plan out all of the classes you intend to take for the next four years. Repeat at least once a semester. Your plan will shift with time (probably quite significantly) but you will be way ahead of the folks who have no idea what the prereqs are or what sequences build on each other.

Finally: be ambitious!

Here's one for dad: never underestimate the tradability of gifts. Remember Winona Ryder hawking gas from her chargecard in Reality Bites? When I was in college we quickly learned that credits from the meal plan could also be used to get cookies at the store (at a terrible exchange rate). Better send cash instead of buying her a Macbook.

Yana has been abroad. She does not need that, although more never hurts.

To Dirk, physics can be the best way to get into finance. Econophysics is no
joke, and the oldl line about "rocket scientists on Wall Street" was just the
earlier version.

BTW, I am speaking as one with a daughter about to enter George Mason and who has
two much older daughters, now popping out grandchildren. The one going to GMU is
looking at their new computer and data sciences major with a minor in physics, but
she is worried that she might end up an economist like her parents, especially after
she got into a big debate with one of the computational economists from Japan at a
conference there during freshman orientation... (those last two were pureyly coincidental).

does it really make sense for Yana to treat Franklin and Marshall like a trade school?

The university, itself, most effectively teaches students in the humanities. indeed, the university was created towards this end with plato's academy and continued through the medieval time period with Europe's great universities.

And most people change careers several times in their life. A good lib arts education, even with a major in philosophy, will assist her with various career paths.

Economics-tinged advice for the incoming college freshman: it's all about opportunity costs.

In America, college is a unique time. The American college student has the greatest set-up of any human being in history. You can pretty much do whatever you want and as long as you keep getting those credits (gotta graduate on time!), you're still on the right track.

Try new things. All the time. At all costs. Don't lose all of your time doing things that are comfortable-but-lame, like sleeping in or watching tv. You have many decades to turn into a couch-potato/homebody. Take trips of varying length (day, weekend, week-long, etc.). Take crazy courses. Join clubs. Kiss many boys. Be creative in formerly unthought of ways.

Also: study hard. Immerse yourself in the material. Find the best professors and pick their brains.

So what's the trade-off? Where do you cut back if you're going to do all this stuff?

First off, sleep: do less of it. you'll do it when you're old (like, 26). You'll appreciate it more then, too. Second, familiar things. Go home less. Fairfax county will still be there when you graduate. You'll appreciate your parents more after you get your first place on your own. Third, just chillin'. Don't waste time--entire afternoons, mornings, evenings, just being bored in the presence of other people.

Bottom line: this is the most valuable period of your life. Diverse experiences are your friend. Think of something different and then just do it.

1. Engage the Marxists at F&M - it will help refine your thinking on all issues, not just economics.

2. You will get out of it what you put into it - this is true at most colleges. Most colleges have an abundance of intellectual, social and physical resources.

3. Remember that almost everyone will consider college to be the best years of their lives ... but don't go into it with that expectation.

4. Keep all of your books and notes. Tyler might disagree.

Tell her to not trust any male student who says he is pre-law or pre-med. He is just trying to save time in his pursuit to getting in her pants.

* Never go to a party by yourself.

* Never leave a party by yourself (by which, I mean, leave with your girlfriends).

* Never leave your drink unattended at a party. If you do, pour it out and get another.

* While you hold your drink, hold it by the lip with your hand covering the opening. Think of palming a basketball.

* Treat college like your first job. Set regular weekday hours starting at about 9-11 am and ending 8 hours later. During this time, you will go to your classes, study and do homework, eat lunch, and take short breaks. Treating college like a job will leave you with most of your evenings and week-ends free for hobbies, friends, parties, or something crazy like picking up a musical instrument.

* Much learning takes place in hobbies. I learned to make people laugh by entertaining my friends in a music theater group. That carried over to the rest of my personality, and I'm now a much more outgoing person than I was when I started college.

* Don't hesitate to try something new. I regret to this day waiting so long to get involved in the college hobbies I did (junior year, mostly).

* Learn to write. There is no more important skill than knowing how to write clearly and forcefully, unless you plan on being a humanities scholar, where the opposite is true. The most important class in college is your persuasive writing class. Take advantage of any writer's collectives/houses/programs on campus.

* Learn a bit of statistics. Two semesters is plenty. Knowing how to read through the bullshit of statistics will make you savvy. For example, the WHO ranks America's health system down pretty far, but if you dig into their methodology, they deduct points for systems that are not government-funded, regardless of their quality. Hence, the WHO's statistics undervalue America's health system. That's one example of many.

* Exercise. You'll just feel better. You don't need to do CrossFit or create a 6-day-a-week split, but lift some weights and do a little running or cycling. There are tons of programs for women at

* Eat right. Limit starches and sugars, focus on meat with its fat, fish, poultry, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruit. You'll be leaner and feel better, and you won't have the fogginess of the sugar and caffeine rollercoaster.

* If you don't already know how, get someone to teach you how to dress to flatter your body and how to do your hair and make-up to accent your features. Women are judged on their looks; doors fly open for pretty women. Even if you are not naturally pretty, every woman can be fit, dress well, have a flattering hairstyle, fix her teeth, wear contacts or flattering glasses, etc. I fell in love with a woman like that one time, and it was one of the best relationships I ever had.

* If you are beautiful, be modest about your beauty and friendly to girls who are not. No one is more hated than a beautiful person who is convinced he or she earned it. Be free with advice, when asked, about clothes, make-up, hair, fitness, etc.

