from Guide to Undergraduate on Feb 19, 2023
How to maximize your undergraduate
After graduating, your friends — the same ones you pulled pranks on, binged lectures with, and enjoyed dim sum with — are doctors, senior engineers, professors, successful startup founders, and more. It's hard to comprehend during your undergraduate, but it's absolutely true: The value of undergraduate is in the people you meet.
If you're starting, just started, or are smack dab in the middle of an undergraduate program, you may ask: What is the true value of an undergraduate degree? At least at UC Berkeley, we ran into the following conundrums:
- Central administration does not prioritize undergraduate education. Critical staff like undergraduate academic advisers are outnumbered hundreds to one. Undergraduate courses are relegated to literal basements of old buildings for office hours. The highest-paid employee at UC Berkeley1 — the coach for our football team — earns $1,000,000, which is over 2x the pay for ACM and IEEE fellow Prof Randy Katz. So, central administration isn't prioritizing staff or professors that support undergraduates, much less undergraduates themselves.
- Most of your time "in a class" is spent outside of class. For every hour of lecture, you may average 2-3 hours of homework, studying, and practicing. These hours are mostly spent studying with classmates, finishing assignments on your own, or working on projects with group-mates. A disproportionately small amount of time is actually spent with staff, so if we learned the most while studying with each other, why pay so much money to be at school?2
We eventually concluded that value comes from (1) stuffing all of us into a lecture hall and (2) enabling us to create study groups. Naturally, the pressure and stress of a grade, as well as the resources that course staffs provide, are critical too. Turns out we had the right idea — the value was each other, but class was not the point.
At a basic level, undergraduate is ostensibly all about the degree — the value of what you learn in classes, seminars, and talks.
However, with a bit more hands-on experience, this perceived value will change: Ask any undergraduate on campus, and they'll usually share highlights for everything but the classes:
- Fun. From hikes and biking to movie nights and parties, there are often activities on and off campus — dances, hackathons, competitions, and sports. Some travel abroad, and others learn how to cook. All the fun had despite classes.
- Opportunities. There are also plenty of job opportunities, with frequent career fairs. Quite simply, companies put more work to meet you in the middle, making job opportunities more accessible. The most competitive tech opportunities don't ask for GPA, so it turns out job opportunities are fairly independent of classwork too.
Years after your undergraduate, the value will change again. You'll realize the highlights above were fantastic in the moment, but not the longest-lasting:
- Fun. Without a doubt, the fun will have made fantastic memories to look back on. A few memories will stick for a long time, but most will fade. Old friends will trigger certain fun memories, but only when you see them again.
- Opportunities. Somehow, undergraduate opportunities set the stage for your career, but no individual career fair on campus set the trajectory. In fact, you won't remember very much about campus resources for job opportunities.
It turns out that the above facets stand out for a different reason: It's not the fun activity itself, but the friends you had fun with. Not the career fair, but the mentors that defined your next opportunities. More importantly, as years pass, you'll find that the people you met make up most of the realized value of undergraduate. The world is a lot smaller than you think, and their impact defines a significant portion of both your undergraduate and even post-undergraduate life.
In my own undergraduate, I certainly underestimated the amount of influence that my friends would have; I knew that the world was a small place, but I didn't know it was so tiny. I'll start my arguing for practical benefits, beyond your undergraduate years:
- Your friends will become insanely successful, as will you. After graduating, your friends — the same ones you pulled pranks on, binged lectures with, and enjoyed dim sum with — are doctors, senior engineers, PhD students, successful startup founders, and more. It's hard to comprehend, because everyone says that your network becomes infinitely more valuable after graduation, to the point that it's trite. But it's absolutely true.
- The friends you make last for a long time. A part of this is: It becomes much more difficult to make new friends after graduation. You don't just walk between classes to meet new people anymore. With that said, you don't stop meeting new people — just not in such high volumes. I still wish my old undergraduate friends happy birthday and catchup with old buddies from time to time. However, never again will I spend so many hours couped up in a library, struggling with a close-knit group of 3-4 friends.
