Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Some Friendly (College) Advice

So, I recently found myself typing up a longish email in response to a high school junior trying to figure out this whole college thing. In particular, the full story looks something like:

  • I post a Quora answer in response to a question about majoring in mathematics.
  • A user comments, asking if I would field some additional questions by email. (I've since deleted the comment, to protect the privacy of the requester.)
  • I spend the better part of an hour typing responses about what it's like to be at Harvard, what it's like to joint-concentrate CS/Math, and some advice on applying to colleges.

In the end, it seemed like there are some other people I know who might want to hear such off-the-top-of-my-head insights. But then again, if you're not a high school student, the rest of this post is going to be pretty useless for you; be forewarned.

In any case, I've reproduced (most of) the email exchange below.

Hi Ross,

My questions are as follows:

  1. From your profile I learnt that you major in both CS and Math; what is majoring in two subjects like? Barely have no time to do anything related to social life (not to mention you are in Harvard)? I also want to double-major in CS and Math when I study in university.
  2. Did you spare any effort to prepare for applying universities before you were admitted by Harvard? In other words, did you put a lot of time in extracurricular activities (and sports)?
  3. Scoring high on SAT requires a huge amount of vocabulary, could you tell me how you memorized words?

Best wishes,



Regarding my experiences in the CS/Math joint concentration, I've written things on Quora on a few occasions: What is it like to be a Math and CS joint concentrator at Harvard? / Are studying CS at Harvard and having friends mutually exclusive?
>> If you're not a Quora user, you'll need to sign in to use the site and view my answers. If you'd rather not, I've reproduced them on this blog here and here, respectively. <<

But to expand on those answers: Plenty of people at Harvard have plenty of time for social life. (Believe me, I can hear loud parties all over campus every weekend night...) Of course, there are also many hardworking students who study all weekend, and spend their Friday nights either studying, working on homework, or sleeping after a long week of work.

I (and my friends) fall somewhere between the two. Some nights, I'm working on problem sets until I find myself falling asleep against my will, at which point I get a two-hour nap, wake up, and continue working. Some nights, I decide to put off my homework for another day, and go out with my friends to a party or other social event. In November, on the weekend before the last week of the term, we all traveled to New Haven to watch the Harvard-Yale football game...then came back home, and worked like mad to finish all of our work on Sunday.

Harvard, of course, is a bit unusual, as a "joint concentration" is different from a typical "double major". Many schools that offer "double majors" require you to take a full set of courses from both departments. Harvard, by contrast, lets you combine two fields into a single set of requirements, which ends up being approximately as much as a honors degree. Specifically, for my fields:

  • Regular CS degree: 12 courses
  • Honors CS degree: 14 courses, plus thesis (a significant research project)
  • Regular Math degree: 12 courses
  • Honors Math degree: 12 courses, plus thesis
  • CS/Math joint degree: 11 CS courses, 5 Math courses (two double-counted), plus combined thesis (bridging both subjects)

In short, the two-course intro Math sequence (normally required for CS) double-counts, and my three free "CS electives" are changed to specific Math requirements in the fields of Algebra, Analysis, and Geometry. But on the whole, it's not any more classes than an Honors CS degree. So, since I was interested in taking the Math courses anyway, it actually feels like I have less work, not more!


(This is an unpopular answer for most people, but is actually very true.)

Before applying to Harvard, I was living high school just the way I wanted to: I was on the debate team until it wasn't fun any more, and then I quit. I played soccer for a year, and didn't like the team, so I stopped that, too. All the while, I was spending a lot of time fencing (not on my school team, but at a local club), and got quite good at that. I was on Student Council, and helped to run one of the school's Honors Societies, and I had a research internship at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

But I didn't do any of these things because I was trying to apply to college; I did them because they were fun. It wasn't until I started applying to colleges that I looked back, and realized that the activities that I had enjoyed so much aligned so well with the conventional wisdom "take lots of impressive extracurriculars, have some sports, etc." It was always about following my interests, and never about building my portfolio. As it turned out, though, following my interests involved spending a lot of time on a variety of extracurriculars. And yes, sports. (For the year or two that I was really focusing on fencing, I estimate I trained for about eight to ten hours a week, on average.)

Throughout all of this, of course, I never stopped focusing on my schoolwork. Though, with so many activities, my grades were always low A-'s, never A+'s. Fortunately, my high school only reports the letter, not the +/-, so I ended junior year with a 4.0 on the books. (Though, it dropped in senior year, after I had applied and been accepted, as I found my time, energy, and willpower eaten up by other things.)


I remember taking the SAT in seventh grade, and scoring a 700 on the verbal section. (I later took the test in eleventh grade, and scored a 760.) I don't ever remember studying (besides taking a single practice test, to convince my parents that my score was high enough that studying would be a waste of time). I think, though, that the single thing that helped me the most was my childhood love of reading. I read voraciously and constantly -- my parents took away my books at the dinner table and checked in after bedtime to make sure I wasn't reading all night long. I got motion sickness on long car rides because I spent the entire time with my nose in books, and almost got hit by cars crossing the street without looking.

And somewhere, in all of that reading, I cultivated a large vocabulary, so large that I got easily bored every time that I tried to sit down and study from SAT vocab books -- because I knew all the words already! Sorry that I can't be more help, but I never really sat down to memorize vocab; I just learned it all from reading, beginning from before when I even knew the SAT existed...

edit: One last thing: If your vocabulary really isn't good, you might try the ACT instead. Practically all colleges accept both tests, and many people claim that the ACT requires less vocab-memorizing to do well. I only ever took the SAT, though, so I can't speak to whether this is true.


Whew, that was a lot. But I really love giving people advice, so if you have any more questions, feel free to pass them along, and I'll be more than happy to share my experience! Of course, I wish you the best of luck in your college-seeking endeavors.


Anyway, if you've read this far, and you still have questions about college, applying to college, surviving college, or whatever, I'm always happy to answer any questions you care to throw my way. Email is a great way to get in touch with me; if you don't have my email, comment below asking for it, and I'll get in touch with you.