When I graduated from college with a good job, I kept hearing my friends say: “I should have studied computer science!” My (internal) reaction was always the same. I believe that if they had spent time during college participating in some sort of intellectual or academically oriented extracurricular then they would feel differently, regardless of their major.
Schools don’t tell you but your major actually defines a small part of your college experience; at Bowdoin, it was usually eight or nine classes. It simply means you have spent a moderate amount of your time in the classroom studying a certain topic, be it Computer Science, English Literature or Sociology.
A student’s extracurriculars, on the other hand, make up a much larger part of their memorable college experiences. Classes come and go, but extracurriculars can provide intellectual continuity.
At Bowdoin, I split my time before, between, and after classes between rugby and The Northern Bites RoboCup team. I learned more from working on RoboCup than in any of my CS classes. I learned things like:
None of these things were offered in the course curriculum, so I was able to greatly broaden my skill set and find out what parts of robotics really interested me. Most importantly, though, I was really motivated to learn all these things on my own for RoboCup. The Bites’ lab was more than just my office, it became my second home. I was producing something that would last beyond my time at Bowdoin, and I was driven to do The Right Thing, not only what would get me a good grade on an assignment. You can’t underestimate the power of motivation in your learning.
Besides actually learning useful things, intellectual extracurriculars make you look good and sound interesting. Especially in the software world, people are often more interested in what you did outside the classroom than your 4.0 GPA. Doing work on your own accord, rather than for a grade, shows initiative. It shows people that you don’t want to settle for what you learned in class but that you are driven to go beyond. Having extra activities to talk about during interviews makes you more memorable, as well. I think students underestimate the impact intellectually-oriented extracurriculars have on their resume.
Extracurriculars matter for non-programmers, too! A good friend of mine from Bowdoin studied religion, not a major usually associated with high job prospects. While in school, though, he worked with the Bowdoin Writing Project as a writing tutor for two years. He spent a few hours every week reading through other students’ essays and providing constructive feedback. Not only did he improve his own writing in the process, he also credits the experience with helping to keep him fully employed since graduation.
I encourage all college students to find something you enjoy, and pour some of your time into it outside of class. College is the last time you’ll have so many resources easily accessible and . Even if your school doesn’t have whatever it is you’re looking for, go it alone and you’re bound to pick up a few collaborators along the way. Whatever it is will certainly pay back benefits orders of magnitude higher than the time you spend on it.
© Jack Morrison 2017