Advice for ambitious 1st-year undergraduates

I entered university like someone who just held hands with their crush for the first time- naively thrilled and extremely nervous. I knew I had a chance to explore new hobbies and dive deeper into my interest in biotech while venturing outside of my social comfort zone set from high school.

Before I continue I want to get a couple of things clear:

  • Here I define ambition as wanting to graduate having accomplished the goal.
  • The goal = Being ahead of the game at whatever you are passionate about OR AT LEAST having a better idea of what you are passionate about.
  • I’m an incoming second-year life sciences student and my perspective is biased towards STEM programs. But I think my takeaways are still transferable to a lot of non-STEM programs, especially business.

I wanted to write this article for someone in my shoes 7 months ago. This is for the uneasy undergraduate incoming freshman who wants to do something cool in these next 4–5 years and try to get a head start in their life while still learning more about themselves.

A lot of my classmates want to be “ahead of the curve” or at least want to have an idea of what they’re passionate about when they graduate. But if everyone acted on that want, then why doesn’t everyone leave university feeling like they have crushed their version of the goal?

The difference between being an average undergrad and being ambitious comes down to how proactive you are at achieving your version of the goal.

GPA != the end, GPA = the means

You will probably find friends who spend most of their time studying and consistently eyeing their cGPA. Worrying about GPA could make sense for them given their goals, but your version of the goal and your classmate’s version may not be the same. I see two general paths that most of us are optimizing for in the long run:

Route 1) If the long-term ambition that drives you is only accomplishable through a mark-based certification, then your GPA is key. You need high marks for medical school, law school, and pharmacy school- put away this article and best of luck on studying for your LSAT, MCAT, KIT KAT, etc.

Route 2) You are deeply unsure about how much you want Route 1 OR you’re in a field where success depends on your ability to land a job at a company/organization or to start something up yourself. There’s no unicorn CEO or inquisitive young researcher GPA cut-off or exam that determines your fitness for the job.

Remember that not everyone in the lecture hall around you has the same end game in mind. Unless you are really driven to crush Route 1, chasing the sexiest GPA may not be the highest return on your time in these 4 years. I aimed to do well enough to qualify for travel abroad and research opportunities (cGPA>2.25), knowing that I want to succeed in Route 2 and that I wasn’t hungry to excel in Route 1.

Now if you’re not spending as much time optimizing for the GPA, what you do instead of studying makes all the difference…

Build projects, create content, and be impulsive in exploring

A snippet from my first coding pet project at the beginning of the year

Whether you have your life figured out at 18–19 or don’t have a clue, always feel free to be impulsive with trying new things here. People may crap on your school’s student life app, but download it anyway and give it a chance because it’s better than nothing. Attend your university’s frosh week and club fairs, even if you are a commuter student.

If you have a passion for music, try to write a song and create content in your spare time. If you have a passion for full-stack development, build side-projects, upload your code to GitHub and ship your product. I built bioengineering projects, coding builds, and also had an artistic awakening where I found a passion for slam poetry, rap, and guitar!

Putting time into these side projects can mean time deviated from studying or from your Netflix time. If you have the opportunity to explore something you love, reduce the time-wasting things while you still have so much free time in your life. Don’t overwhelm yourself but take university as a time to really explore new and old interests alike and meet people doing the same thing.

Reach out to and learn from smarter people

While I was working on my bioengineering pet projects throughout the year, I reached out to researchers with my builds and well-thought-out questions on how to improve what I had started. I learned way more than I would have alone from each project and this unlocked unique opportunities down the road for me.

After a couple of months of grinding, you should talk to people about it. I recommend taking your builds, articles, content, code, art, etc. and reaching out to people in your trade who you look up to for their feedback. While respecting their time, show them what you have done out of your own interest and they might be open to investing their time in your growth. Don’t be afraid of getting a rejection, discouraging emails, or no response at all: it’s all part of this process.

Just remember that it will be worth it once you get someone to take you seriously. There is something so awesome about getting guidance on how to level-up at something you care about, from the people you look up to.

Take electives for interesting professors and talk to them

When selecting courses a lot of people choose mildly interesting-sounding electives that they think will boost their GPA. They come in thinking what’s better than a bird course that’s kinda cool? The problem is that many of these courses end up being:

  1. Not as easy as expected in terms of the time input required for a high mark.
  2. Not as interesting as something you could have chosen that would have piqued your interest even more.
  3. And the biggest fallacy here: in trying to optimize for your GPA, you miss the chance to meet a professor who has dedicated their lives to something you find interesting.

I realized that all around me are smart professors who have been undergraduate students before and who can help me determine the action items I could take to pull ahead at achieving my goal.

I made the choice to choose two very interesting-sounding electives (Intro statistics and Intro to drug discovery) to meet the professors who I thought were cool. I met three amazing professors who have been awesome mentors to this day and the courses were among my highest marks for the year.

I can guarantee you that office hours will be paraded as an amazing opportunity that you should take advantage of, as they should be. Office hours are the lowest barrier-to-entry way to meet professors, without an appointment!

You’ll only appreciate how insane this opportunity is once you work with academics and realize how insanely packed their schedules can be.

The goal is not easy, but it’s not ridiculously hard

When you build, reflect on meaningful questions, and reach out to people to learn more, you are building up your mindfulness and ability to figure stuff out. These compoundable skills will take you far no matter where you end up by the end of undergrad.

I glanced over finding your tribe but didn’t go into too much depth: that’s because I haven’t quite found my bioengineering tribe as of yet. If you’re an ambitious student who is trying to build new projects in biology or have deep passion for social issues and slam poetry, ping me!

I’m starting to understand all that cliche advice I got from my mentors who said that university is more about the people you meet and experience you gain…

NOTE: Quarantine has been a bitter-sweet end to my first year of undergrad as it has been for both high schoolers and graduate students across the globe. Although this advice is based on my experiences in a pre-COVID campus, I think the lessons here are transferable for an online university experience as well.

Undergraduate builder & researcher @UofT in the crossroads of computer science, immunology, and genetic engineering.

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