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Your College is Not a Technical School

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I went to school with some of the smartest people in the world–people whose knowledge and insight would stun you regularly–but you wouldn’t always know it. Maybe it was the guy who didn’t know how to pump his own gas, or the girl whose monotone voice and paragraph-long questions made me want to jump off a bridge and stab myself on the way down (want to be doubly sure). I don’t know.

But one of the stupidest things I heard thrown around was the question of which major would help get a job. It went something like this: “All the econ majors get jobs in consulting, so maybe I should do that…” (thousand-yard stare).

I’m so tired of hearing this that I am seriously considering walking a crocodile on a leash wherever I go and having him chomp off the arms of the stupid people who say this.

Your college is not a technical school. If you simply want a job, you can go to ITT Tech. Instead, I think college is about meeting interesting people, doing what’s interesting to you, becoming very good at it, and marketing yourself.

What I’m saying is different than the old, conventional thinking about life (“Go to school, pick a safe major, get a good job, and be a cog in the machine for the rest of your life”). I even know some parents who insist their children get master’s degrees. Why? “It looks good.”

When senior year rolls around and people are looking for jobs, it’s amusing to see the contradictions in what we believe and what our opportunities really are. For example, a funny but sad barrier people use on their own job hunt: “I’m an English major, so I can’t apply to be an investment banker.” No, the reason you can’t be a banker is that you selected yourself out of the applicant pool based on your ignorant assumptions.

Your major isn’t as important as you think. It’s what you’ve done that distinguishes you.

I think the point of school is much more than to simply get some credentials, and it’s certainly much more than to learn the stuff you do in class. In fact, ask your friends who graduated how much of their coursework they use on a daily basis. For almost every major, the answer is exactly the same: not much. Instead, college should ideally teach you how to think and give you a broad-based skill set that you can apply almost anywhere.

Priorities are important
When I was in school, my priorities were (in order)…
1. Friends
2. My own business stuff
3. Classes

Before you write me telling me that grades come first because your parents are paying $3895823523, please note that I agree–you have to get decent grades. No argument: If you have a 2.0 GPA, you’re probably not getting a good job right out of college.

But I have a couple of things I want to talk about: First, grades are important for grad school and, to a limited extent, for your first job. After that, nobody gives a damn. Second–and this is my own personal opinion, of course–I’d rather get moderately good grades while having a social life and doing a bunch of interesting stuff, rather than focusing exclusively on school so I could get an A+. What’s an A+? It’s a letter and a character…on a piece of paper.

Plus, it’s often prohibitively hard to get from a B- to an A. In other words, it’s not too hard to get to an 85%, but getting from there to a 95% is really hard. If you can do it while managing your time, great (and frankly, most top students do). Is it worth it every time? No way.

Oh my god, Ramit!!! Are you suggesting we don’t get the best grades we can?!?!?

No, but I like when you get really agitated like that. Of course everybody should try to get the best grades they can. But there’s more to school than grades. And this is why I think that doing cool stuff that produces tangible results is really important. For example, do you have a portfolio of projects you’ve designed? Do you have a blog? Do you have a strong network of great people who can help you find the right job? Do you have articles you’ve written for different newspapers? What do you have besides a conventional, boring transcript to show what you did for the last 4 years?

I think I could probably learn 80% of my college career simply from reading the books. But the last 20%–the hardest and most valuable part–came from talking to people, bouncing ideas off them, doing my own startup stuff, and making a bunch of mistakes. And I did all of this in the relative safety of college, where the worst that can happen is you get a “-” next to one of the letter grades on your transcript.

I wrote about a similar thing in my article on greed and speed, where I said that if you build something valuable, the money will come. The same is true of jobs: If you do interesting work, have great friends, build a great network of supporters, and market yourself, the employers will come. In fact, if you’re really good, instead of you seeking them out, they will seek you out.

Look what business luminary Tom Peters says about GPAs:

Never hire a human being who had a 4.0 in college. If they had a perfect GPA, it means they bought the act and never screwed around. Now a 2.0 is probably not so good. But the ones who had 3.0, yeah! Those are the freaks you want!

(More commentary on this from Ian Ybarra.)

Most people don’t think this. They want a job after college, and that’s where their 4 years goes. I would ALWAYS hire a B-student who can show me she understands technology and is passionate about what she does, over someone who shows me he spent 4 years in the library and has no tolerance for risk or real skills (except test-taking).

Are you stuck by convention?
Let’s see what a couple of other hardcore entrepreneurs have to say about it.

Paul Graham notes this in his absolutely excellent essay, Hiring is Obsolete:

I asked managers at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft how they’d feel about two candidates, both 24, with equal ability, one who’d tried to start a startup that tanked, and another who’d spent the two years since college working as a developer at a big company. Every one responded that they’d prefer the guy who’d tried to start his own company. Zod Nazem, who’s in charge of engineering at Yahoo, said:

I actually put more value on the guy with the failed startup. And you can quote me!

So there you have it. Want to get hired by Yahoo? Start your own company.

