Here is some tentative college advice about how to choose an undergraduate course, and what to do once you start studying. It’s based on our general knowledge and the experiences of people we’ve advised. We haven’t yet done in-depth research into this area, so our views could easily change.
Table of Contents
- 1 Priorities
- 2 Which degree subject?
- 3 How to spend your time while at college
- 4 Should you go to college at all?
- 5 Which type of university should you go to?
- 6 Further reading
- 7 Read next
Clarify what you want to get out of college. Three common priorities include:
- Studying – so you can get good grades or learn useful skills
- Social – many people meet their most important friends and romantic partners through their college network
- Preparing for your future career through work, side projects, or research
- Generally learning about yourself and the world
On preparing for your future career, you’re right at the start — so it usually makes sense to focus mainly on exploring promising future career options and building flexible career capital, rather than pursuing a single option (unless you’ve already identified something that seems clearly best). We discuss how to do that below.
It’s worth asking yourself how much you want to focus on each of these priorities, or whether you want to prioritise something else.
It can help to make some guesses about potential longer-term career options to help inform this. For instance, if you’re interested in research, then getting good grades is important to get into graduate school. We discuss how much time to spend studying below. You can use our career planning process to reflect on longer-term career options.
Which degree subject?
Here are some key factors to consider when weighing your options:
Personal fit – Will you be good at the subject? If you’re good at the subject, it’s more likely you’ll be able to pursue work in that area later on, you’ll enjoy it more, you’ll get better grades, and you’ll do the work more quickly.
Flexibility of the programme – Does it open up lots of options, both inside and outside academia?
If you’re unsure about personal fit, try out the subject (e.g. through an online course, or in a minor course).
Which subjects offer the most options and flexibility?
- One indicator is the earnings prospects. In general, more applied, quantitative subjects lead to the highest earnings, even if you adjust for the intelligence of the people studying different subjects. Read more.
- However, some subjects only improve earnings at the expense of flexibility. Petroleum engineers have among the highest earnings, but their fate is tied to a single (declining?) industry. In general, more ‘fundamental’ subjects provide more flexibility. For instance, you can go from economics into the rest of the social sciences, but the reverse is harder. People with applied maths skills probably have the most flexibility – they can go into biology, physics, economics, computer science, psychology and many other areas. The worst options for flexibility are narrow applied options, such as nursing or education.
- Some subjects are more prestigious than others, especially those perceived as ‘difficult’, like maths, medicine, and philosophy. This is important because a lot of the value of a degree comes from the ‘signal’ it gives to future employers.
- Some majors at certain institutions are more prestigious than the same major at other institutions. For example, UC Berkeley is well known for its business programme, so if you’re already at Berkeley, that’s an extra reason to consider pursuing that major.
Some other, less important, factors to consider include:
- Relevance of the option to your longer-term plans — If you want to e.g. become a medic, you’ll need to study pre-med. Flexibility is usually more important than relevance, but it’s also worth considering.
Difficulty of learning the subject outside of university — Some subjects are hard to study by yourself, either because they require lots of feedback, discipline, or cumulative background knowledge. This is most pronounced with quantitative technical skills, like statistics or mathematical modelling. It also applies to skills like understanding law or accounting, or being good at writing.
Putting all this together, and holding all else equal:
- We think it’s reasonable to aim for the most fundamental, quantitative option you can do, i.e. one of these in the following order: mathematics, economics, computer science, physics, engineering, political science/chemistry/biology (the last three are roughly equal).
- If you want to focus on something non-quantitative, then consider focusing on developing great written communication skills in philosophy, history, or English.
- If you want to do something more applied, then maybe choose business or accounting.
- A good combination seems to be a major in a quantitative subject and a minor in a subject that requires great written skills (e.g. a major in maths and a minor in philosophy). We say this because people who can both understand quantitative topics and communicate clearly seem to be in high demand in all kinds of areas.
But don’t forget personal fit. For instance, if you’d be mediocre at mathematics — but great at political science or philosophy — then it’s probably better to go for the subject you’d be great at.
How to spend your time while at college
How much time to spend studying
If you want to keep open the option of going into academia and to also keep open the option of pursuing some professional courses like law and medicine, then you need top grades (1st class honours in the UK, or a GPA over 3.6 in the US).
If you’re learning something in your course you’re likely to use in the future (e.g. how to write, engineering, programming, or statistics), then it can also be good to study hard and learn those skills. This is especially true for skills that are hard to study by yourself e.g. most people find it easier to learn mathematics in school, whereas reading history is easier to do in your spare time later on, and it’s more effective to learn languages by spending time in the relevant country than in college classes.
However, most people never use 90%+ of what they learn in college. The main benefit of studying hard is to get the credential. (See our interview with Bryan Caplan for more on this.)
