This year, I’m volunteering with the MIT Educational Council to interview students applying to MIT. During one of my interviews, a student asked me for an “uncommon piece of advice that I had heard or given”. And in that moment, I felt so much panic. “Oh no. What am I going to say. I literally have no idea.” And I told her I’d think on it for a little bit before responding.
If you go back through my post history, you’ll notice that I don’t really give out a lot of advice on these blogs. A year ago, on a post before MIT Early Action applications were due, rather than give my own advice, I just linked to a lot of previous bloggers’ advice and recommended that you take some deep breaths, because it will all turn out OK. (For those who are finishing up their applications now, the same advice still does hold :P)
I find giving advice exceptionally hard. There is a simple reason for this: I am me, and you are you. Everything that I can recommend to someone comes from my own experiences, a sample size of n=1. So why should I expect that I can extrapolate from that to tell people something meaningful? Not-infrequently I get asked “what should I do to get into MIT”; I could tell you the things that I did in high school and what was on my application, but there is no guarantee that these would work for you, because you are an inherently different person from me, and there is no formula (really). Or if I get asked for advice about going through college: I can tell you what would have been good advice for me (be more open to new experiences! care less about academics!), but that same advice might be terrible for someone else. And the blog format only makes this even harder: in a face-to-face conversation, I can ask questions to gauge whether the advice I give will be helpful to someone or not. But blogs are primarily a one-way method of interaction.01
And after a little bit of thinking, I realized that my inability to give advice was itself a piece of advice, the culmination of a thought that I’ve had for a number of months but hadn’t verbalized to myself: it is okay to not know everything right now.
The reason that I’m blogging about this piece of advice is that in many of my interactions with high school and college students these days — whether talking to newly admitted 2026s,02 prospective college students, underclassmen I meet through random things, posts I see on reddit — there’s this sense that people want to know all of the answers right now, a want to plan out life years down the line. This manifests itself in various ways, like:
- stress of not knowing what you want out of life but still feeling a pressure to work towards some intangible goal anyways
- wanting to figure out as many details about college, like your exact course schedule for the next four years or how to prepare for senior year job interviews or what cereals does each dorm have, as soon as possible
- duck syndrome and impostor syndrome (mentioned often in blogs), or more generally feeling like everyone has it all figured out and you’re behind for not having done so yet
- just feeling overwhelmed by all of the learning and decisions that need to be made over the course of college, and over life.
This post is a bit tricky to write because it’s actually about two distinct pieces of advice that are deeply connected:
- In trying to figure out the big-picture questions of what major/career do I want, or what do I want out of life, sometimes you aren’t ready to answer those questions yet, and it’s OK to wait to answer them until you are ready.
- There’s a lot of little details that you will need to figure out about college — how to live on your own, all the minutiae about academics and student life and whatnot, planning ahead for it all — but you really don’t need to know all of these answers now. You don’t need to optimize every aspect of your future.
Of course, the blog post doesn’t end right here, because there are reasons behind why I give these two pieces of advice, qualifiers for when you shouldn’t take this advice, and more. So let’s talk about each of them.
I was probably around two or three when I was first asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. The answer has morphed many times, from “a pilot” to “a doctor” to “a scientist” to “a physicist” to “please stop asking me this question I don’t want to think about it” to “maybe it’s being an economist?”.
At a personal level, when I see people who seem like they have their lives figured out, I often have this feeling of “I ought to be like that. I ought to have those answers, to be that sure of myself.” And I think in this virtual age, the free availability of information combined with selection bias leads to me seeing lots of people who seem like they have it all figured out, while people who don’t yet have all of the answers generally don’t talk about being unsure.
But when you recognize that you don’t know something, that knowledge is incredibly meaningful, too. On one of the first problem sets I had in college, I stared at a problem by myself for almost three hours before realizing that it was literally impossible for me to solve it on my own. Soon after, I started psetting with a group of friends in that class, and we struggled our way through that semester. At MIT, you learn very quickly to admit when you don’t know something and to ask for help from others.
I came into MIT wanting to be six different majors.03 I am incredibly grateful that MIT did not force me into choosing a major at the start of my college experience, because instead, I spent my first year trying out different opportunities in each potential area, seeing what I liked and what I didn’t. I met many different upperclassmen who went down these different paths, and I asked them lots of questions about what they liked and why they liked it and so on. I changed as a person, figured out more what my values were, and that helped narrow it down. And while at the end of my first-year, I still wasn’t fully set on any one path, I had narrowed it down to a few different choices, and knew that any of those choices would have been alright for me. And that’s how I ended up as an economics major.
When we say “I don’t know”, we are being vulnerable. We’re admitting to our friends, to the world, to ourselves, that we still have things to learn, things to figure out. In part, this is why I think “I don’t know” is so important as an answer: sometimes, we just don’t have the knowledge right now to make informed decisions about our futures.
Ostensibly, one of the main points of college is to teach you things. And during your time in higher education, you will learn a lot: fields you never knew existed, new lenses of seeing the world (both academic and not), what it means to be a person, what you care about. And of course, all of these experiences are likely to change who you are as a person, and what you want out of life.
