A Letter to Incoming Freshmen: Don’t Let Your Degree Be the Most Interesting Thing About You

Dear University of Michigan Freshmen,

You’ve been told a lie most of your life.

The lie is this: get good grades in highschool, put in some community service, do a sport or a musical instrument, get into a good college, and you’re guaranteed success in life.

That could have been true at one point, but it’s not anymore.

The world is changing and colleges are abysmally slow at keeping up.

Consider this: there are more people going to college than ever before. The traditional degree has become a commodity. Take it from someone who went to your school then dropped out to do something different: degrees are a dime a dozen. Employers don’t care all that much about them.

You’ve been told that you’re different — that less prestigious schools no longer hold true to their promise, but that the University of Michigan will guarantee your success.

I’ve been there, and I’ve seen differently. I’ve seen A+ students graduate from UM with no job offers, no skills, no experiences, and no direction.

On the converse, I’ve seen highschool dropouts who accomplish more professionally by age 18 than most of you will be 28.

If you want to succeed in the real world, you’ve got to make sure that your degree is the least interesting thing about you. You need to build your own way to signal value in the real world. You need to start doing this now.

Below are some thoughts that will help you do this:

-Realize your degree is not the important. Some of the most technical people I know were philosophy majors. A degree is a piece of paper. Go out and get real skills and you’ll make it irrelevant.

-Don’t go for a double major. It proves nothing except that you can follow rules and pad a resume. Spend any extra time you have focusing on important things outside of the classroom.

-Don’t underestimate the value of being the young person in the room. Older people will go out of their way to help a young person who is interested and interesting. They can make life a hell of a lot easier for you.

-Recognize that you’re not that special. Getting into an elite university is overrated. Getting good grades is overrated. Go out and build something.

-Your real education won’t occur in the classroom. It will occur on your own, in the real world. Read, connect with mentors, attend conferences, etc.

-Get out of the preparation mindset. You might be a student, but if you aren’t creating things because you feel like “you aren’t ready” or “don’t have permission yet,” you’re doing something wrong. Start a blog, write a book, sell a product, launch a club or a meetup group. Whatever it is, you don’t need to wait to get started. The future belongs to people who begin now.

-Get work experience as quickly as possible. Work after classes, take a gap year, do a program like Praxis or a summer internship. It will do miles for your career later on.

-Don’t take more student loans. If you can’t afford to attend the University of Michigan, go somewhere else. You’ve never had to make a financial decision in your life and you have no business taking on $30,000-$100,000 in debt. Student debt will limit your options tremendously when you’ve graduated. Want to take a low pay, high equity job at a startup? Too bad, you won’t be able to. Want to travel? Nope.

-Before you prepare for things like Law or Medical School, consider taking an internship in one of those professions. Interview people who actually do it. Chances are you won’t want to be either a doctor or a lawyer once you figure out what they actually spend most of their time doing. It’s better to find out now than 6 years down the road and $200,000 down the drain.

-Drop out of school the moment college stops feeling like a valuable experience to you. You can always go back, but boredom or wasted time is failure. Go do something else until you’re ready to return.

-Start developing good habits now. College is a breeding ground for bad mindsets and bad lifestyles. They are not as easy to turn off once you graduate as you might think.

-Stop taking things so seriously. Failed a test? Nobody will ever care outside of this narrow university circle. There’s a huge world out there and school is just about the least important part of it. Most of the things you’re going to stress about in school are distractions from the one important thing in life: the things you produce.

-Consider choosing an alternative to college. You can accomplish your professional goals much faster through something like Praxis, Uncollege, or the various coding bootcamps that exist. Why wait 4 years when you can have it all in 6 months?

-Ask yourself why you’re even attending college in the first place. Is it necessary to achieve your goals? Can you do something else that might be more valuable? Chances are you’ve never seriously considered it. College might be a good place for some but there are a ton of unrecognized benefits to sidestepping the educational hamster wheel and getting a 4 year head start one everyone else.

And lastly, let’s do away with the nonsense that these are the best years of your life.

Things can get so much better from here if you’re up for the challenge.

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About Derek Magill

Derek Magill is a (former) LSA student in the Classics Department. He dropped of the University of Michigan during his Sophomore year and is now the Director of Marketing at Praxis. Praxis is a 9 month startup apprenticeship program for people who want more than college.
  • Great story — thanks for sharing

  • cjmcd

    I learned this lesson in the late fifties. I dropped out of engineering school at a “good” university while receiving good grades because I felt I was spinning my wheels. Soon after I enlisted in the Air Force, graduated from an intensive electronics course provided by the Air Force, and was able to live and work in three continents. When I left the Air Force after four years I worked at a rewarding career in commercial aviation topping off as a Director for a large Int’l Airliner leasing company. I’m comfortably retired after years of hard, but rewarding work in MY chosen industry. I cannot remember a day when I did not want to go to work.