However, the benefits extend to your time as an undergraduate as well. Reasons to cherish your friends arise nearly immediately: Namely, you struggle with your friends, together. Your friends are your support group, study buddies, and fellow foodies. They will be there when you lose a loved one, when you're hospitalized, or when you otherwise face a traumatic experience. After exams, you'll grab boba together. After the semester, you'll celebrate together. You will make the closest friends you ever have.
All of the above is probably advice you heard or read elsewhere. So, let me show you just how powerful this idea is, from my own experiences.
The oft-repeated saying is true for many people: "It's not what you know but who you know". I won't belabor this point but instead emphasize a different facet of the people you meet: The people you meet will influence your life more often than you think.
To be clear, you won't know how, in advance. It's also unproductive to try and figure out how. Meeting people based on how they may help you, is called "growing your network" or "making connections". That's not really how it works; rather, it's the other way around. Meet people, see how you can help them, and in some way shape or form, you'll run into those same people at a fortuitous time in the future.
To explain this by example, here's how I ended up having the opportunity to TA:
- Freshman year, first semester: I asked Professor DeNero for advice, as I enjoyed hacking on apps at the time. He suggested helping with the course autograder okpy3.
- Freshman year, second semester: DeNero hired me as a course reader, to continue working on okpy.
- Summer after freshman year: DeNero identified 50+ critical issues, to save okpy; I merged 40+ PRs, addressing almost all of these issues in a 3-week period. I had become the 2nd most active contributor to okpy.
- Sophomore year, first semester: DeNero hired me as a 20-hour TA4 for CS61A. I continued developing okpy, organized mock exams, and produced extra CS61A resources for students. At the time, TA-produced resources were not as common.
- Sophomore year, second semester: DeNero recommended me to Professor Rao, who was teaching discrete mathematics. Rao hired me as head TA, and we pioneered 24-hour exam grading for 800+ student courses — even with a proof-centric exam.
- Subsequent semesters: I went on to head TA discrete mathematics 3x. Rao then recommended me to Prof Shewchuk and Prof Sahai. I head TA'ed our machine learning course 3x as well.
In short, my entire TA experience stemmed from an office hours with Professor DeNero. The influence doesn't stop here either. Here is another chain of opportunities that show how I got the experience needed to make it to a PhD:
- Sophomore year, first semester: As a CS61A TA, I worked with and managed to impress a more senior TA Sam.
- Junior year, first semester: Sam had graduated and recommended me to Deepscale CEO Forrest, for an internship. Co-founder Prof Keutzer suggested I train in his lab, so I started research with then-PhD student Bichen.
- Junior year, second semester: With Bichen, we published several papers where I was second author.
- Senior year, first semester: With Bichen, I submitted more second-author papers — one with Prof Joseph E. Gonzalez. I applied to PhD programs, and Prof DeNero (from the previous chain of events) wrote me a strong recommendation.
- Senior year, second semester: I was admitted to the Berkeley PhD program, with Joey as my temporary adviser. I would graduate 4 years later.
Notice how convoluted the above multi-year stories are. The takeaway is: You never know how someone you meet will turn around and offer you an opportunity, directly or indirectly. Here are some other ways the above experiences shaped my undergraduate:
- Prof DeNero ended up writing recommendations for several scholarships I applied for, as well as my application for teaching faculty.
- My mentor at DeepScale, Anting, gave me a strong verbal recommendation, which led to Andrej Karpathy's final decision to make me an offer for Tesla AutoPilot.
- The resources I produced as a TA were noticed by and impressed would-be managers at Amazon, Apple, and Nvidia — helping me get my foot in the door during my job hunt.
- Sumukh — the top contributor to okpy and my de facto "engineering" mentor — worked with a publisher that shortly thereafter reached out to me.
