Advice for Freshmen: Not Just Economics

Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw offers advice to entering college freshmen, which includes a great nugget:

LEARN SOME STATISTICS High school mathematics curriculums spend too much time on traditional topics like Euclidean geometry and trigonometry. For a typical person, these are useful intellectual exercises but have little applicability to daily life. Students would be better served by learning more about probability and statistics.

Here are my own suggestions:

  1. Pick courses based on the professor, not the subject. I fought this advice for years, intent on pursuing my own interests. I finally succombed my second year of grad school. All the grad students said that Ed Tower was the best teacher in the department, so I tried International Economics. He was indeed, and I learned more microeconomics in his course than I did in the officially required micro course. I went on to take a field of concentration in International just because of Ed.
  2. Challenge your own preconceptions. I entered undergraduate college very interested in economics and convinced that Keynesian economics was a crock. So my second year I arranged a tutorial in which I read Keynes in the original, as well as his critics. I continued reading both sides of the issue throughout my undergraduate years. I changed my mind a little, but more importantly, I struggled for understanding of radically differing views. It's the struggle for understanding that has value to the student, not the ultimate conclusion. Of course, I was wise to have chosen a college that enabled and encouraged students to follow their interests and create unique study programs.

One of the wisest students I knew had advice that I never took, but should have. She treated college as a 40-hour a week job. During the working hours of the day, she was either in class or doing homework. In the evenings, she was up for fun. Now most students are up for fun, but they have not put in their 8 hours of substantial work. Try it and I can almost guarantee that college will be easy. (Average time spent studying outside of class is apparently 14 hours, according to an AEI report.)