* Don't be a slut. If a man likes you, he liked you before you slept together. If he doesn't, sleeping with you won't change his mind. I'm not telling you to be a prude. Find someone, have sex, enjoy it. But don't think it replaces genuine affection or admiration, or gives self-esteem. It's just sex.

* Your major doesn't really matter unless you plan on doing science or engineering. Other than that, be bright, outgoing, personable, pretty as you can, and a razor-sharp writer. Everything else will flow.

* Don't listen to the idiots on the thread telling you to plan your life for the next 30 years and start tomorrow. Your mind will change at least twice in college, and probably once or twice afterwards. Be open. Be flexible.

* Your calling is what you would do for free. Your job is what you do for money. For most of us, our jobs fund our callings. But the happiest people I know make their calling their job, even when they don't have two nickels to rub together. Happiness is the real success.

* "Learn everything that is useful, and everything that is ornamental." - Benjamin Franklin

My own older son is going this September too. Like many of his generation, he sees university as a route to a (lucrative) career far more than his parents did.

It is difficult enough to know what jobs will be in demand in five years time. But the chances of getting a good job are not determined only by demand. People are flocking to the high demand areas (biotechnology + business from what I can see) and so your chances of getting a good job there are no greater than elsewhere. To have a good chance of getting a good job you need to guess which fields will have a demand exceeding the supply - you have to guess better than everyone else. Your chances of doing so are slim to none.

Therefore, the best thing to do is to let the career take care of itself and take courses you are interested in.

Bring lots of underwear and socks, because this is what determines how long you can go without doing laundry.

As an inexperienced drinker, you don't know your limits. It's when you go over your limits that you do stupid and dangerous things. Take it easy on the booze until you learn what those limits are.

Use birth control.

Buy her a house/condo. Don't worry, she will still bring home laundry. You can rent out extra rooms and either keep renting it or sell it when she graduates. I simply do not know why more parents do not do this. Housing in most college towns is very stable. During her summers, if she does not have plans, get her to work on the house and pay her a fair wage. She will be less likely to trash it after that and she will learn the value of manual labor.

Before she leaves, get her to show you, in a spreadsheet, how credit cards work. Otherwise, she will graduate with $8K in credit card debt which, being the good dad that you are, will be your debt.

Stay away from PBR and Milwaukee's Best

The most important thing about any education are the people. Focus on connecting with and understanding people, not facts or pieces of paper, and you'll get more out of your education.

Consider opportunity cost very seriously when entering into exclusively monogamous relationships. And in calculating such costs, take very seriously the Black Swan genre of arguments.

Start by switching to the state university available to her (Penn State?). Unless you make it into a top 10 - 20 university, there's no reason to not choose the quality state university available to you. For example, I had a friend who attended Denison University in Granville, OH. I attended Ohio State. Economically, we are on the same level now, but his college debt was far greater than mine. The long term economic advantage is to me. Additionally, many Denison students were east coast kids who couldn't get into an Ivy league school. Long term, they probably would have been just as well-off attending Rutgers, a SUNY school, etc.

The value of knowing facts is less than the value of knowing how to reason about facts. The value of knowing how to reason about, relate to, and "know" people - including yourself - is higher than anything else.

My first month in college, I met a senior who told me that there were three facets of college life, and you can only have two at a time: stellar grades, lots of sleep, or great social life. (econspeak: opportunity costs, anyone?) The sooner you find a balance to your life, the better. So here are some rules that worked for me.

1) Have a basic understanding of econ. Esp micro.
2) Eat healthy. You don't get fat from beer and pizza once in awhile, but wolfing down hamburgers at lunch and loads of pasta every night for dinner will eventually get to you.
3) Check out interesting classes. Audit them, just go and sit in on them if you're unsure, whatever.
4) The secret to good grades is preparation. "Winging it" saved me countless times in HS but very infrequently in college.
5) Expose yourself to a lot of randomness. Especially if you're not sure of what you want to do in life. Ask me how I know this :)
6) Develop good habits. Students who pull frequent all-nighters during college carry over their bad habits to their jobs after college. Maintain a good balance to your life.
7) Prioritize.
8) Treat your profs as fellow human beings rather than Gods who hold your academic destinies in their hands.
9) You can learn (cheaply) just by going to the library. The high premium you pay for a college experience is for the vast resources each college has to offer, important connections in specific fields, friends, a degree that will open doors, etc. The bill may read something like: Tuition, Rooming, Insurance blah blah blah, but the actual list is the one given above. This is precisely what you need to take advantage of.
10) Ask. Upperclassmen about which classes to take or which profs to have. Seniors about their job search or how to make the most of college. Profs about their lives. Alumni about how they made decisions to get to where they are. Friends about what they are doing next summer or what they plan to be.

Just make sure you never stop asking. Ask your father about it. After all, he posted one simple question and got blitzed by a flurry of replies.

more sex is safer sex.

- Calculate the cost of sleeping through a class by dividing the number of hours of lecture a year with your tuition. The number is sure to get the most spoiled children out of bed. Ignore sunken costs.

- Start smoking if like most schools smoking isn't allowed indoors and impromptu groups accumulate between classes. The networking opportunities are huge, and your lungs can take 4 years of smoking.

Trust your own instincts, and don't be a passive participant in your own life. Don't let a professor recruit you to an underrepresented major you're not sure about, don't let a controlling friend or significant other make you feel guilty for spending time with other people, and don't let an RA chastise you if you choose to wear pajama bottoms to the ATM in the student union. These are not the people who will live with your decisions.

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