This led to a insane "network" of opportunities that just keeps growing5. Here's a summary diagram, showing how this network of opportunities are all inter-related.
flowchart LR DeNero --- okpy DeNero --- scholarships okpy --- TA61A(CS61A TA) TA61A --- Jobs TA61A --- Book TA61A --- Deepscale TA61A --- TA70(CS70 TA) TA70 --- PhD TA70 --- TA189(CS189 TA) Deepscale --- Bichen Deepscale --- Tesla Bichen --- Joey Bichen --- Meta Joey --- PhD PhD --- Apple
Knowing now that people make up most of the value in undergraduate, you can now take steps to prioritize people in your everyday life as an undergraduate. There are two general principles:
- Meet new people, especially people you can help. The first part is obvious — to maximize the number of people you're exposed to. The second part was particularly easy to accomplish as a TA. Quite simply, I made myself very available to students in my sections. I suggest doing the same, as you really never know who'll show up again in your life. Even today, I have students throughout the Bay — at Apple, in Japantown, in the Ferry Building — stop me and say hello. Right now, pick an under-resourced class and find a way to produce resources for your peers. This might mean providing a write-up on a difficult topic, or collecting links to a series of helpful tutorials. Then, post it on your course forum.
- Pick the path that opens the most doors. This often means saying "yes" to traveling for a meetup halfway around the bay, to taking on a course tutor position, or to hacking on a silly project at a hackathon. One common advice is to not take on too much in your first year of undergraduate. This is solid advice — take on only what you have enough time to fully explore. However, make sure you're constantly iterating. Drop what no longer interests you, especially if the club or commitment creates a hostile environment. Often times, "opening the most doors" is synonymous with "meeting more people". Right now, schedule in an opportunity to have fun with friends, that opens doors. Find a hackathon, meetup, or mixer. Grab a few friends, and make a commitment to go together.
These two principles result in a set of habits you can build starting immediately. This is advice I often received as an undergraduate — I'm passing on the most effective ones, that I cherish to this day:
- Study in groups. Find a study group. Gather a random few friends, or make several new friends. Do homework together, study for exams, and do practice questions together. Right now, for any course you work alone in, post on your course forum using one of the above tips. Ask if anyone wants to build a communal cheat sheet together. Ask if anyone would like to study together on your course forum. Start with a pending assignment deadline if you need to.
- Ask "How can I help?" and get used to asking for help too. If you're on course staff, ask this of your colleagues. See if any TA is overwhelmed, and offer to work together. The goal is to overburden yourself, but to expose yourself to more collaboration. If you're not on course staff, ask your friends how they're doing. Don't ask "How're you doing?" The response is universally "I'm doing well" instinctively. Instead, say "You look really tired." The undergraduate program is a struggle; be supportive of your friends, and build a culture around support. Today, find a friend and ask them how they're doing. Use the tips above.
Some other tips for classes in undergraduate include the following:
- Learn how to utilize libraries. Learn how to book library rooms in advance, to host study sessions with your friends. Learn how to use the printers and leverage your quota of free printed pages. Find out which libraries on campus have which resources, and visit as many as possible to understand what spaces are available.
- Go to instructor office hours. Few people leverage those hours, and everyone thinks everyone else will be at those office hours. Ask about high-level questions: Advice, research, and conceptual questions. They won't be familiar with homework nits that TAs will be very familiar with.
- Find study groups at course events. If you find a set of classmates that you vibe well with, act on it. Invite them to your next study session, or ask if you can join theirs. This applies to office hours, workshops, and review sessions. Any course event applies, where you're working on problem sets.
To summarize the entirety of this article: Meet as many people as possible. Of the people you meet, help as many as possible. Sounds strange summarized in this way, but helping as many people as possible is how you can maximize your undergraduate.
It's worth noting that for UC Berkeley's computer science courses especially, course staffs spend significant amounts of time providing extra resources. Even then, you still mostly learn with friends, than with staff. However, this comes from a culture of passionate, over-worked course staff and professors, without much support from central administration. Small wins for tooling — like Gradescope — come from professors lobbying for support. ↩
Even as of time of writing 8 years later, the student UI and homepage still use my original designs. ↩
At the time, this was a coveted position, as most TAs were hired on 8-hour appointments. ↩
I'm immensely grateful to my colleagues, mentors, and advisers. Even now, reflecting on all these experiences, it's pretty incredible. I hope to pass on these opportunities as best I can. ↩
Want more tips? Drop your email, and I'll keep you in the loop.