You also don’t need top grades in many career paths. For instance, many employers (e.g. many professional services positions) are satisfied with middling grades (2.1 in the UK, or GPA over 3.0 in the US), or you might want to be self-employed.
In this case, it’s probably more important to do internships and side projects – college is perhaps the best time in your life to pursue a side interest, since you have so much flexibility. Many important projects and startups were started while at university (which is also where we started 80,000 Hours). The right internship can often turn into a job offer, which can make a big difference to your first career step.
Moreover, in our analysis of which skills are most valuable, ‘leadership’ skills come out top, and your connections are also very important for your later success. This could mean that it’s similarly important to do things like meet people and improve these skills, such as by managing a student society.
In fact, even in cases where good grades are useful to your future career, it could still be even more useful to pursue side projects, internships, running student societies etc. Going from acceptable to great grades often takes a lot of extra time, and this time can often be better spent on other priorities.
We’ve been discussing the importance of good grades, but in the US, there’s also the question of how many courses to take. While students sometimes take as many courses as they can, this leaves them with much less time for the valuable activities we mentioned earlier: getting good grades in the classes they do take, doing internships, doing side projects, meeting people, running student societies, etc. At the same time, taking more courses doesn’t add much to the ‘credential’ value of your degree. For these reasons, we think undergraduates can usually do better by replacing several of their would-be classes with other valuable activities. (There can be exceptions, e.g. if extra classes let you learn concrete skills you’ll actually use, if they open up graduate school options, or if they let you explore other potential career paths). See more discussion of why to take a light courseload.
If you need to write a thesis towards the end of your degree, the project Effective Thesis tries to help people choose the right question to research to advance their long-term career while hopefully also moving you closer to a socially impactful topic. If you find an opportunity to develop expertise in an important question, that would count in favour of studying more.
How to study effectively
By learning how to learn, you can probably study far faster than you do today.
And by keeping your goals clearly in mind, you might be able to be far more efficient in choosing what to study in the first place. Some classes you will only need to pass, rather than remember the material, and in those cases it makes sense to optimise for the exam. It’s easy to instead get caught feeling like you need to do everything ‘well’, because that’s what’s expected of you, rather than to think about what you’re actually trying to achieve.
We’d also recommend Cal Newport’s book about succeeding in college.
How to explore future career options
In preparing for your future career, most people have not yet identified a standout option while at university, and instead the priority should be to explore options that might be standouts. This is especially true since college is one of your best opportunities to explore, because you have enormous flexibility and it’s what society expects you to do — so you have lots of opportunities to explore that go away later (e.g. internships).
You can explore standout options by learning about them, or by trying out relevant next steps, which both helps you to assess your fit and to get relevant career capital.
- Draw up a long list of potentially great longer-term options. A common mistake is to explore ‘standard’ paths (e.g. finance and consulting) even if you’re confident you don’t want to do these after college, though these are sometimes worth doing purely as a credential.
- See if you can ‘try out’ all of these paths while in college and right after.
- Also explore some ‘wild card’ options, even if they seem like long shots. You don’t want to narrow down too early, and trying something off the beaten path is more likely to surprise you.
You can consider all the following ways to try out potential paths, which also give you useful career capital:
- Doing 1-2 internships or summer jobs
- Doing a research project as part of your studies or during the summer
- Going to lots of talks by people in different areas
- Getting involved in relevant student societies (e.g. student newspaper)
- Doing side projects and self-study in your free time (e.g. building a website, learning to code, volunteering)
- If you’re interested in doing graduate school in a subject, attend lectures in that subject
- Before you start, seriously consider taking a gap year, where you work part of the time. This both helps you explore and be better prepared for college, and people rarely seem to regret it.
- Near the end, you can apply to jobs in several categories as well as graduate school, and see where you get the best offers
- After college, you can keep exploring. In particular, you can do something unusual for ~2 years, and then go to graduate school, which helps you to ‘reset’ onto the standard path.
What else to do outside your degree?
- Get involved with student societies to learn about important ideas, make friends, and build career capital. If you want to have a big impact with your career, we especially recommend getting involved with your university’s effective altruism student group, if it has one. (80,000 Hours is part of the broader effective altruism community.)
Consider is travelling, especially to somewhere with a very different culture, and/or to a very poor country. (See more about China.)
Build lasting friendships. University is perhaps your single best opportunity to make lifelong friends, and they’re extremely important for your long-term happiness and success. It’s also pretty common to end up marrying someone you met through college. Once you start work, you have far less time to hang out with new people, and you won’t meet as many people similar to you. We know lots of people who regret not spending more time meeting people while at university.
Invest in your personal development. The flexibility of college makes it a great time to work on your routines (e.g. finding a form of exercise you like) and mental health, which can be one of the best investments you make for the long term. See our list of personal development ideas.