You don’t necessarily have to start your own company. But if you want the jobs that aren’t announced on the email list, and you want to just have a more fun time at college, you do have to do interesting stuff. Publish papers. Start a student group. Travel a bunch and take cool photographs. Get 10 friends together and meet the CEOs of the biggest companies around, and write up what you learned. Do anything beyond just your classes!

In the end, I think it’s actually more risky to focus exclusively on classes. Why? Because you have to compete against everyone else who will be trying to get jobs using the same critera: grades. I hate competing against other people directly, so I’d rather simply go around them.

Finally, Seth Godin weighs in:

I had two brushes with higher education this week.

The first was at a speech I gave in New York. There were several Harvard Business School students there, invited because of their interest in marketing and exceptional promise…

Anyway, they asked for my advice in finding marketing jobs. When I shared my views (go to a small company, work for the CEO, get a job where you actually get to make mistakes and do something) one woman professed to agree with me, but then explained, “But those companies don’t interview on campus.”

Those companies don’t interview on campus. Hmmm. She has just spent $100,000 in cash and another $150,000 in opportunity cost to get an MBA, but…

The second occurred today at Yale. As I drove through the amazingly beautiful campus, I passed the center for Asian Studies. It reminded me of my days as an undergrad (at a lesser school, natch), browsing through the catalog, realizing I could learn whatever I wanted. That not only could I take classes but I could start a business, organize a protest movement, live in a garret off campus, whatever. It was a tremendous gift, this ability to choose.

Yet most of my classmates refused to choose. Instead, they treated college like an extension of high school. They took the most mainstream courses, did the minimum amount they needed to get an A, tried not to get into “trouble” with the professor or face the uncertainty of the unknowable. They were the ones who spent six hours a day in the library, reading their textbooks.

The best part of college is that you could become whatever you wanted to become, but most people just do what they think they must.

There’s more to school than grades and getting a job. What are you going to do?

Articles I quoted:

What now? See my other articles on personal entrepreneurship.

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  1. you make some excellent points Ramit. going out, meeting new people, experiencing new things are all apart of the college experience. well rounded individuals come from this school of thought, although some administrators may think differently. I would have to say they were the ones with their noses in books 24/7 however…
    nice piece.

  2. Very nice blog post Ramit! If you look at the way business schools market MBA program – they market the destination i.e. MBA as means of attaining professional growth rather than marketing MBA as an experience that will give you perspectives to look at business which eventually leads to professional growth.

  3. You know, on the side I teach college math courses. I think im going to hand this out to my students. haha Im serious!

    Its so frustrating to be in my position (i can only imagine full time – ugh) and have to deal with an adminstration that doesnt get it – and encourages students to waste their time being overly focused on the SCHOOL part and not the other parts… damn it.

  4. Great Post Ramit. I’m a student myself. Next year, I will earn my Bachelors of Science.

    I see this happen all the time. People go to school, get straight A’s and then can’t find work. They spend too much time on their books and not enough time exploring the endless world of oppurunities that surround them. They’re aslo afraid to try new things.

    Yeah, you graduated with honors, but really, what is that going to do for me if hire you? Not a damn thing!

  5. You are absolutely right about grades not being important except for maybe the first job.

    I am working for a fourth company since I finished school and not once have I been hired based on my grades (decent but not great).

    So, you might as well get some decent grades and have fun along the way.

  6. grades are important, I interview a hundred people a month, and not always from their first job. how hard you worked in school is an excellent predictor of how hard you’ll work within a real organization.

  7. I learned later (almost too late) in my college career how to pick the best classes. Go to book store prior to registration and browse the text books. If you like the book you will probably enjoy the class.

  8. I’ve never once been asked for my grades upon graduating.
    I’d likely walk away if someone did.
    Reminds me of an interview where I was asked for the definition of risk.
    Gave my casual interpretation and was asked for the “textbook” definition.
    Told them right away that it wasn’t the environment for me, thanked them for their time and walked out.

  9. I will never forget graduating from colege. When they called the engineering school, they all held up and waved oversized green “dollar bills” signifying all the money they would make. What happened next? Oh, just a big recession. A lot of those kids hard a hard time finding a job. The took it for granted that those A’s and hours in the library meant an automatic job. But a lot of them didn’t know how to adapt to the economic realities and didn’t have social networks to rely on for contact that might lead to jobs.

    And it’s absolutely true that no one in the work world gives a snot what kind of grades you had in college. All that matters is — “what can you do for me?”

  10. Ramit,

    A few months ago, I wrote “What good is an MBA?”. It is here:

    The point is that it is interesting you stress the choice is between getting good grades and having a network and exciting life.

    i think the point is that school teaches us some basics — some basics that we need to learn and know how to apply. Getting a 4.0 average means you master those basics. But that is not enough. You need to sell yourself or know how to apply what you learn. And I guess that is what you meant by cool stuff.

    I would like to stress that going to school should be knowing and mastering the relevant principles that you will need later on. The best marketing and connections in the world is not going to help somebody who have a dubious understanding of the basics in management, or of the technology he sought to master.