If I were to do college again
Edward Lando is a co-founder of Horizons, the first coding bootcamp for college students.
Since the company I’m working on is getting started in Philadelphia, I’ve been back on Penn’s campus a lot in the past few months.
I love being back and at the same time inevitably feel a little nostalgic, as always happens when you revisit a place where you’ve lived an important and beautiful part of your life.
Nostalgia always gets me thinking. What would I do were I to do it over again? What would I tell a young Edward today?
1. Run for class president.
Because why not? Everyone has impostor syndrome in the first few weeks. Everyone wants to meet everyone else but no one really knows anyone. So you feel like the odd kid at the party but of course all the others are in the same boat. So take that leap. Not many students even ran in my year and those who won just ended up being those who were gutsy and uninhibited enough to introduce themselves to everyone they crossed paths with. For all the candidates, regardless of whether they won, it was a very good move that paid off for the entire 4 years. There are no strangers… Only people you have not met yet. This is most true on college campuses. So time to get out of your comfort zone.
2. Only attend the lectures you enjoy.
During course selection period, try out as many classes as you can. Your university is a restaurant and it’s offering its entire menu. Have a little sample of each dish.
Very quickly, you’ll find that some classes and professors stimulate you and others are a drag. Either drop those classes or don’t go and just do the problem sets with a group friends. This is not high school anymore. You choose to be here and you are paying to get value so be ruthless about what you like and what you don’t. You have no time to waste and if you are forced to take some requirements you don’t like just get through them and spend most of your time focusing on what you find interesting and what makes you happy.
3. Favor classes that revolve around group work.
Because they prepare you best for the real world. I’ve forgotten all the classes for which I sat in a big lecture, barely acknowledged my neighbor and just did the problem sets and exams and called it a day. But those that had me constantly working with my peers I still remember today. I learned more from them than from the material covered in the class.
4. Choose classes for the professor over the subject.
Ever had the experience of meeting someone who is infinitely charismatic and tells the most fascinating stories? Doesn’t matter what they talk about. You’re hanging on their every word. Well, that applies to professors. I’ve had the experience of signing up for classes that sounded particularly interesting and getting the dullest lecturers. Quickly, I learned to prioritize the professor’s rating over anything else.
In fact, I took an advanced Statistics class just because my now good friend Emil, a Statistics PhD and particularly gifted lecturer was TA’ing it. I had no special interest in Probability but he made it extremely entertaining and interesting. His excitement was contagious. I mean, he managed to bring Chopin and War and Peace into some of his practice problems.
5. Practice public speaking as much as possible.
Practice rejection, practice making a total fool of yourself. The earlier you get used to these things in life, the bolder you’ll be on a day to day basis. I remember flyering on Locust Walk and getting ignored and denied, I remember seeing new fraternity pledges interrupting big lectures to sing to girls and give them roses on Valentines Day while all the students filmed and smiled and laughed, I remember people standing up and delivering very strange performances in poetry slam competitions, and the list goes on. In all of these, these people were better off after than before. Doing scary public things is like taking a cold shower. It’s difficult but it’s really good for you and shakes you back to reality, if you’re only brave enough to try it.
6. Explore your campus fully, as soon as possible.
It sounds silly but lots of people didn’t know parts of the campus existed until senior year or even never discovered them at all. Little gorgeous secrets that are great places to take walks or hang out or study. I think this is important because not doing it is the definition of being complacent and not making full use of all the resources that have been shared with you. There’s a beautiful biopond at Penn that I only discovered junior year because I’d never walked to that part of campus before. It’s easy to get locked into your little habits.
7. Make upperclassman friends.
I think that one of the biggest mistakes that young people make is to only spend time with people their age. People older than you are like future versions of you. It’s quite actually like getting to peek at the future, so why not use that? Ask them what their favorite classes were and take them, ask them what they wish they’d known, get them to share it all. They want to.
This applies to people at any stage in life. If you are in your early twenties, spend time with people in their thirties and forties and beyond. It’s like having a second chance before you need a second chance.
8. Share the moments with your family.
Your parents invested everything they had in you and they’re the people who care about you the most in the whole world. It’s great that you’re turning into a full-grown adult and going to all these parties, but why not share the fun and the experiences with those who love you. Think about how hard it must be for them to have you leave after all these years. Don’t let that stop you in your own life of course but also realize that sharing your moments with them in no way makes you less of an adult. In fact, it makes you wiser and more mature and will make the experiences you share even more memorable.
9. Get to know your favorite professors.
If you truly enjoy and admire a professor, go to their office hours and develop a more personal relationship with them. They are human beings, not just “professors” and can become good friends and mentors especially once you’re done taking their class. I’ve witnessed a lot of fruitful student-professor relationships that have persisted far beyond the student’s undergraduate years.
10. Hang out more.
Not kidding. Dorms are an incredibly unique social experiment and once in a lifetime experience. In my case, everyone on the floor had an open door policy, which meant that people left their doors partly open most of the time. Unless the door was locked you could just come in and say hi, have a seat somewhere and start chatting. This will never happen again once you are done with college! And so much comes from it. You will not remember most of your experience in these 4 years but you will remember the late night conversations and adventures, like I remember the time when my friend Matt came back from a party, put on some country music and painted a Michelangelo inspired fresco of the head of our program on his wall.