Take up extracurricular options that build skills, that you enjoy, and that look good. For example, you can run a student society, start a microbusiness (read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau), or do anything you’ll be good at and that allows you to get impressive achievements.
Should you go to college at all?
On average, in financial terms, college is a great investment. Researchers on this topic widely agree that going to college significantly boosts your income, even after you account for (i) lost earnings while studying (ii) the fact that the people who go to college are often more able, which means they’ll earn more anyway.
Our guess is that this boost reflects a general increase in your career capital – not only will you earn more, you’ll also be more productive and influential. Moreover, the boost seems large enough that (i) college is likely to be better than whatever else you could be doing to boost your career capital, and (ii) it’s likely to be better to make this investment in yourself rather than try to make a difference sooner.
We don’t know what causes the boost. It’s likely a combination of the skills you learn, the fact that employers value the credential, and the connections you make, but we’re not sure which is most important.
What are the exceptions?
College is unlikely to offer great returns in the following cases:
- If you’re likely to drop out. If you’d struggle with the academic demands, or really not enjoy it, then consider not going. If you think you wouldn’t enjoy college, bear in mind that there are lots of different types of college and social scenes, which can provide very different experiences. Read more.
If you’ve found a more effective way to build your career capital. These opportunities seem rare, but they do exist. For instance, we’ve met people who learned to program and skipped college. This can work because the technology industry doesn’t care so much about formal credentials (though you’re still betting your career on one industry). Getting a Thiel Fellowship is another example.
If you’ve found a time-sensitive opportunity to do good. In that case, it might be better to delay going to college to do good right away. For instance, if you have a startup project that’s taking off.
However, in most cases, if you think you’ve found something better than going to college, it’s best to start college, do the project on the side, then leave if it takes off (and ideally retain the option to return). This is what many famous dropouts like Bill Gates did.
Here’s a longer post by Chris Olah (a machine learning researcher who didn’t attend college) on how to think about the decision. We also interviewed Chris for our podcast.
For a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of doing to college — and how to think it through in your own case — we’d recommend chapter 5 of Bryan Caplan’s book, The Case Against Education. This book is controversial, but we think the general approach to thinking about the question makes sense. See more discussion of the book.
Which type of university should you go to?
One famous study in the US found that students who were accepted to an ‘elite’ university but turned it down, went on to earn just as much. This suggests that elite universities are selecting more talented people, but not actually helping them be more successful (with the exception of low-income students, who did earn more).1
It could be that the benefits of elite universities are mainly offset by other costs, such as an increased chance of burning out. Or perhaps talented students at non-elite universities get more attention from professors. Given that elite universities also cost more, the choice is not obvious.
On the other hand, it could be that the main benefits of elite universities are not reflected in income.
We find it hard to believe that elite universities don’t offer significant benefits. Attending an elite university is widely seen as a good credential by employers. Most importantly, there are more opportunities to meet other talented students at elite universities, helping you build better connections. Certain elite professions are also dominated by people from top colleges (e.g. judges).
Overall, we think it’s still better to try to attend an elite university, but we’re not sure.
You can get more information on how to compare different institutions using ‘value-added’ rankings, such as this one provided by The Economist for the US.
There’s also evidence that an elite university degree is helpful if you do a liberal arts major or a business degree, but not if you major in science. This could be because arts subjects are harder to evaluate, so employers resort to credentials to compare candidates. Your network might also be more important outside of science. So, if you want to study science, going to a good value state college is a decent option.
Finally, bear in mind that your choice of major is similarly important to your choice of university, so it could be better to do your preferred major at a less prestigious university.
Get funding to attend a top US or UK university
The Open Philanthropy Project is providing undergraduate scholarships for academically talented students who want to use their career to do as much good as possible, and who would like to apply for university in the US or UK but do not qualify as domestic students at these institutions for the purposes of admission and financial aid.
See the program page for information about funding criteria, eligible universities, application timelines, and other aspects of the application process.
- Podcast: 80,000 Hours advisors Michelle and Habiba discuss the advice they’d have given their younger selves
Podcast: Alex Lawson on his advice for students (this is aimed at high school students but we expect that the advice would also be useful for undergraduates)
For some more provocative thoughts on the purpose of education, and how to estimate the returns of college, see Bryan Caplan’s book Against Education, or our interview with him.
For more practical advice on how to optimise your time at college, we’d recommend Cal Newport’s book.
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Notes and references
We find that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools. Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges.
Dale, Stacy Berg, and Alan B. Krueger. “Estimating the payoff to attending a more selective college: An application of selection on observables and unobservables.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117.4 (2002): 1491-1527. Archived link, retrieved 20-April-2017.↩