Many of the big-picture college-relevant questions you might be thinking about — what do I want to major in, what classes should I take, what clubs should I join, what dorm do I want to be in, and of course, what do I want to be doing when I graduate — are going to be shaped by experiences that you have in college itself. Things like classes, research, chats with professors, clubs, internships, late-night philosophical conversations with friends, learning from the collective experiences of every individual you are yet to meet. Saying “I don’t know” means that you are willing to let those experiences that are yet to come help define you.
To be clear, I am not trying to discourage people who feel like they already have figured it out. I am incredibly happy for you that you’ve managed to discover something that you are passionate about so early on, and also incredibly jealous, because I definitely did not have things figured out when I was a high school senior. (I still don’t feel like I do, to be honest.)
But it means that you shouldn’t pressure yourself into knowing your major right this second — much less what you want to do after your graduate, your career (and life) trajectory, and so on. One-third of college students nationally change their major. At MIT, you can’t even declare your major until the end of your first year. So it’s okay to not be sure yet. You have time to explore new options. There is time for you to change your mind. There are many years of classes and internships and of life and of figuring out who you are to help you find these answers.
I have some regrets about the way I spent the summer before my first year at MIT. I studied for ASEs, taught for three weeks at a math camp, did lots of research04 about how to be a good college student and figuring out things about how MIT worked. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like I should regret any of these. I still like teaching and education a lot, I passed ASEs, collecting all of that advice couldn’t hurt.
But looking back, I don’t know how much I actually got out of any of these things. I probably didn’t need to study for ASEs like I did; if I knew the material, I would have passed, and if I didn’t, it was better for me to take the class anyway. I already knew that I liked teaching and education, so teaching only really helped me get a bit more experience. And I don’t think I ever opened up a single one of those bookmarked websites after I came onto campus, because I learned so much about how to college by just being a college student and being around other college students. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that I learned from my “research” that helped me at MIT.
And beyond not getting much out of all of this, it all did come at a cost: the opportunity cost of everything else I could have been doing with my time. Making memories with my high school friends, people that I only see every year or two nowadays by virtue of distance. Reflecting more on what I wanted out of college, or who I was as a person, becoming more sure of myself. Or just taking a break, because college is a never-ending whirlwind: I spent the next four years going semester to semester, internship to internship, and never took a long break again until I graduated college.
That summer, I felt the need to hyper-optimize my time in ways that would be useful to future-me. But the problem with optimizing is that many of the things I thought would be useful weren’t actually beneficial to future-me. [Of course, the concept of optimizing itself has problems. Sometimes, there just aren’t best decisions (see here and here for my thoughts at length on this), and many of the things that shape us happen by pure chance, little interactions or random opportunities that make us who we are.] All of that time was much better spent living in the moment, being present with friends, figuring out who I was.
It is okay to tell yourself “I don’t need to know all of the answers right now”. It is okay to slow down sometimes, as said by both Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel (also covered by the MIT/Wellesley Toons). I know that there’s often an anxiety to prepare for your future as much as possible, especially in the post-college-application mindset. But it really, really, is okay to relax a little bit. Have trust in future-you to figure those things out, because sometimes the best time for you to learn all of these things is not now.
Of course, sometimes there’s also an excitement about doing all of these things too. I was definitely excited about all of the things I did the summer before MIT to some extent. But even if you are excited, know that by trying to over-plan for the future, you might be forgetting to enjoy yourself in the moment, just like I did.
And sometimes, we do want to plan, because we want to see what potential futures might exist, want to explore the tree of possible paths. I definitely did that a lot the summer after high school. But if you do sketch out a possible path, do it in pencil, and be ready to erase it and sketch a new one. Hold onto any plans loosely, and be willing to change it as you change as a person.
In sum: you don’t need to figure out every aspect of your college experience right this second. You don’t need to know which labs you’re interested in UROPing with, exactly what dorm you want to live in, the optimal class schedule for you to take. You don’t need to study for ASEs (or if you do, don’t do it to the exclusion of other parts of your life). You will be fine. It will be alright.
I sometimes feel bad in saying “I don’t know”, because it feels like I’m procrastinating on these decisions, delaying the inevitable, or leaving it all up to fate. But when I say “It’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’”, I’m not saying you should stop thinking about these questions. Rather, my advice is:
- instead of trying to plan everything now, slow down, take a breath, and know that some things really are better for future-you to think about rather than present-you,
- the best way to figure out what you want and to have a fulfilling life is often to just live in the moment and do the things that you enjoy, because life is really just a collection of moments (see Applying Sideways; the advice extends far beyond high school), and
- if you still feel a need/want to think about college-relevant things now, the best thing for you to be thinking about is not the minutiae of your future college experiences, but rather the big-picture things of “how do i want to change as a person in college” or “what are my goals of college”, and to be open to new experiences (both planned and unplanned) when they come around.
I’ve hesitated with writing up this post for a while, in part because I know my own biases. Like I said at the very beginning of this post, my thoughts come from my own experiences which shift my view on this all. In many ways, I’m very privileged that this advice has worked out for me, that I haven’t needed everything to be all planned for my life to work out alright.
But I’ve decided to write up this post because the applying-to-college-and-high-school-senior mentality seems to be steering towards needing to have all of the answers right this second. And while my words are but a drop in the sea of endless advice for those heading off to college, and even though my advice might not be right for everyone, maybe it can be the right advice for one of you, and that would be enough.