Reflections on my Journey to UW CS


This reflection is specifically for those who recently applied for CS this admissions cycle and the many incoming freshman that are looking to major in CS. While this post is primarily directed towards them, I am hoping the rest of you can either relate or know others who are in a similar position.

I’m Justin Harjanto, a recent Spring admit into UW CS. From applying twice to the department, I have come to a few key realizations:

  • The outcome of any single event does not define success or failure in any way
  • The overarching goal that you have and the mindset you carry should not be manipulated by the result of an event, good or bad
  • Life will be easy and I will be successful if I get XYZ is a delusion

And with the skyrocketing demand for becoming a CS major over the past 10 years, it’s unfortunate that the majority of those who want to join the department don’t get to do so. I was one of the lucky ones.

My Journey

I was one of the 500 incoming freshman in Autumn 2013 that wanted to become a CS major. I knew that getting into CS would not be a cakewalk. I wrote my personal statements for admissions the summer before they were due to gather as much feedback as possible. I finished all of the CSE 142 and 143 assignments the quarter before all of them were due and started practicing for the midterms and finals over the summer in my spare time. I worked on side projects to show my motivation outside of the classroom to the admissions committee.

You could say I desperately wanted to get into CS.

This unhealthy obsession stemmed from the high praise and regard that is associated with the UW CS department. From their national rankings to the stories of the abundance of tech companies at the career fairs only for those in the department, I was surely convinced that the only way to be successful in the tech industry was to become a CS major.

As freshman year went on, my perspective remained static. I continued sacrificing much of my free time to study rather than socializing with the other freshman. In the end, I was pleased with the majority of my efforts, and at the end of spring quarter of my freshman year, I applied to UW CS.

Then rejection hit.

Upon opening that email and reading the words, “I’m sorry to inform you”, I felt defeated. I felt like I had nothing to show for all the time and effort spent on school in the past year. For those of you interested in more details I wrote a fairly in-depth Quora response here.

A Shift in Perspective

Luckily for me, as a result of doing side projects in my spare time over freshman year and through a lucky referral, I was able to get an internship at a small company over the summer as an Android Developer. As I got to know my colleagues better, I realized that some of the company’s best coders didn’t actually have degrees in Computer Science. Some of the engineers even held degrees which were in completely unreleated fields. As the summer went on, I slowly began to realize that the fixation that I had about the absolute need of getting into CS to be successful in the tech industry was a fallacy.

Rejection served as my fuel for motivation more than ever. I now wanted to prove to myself and others that I could be successful regardless if I was a CS major. While I did keep up in my schoolwork, I also started to be more proactive about searching for opportunities to improve myself. I started doing activities that many CS majors would do, such as learning more through side projects and attending hackathons and career fairs. Moreover, I was shocked when I started getting interviews for software engineer intern positions. In the end, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a CS major.

Reflection

Strangely enough, looking back, I’m happy I was declined from the department. Rejection forced me to realize the skewed mindset that I associated with getting into a major and instead made me more aware of grand scheme of the direction of my life. By realizing how I could actively participate and work in the tech industry without being in the program, I had much more motivation to do good work outside of the classroom not for the sake of admissions, but rather instead to continue to develop myself.

Unfortunately, many people are still trapped in the mentality that I was once in, as evident by the various posts about getting into UW CSE in different communities. A great example is Reddit. Over the past year or so, the number of people posting about admissions and UW CSE on /r/udub has grown to the point that the subreddit now has a dedicated CSE FAQ for prospective applicants.

If you happen to be stuck in this mindset, I highly encourage you to reflect upon yourself and analyze what specifically interests you about becoming a computer science major in particular. With enough motivation, it is still very possible to pursue your dreams in the realm of tech. While having a CS degree is not essential to success in industry, an understanding of the foundations of CS are of much higher importance (software design, data structures, algorithms).

With such a large tech influence here in Seattle, to some people, it seems as though that being involved in the tech scene by being in CS is an expectation. It is worth noting that the world needs other majors as well and it is still possible to get involved with tech related events and activities.

It is easy to fall into the delusion that the direction that you take your life rests on the outcome of an individual event. To embrace failure rather than denying it without altering your mindset is absolutely key. There is no golden ticket that ensures success for life, and being a CS major is certainly is not one of them.