11. When it’s sunny, grab a blanket and work outside on the grass.
Nothing else to add.
12. Choose people and moments over grades and exams.
There will be many times when you’ll come to a people & moments vs studying decision. As someone who has always been a top student, I will tell you: choose experiences. Grades really do not matter as much as you think. People and moments will inevitably be the most important part of your college story. And your life.
13. Do not pile on the majors and minors.
If you’re trying to impress someone, stop. No one cares. Take the classes you actually want to take and stop trying to out-resume someone else. Taking on extra majors and minors will just make you miss out on the more important experiences that all happen outside of class and will take away any flexibility you have to take the odd interesting Masterpieces of French Film or Tibetan Meditation class that everyone is raving about.
14. In that same vein, don’t let your major dictate what you learn.
I was in the business school and took a ton of psychology, Argentinian literature and computer science classes, to the extent that I was afraid I would not finish all my business requirements in time to graduate. Those random classes that I chose to take were the highlights of my time at Penn and they were those I actually remember. I have absolutely no recollection of my accounting classes.
You are the captain of your ship. You choose what you become.
15. Meet everyone who you want to meet.
No group is out of your reach. If you really like a girl but feel like you have entirely different friend groups, find a way to break the ice. Everyone is 1 degree away from you on the campus. No one is a stranger. There are no cliques that you cannot integrate. Surround yourself exactly by the people who you want to be surrounded with. Your campus is designed to make it easy, so take advantage of it now because it gets harder once you graduate and are let loose into the big wide world.
16. Suffer through the grind with your peers.
When it’s midterms or finals season or you’ve got a huge project to hand in, do not work on it alone in your room. Go to the libraries and study halls and grind through it with your classmates. You’ll feel the energy and that’s also when you’ll develop a lot of your lifelong friendships. In shared struggle.
17. Be different. Be your unique self.
It’s easy to converge to what everyone else does and thinks around you. But it’s often not true to what you actually want to do. Don’t pretend to be anything you are not and don’t be afraid to wander off from the pack whenever you feel like it. On some of my best nights I skipped the big downtown party and went to this small charming movie theatre in Old City with a couple good friends or a date. One other nights when everyone was studying for a class I found boring I met up with my good friend Emil the Statistics TA and wrote fiction while he wrote poetry. We put our phones away and just focused for hours. It was strange, it was different. No one else did that but we loved it.
18. Learn real skills.
College is not the real world. Very few of your classes will be helpful when you come out from this 4 year utopia. So make sure you’re taking classes that teach you something applicable or learning it on the side by working on projects with your close friends.
In my case, I got the most value from these side ventures. Dozens of apps, websites and other concepts we tested out, which taught us how to design, how to code, how to push a product out, how to make something people want, how to talk to users, how to get press, how to do all the things that I still do today. They are the closest thing to the real world experience as you can get.
That’s why I launched Horizons, the first coding bootcamp for college students.
19. Try out things you’d never think of trying.
That Mask & Wig comedy club you’ve always been curious about, those capoeira and salsa and bartending and DJ’ing classes you’d been meaning to try, that yearly ski trip to the Poconos… Favor trying new things over doing the same old. Remember, this is the phase of your life when you’re still sampling everything!
20. You’re not too young to be great at something.
Don’t be afraid of getting really good, really soon. I remember how one of the guys in my dorm was reading a 1000 page finance book that he strongly recommended to me in the first week we met. He was 18 and already knew more about finance than most full grown men. He is one of the only people I know who genuinely likes the subject and today is doing incredibly well at his job.
Generally, the most fulfilled and and confident people I met in college were really passionate or good at one thing. Design, code, art, writing, finance, creating new products. They fully dove into their work everyday unapologetically.
They followed what naturally attracted them and became great at it. There are no rules as to how good you can get and how quickly you can get there and college gives you plenty of precious free time. So go crazy.
21. Always remember: time really does fly.
It can seem that you have your whole life before you. And you do. But just keep in mind that time still keeps moving forward and irreversibly so.
I will never be in college again.
That part of my life is over and I’m fine with it and onto the next even more exciting part but just know that it all goes by in a very quick flash.
What has stuck with me over the years is Jeff Bezos’ “regret minimization” approach to life: imagine yourself on your deathbed and think of whether you’d regret doing or more importantly not doing something. And live accordingly. I think that’s the way to do it.
I believe that if you live every moment while acutely aware that your time is short, you will live more fully and more courageously.
So do it. Every day, shed off a little more of your fears and burst out of all those imaginary limits.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Thank you for reading.
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Edward Lando is a co-founder of Horizons, the first coding bootcamp for college students.
Horizons is a coding bootcamp and career platform in one. Our mission is simple: we bring real-world, practical software development classes to college campuses and connect our students with the very best tech internship and full-time job opportunities.