Studying at Carnegie Mellon University has been a wonderful, educational, and stressful turning point in my life. I strongly emphasize that it is a “turning point.” The college experience at CMU fundamentally changed my world view and life for the better, but it was not without a lot of work and unexpected turns.
Since I just graduated and my experience is still quite fresh in my mind, I felt compelled to write about my journey through CMU year-by-year. I’d like to document both the highs as well as the lows, the many struggles I had adjusting to college life, and sprinkle in advice here and there.
This isn’t meant to be a “guide to CMU” or like a “review of CMU.” Rather I want to just show you what I did and how I felt in a realistic manner.
To be honest, when I first came to CMU and Pittsburgh I experienced quite a significant culture shock plus some pretty intense imposter syndrome. Ever since I came to the US as a kid, I’d been surrounded mostly by a homogenous lower middle to middle class community. Most people around me weren’t exactly super high achieving by my current frame of reference, but many still had high-reaching aspirations.
Of course in any group of high school students there will always be the stand-outs, but I was not one of those students. For me personally, I didn’t particularly like school or studying nor did I feel strongly about achieving anything in my future. I kind of just meandered along in life.
The sudden shift to experiencing the type of culture that students who come to CMU have always known scared me. Everyone had this drive and passion that I seemed to lack. And it felt like literally every single person on campus was way smarter than me. My freshman year roommate who studied design had a higher science and math score than me on the SAT and I was supposedly the STEM major.
At the time, I had viewed college as just another necessary hurdle in the track to a regular American life. But little did I know that I was going to be in for a very rude awakening and a very depressing couple of years. It felt like standing in a wave pool at a water park. Except I didn’t know how to swim… and the water reached my neck.
Freshman orientation was quite well done. Even though it was barely over a week long, I felt like I quickly assimilated into what felt like a pretty tight community. I remember there was this “rule” in our dorm (I lived in Rez) that unless you or your roommates really needed private time, you should keep the door to your room open to visitors. Many of us would hop between rooms on our floor, or to other floors, and strike up many spontaneous conversations. There was an air of competition as no one wanted to feel like the dumb one in the dorm (I was certainly guilty of this as well), but by about a month into the semester everyone on our floor was more or less friendly with each other.
Classes weren’t difficult at this point yet, nor were they really supposed to be. I definitely spent a lot less time studying that I should have. Instead I spent a lot more time socializing. I do honestly feel that was a mistake. I was already behind a lot of my peers in terms of my mastery of basic knowledge as expected out of high school, and to spend even less time on studying on first year fundamentals really made me suffer down the road.
To add to all the socializing, I decided to start a club (CMU Tricking Club) and also join another club (Scotch’n’Soda Theatre). Between school work, clubs, and maintaining social contact, I was spread extremely thin. What felt like high productivity on the surface was just a haphazard juggling act between all of my commitments. This false sense of accomplishment entrenched me in this style of academics and was hard to grow out of. If I could go back to freshman year now, I would definitely have forced myself to study a bit harder.
I also started dating my next door neighbor from Rez. She ended up having quite an impact on my college career. I’m just going to refer to her as GF from now on.
By the end of freshman year I already had pretty bad grades, about a C/C+ cumulative GPA. I had somehow managed to get a researcher in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department interested in advising me for research, so I stayed at CMU for the summer. If you are not completely averse to doing research, I would highly suggest giving research a try. CMU produces amazing research and there are superstar faculty in every department all over campus. I have learned so much and met so many amazing people through my research and diving into research was one of the best decisions I could’ve made.
Since I didn’t exactly excel in the fundamental introductory courses, I started to suffer the consequences of my poor decisions. I got the lowest semester GPA I’d ever gotten in my entire academic career, narrowly avoid academic probation. Even though I studied much harder this year, because I was playing catch-up the entire time rather than having time to understand the present material, I just couldn’t keep up.
To add on to my already large amount of commitments, I decided to also become a teaching assistant. For my very first semester, I was probably not the greatest TA (honestly probably a little bad). However, this marked the start of a long and enjoyable TA journey for me. CMU CS (and many other departments on campus) has a really strong undergraduate TA culture backed by an equally strong undergraduate TA system. I would highly recommend anyone to TA as it was an extremely positive experience for me.
While adding on TA duties to my list ended up being a net positive for me personally, I ended up starting to neglect other responsibilities. I only rarely showed up to Tricking Club events and I did find that I socialized much less than during freshman year.
I also moved out of on-campus housing and into an apartment about a mile away from campus. It was a cheaper option that living on campus and overall I’d recommend it. The renting scene around campus is actually not bad. A lot of the buildings are indeed old but many are well maintained. The recommendation is to either know an upperclassman friend who has a place where people are moving out or be very vigilant during the visit. We rented via the second way and we got really lucky with a great landlord.
Even though I didn’t find a place to live through upperclassman friends, I still had many older friends (mainly connected with through club activities) who were always eager to give advice and/or help me out with problems (both academic and not). Through one of those friends I got referred to Uber for an internship position. Because this was my first technical interview, I was woefully underprepared. I had heard of LeetCode and Cracking The Coding Interview, but I definitely did not study those enough. I wholeheartedly believed I bombed the onsite interview, yet they somehow still wanted me. In the end one of my roommates, GF, and I stayed in Pittsburgh for the internship over summer.
There’s a culture at CMU around viewing overwork and being stressed as a positive thing, something to be praised. And as gullible, I suppose, as I am, I heavily bought into this culture. As a result I signed up for some difficult classes this year. My research also started getting more and more difficult as my advisor wanted me to stop working for other people’s projects and rather propose my own project. On top of that, junior year is also when the internship hunt is the most hectic so flying out for interviews (potentially up to every week) took away even more of time.
If I was already spread way too thin before, I was now being strangled by all of my commitments and responsibilities. I was now also cognizant of the fact that I really needed to work on my academics. The pressure started straining my relationship with GF and so I ultimately dropped pretty much all club activities in order to focus on school work and research (and finding an internship).
My grades and learning improved a lot during this period and I also passed the proposal stage for my very own research project. Though my grades still had more room to grow as I was in roughly the C+ range in terms of my cumulative GPA. The consequence of my improved academics was me becoming a hermit. I only left the house for class and food (sometimes). And when I was on campus I was usually by myself. Overall I would say that suddenly dropping all the activities that I would qualify as fun was horrible for my mental health. But it was difficult to go back to my clubs after seeing just how much I was able to learn, and see my GPA take a positive spike.
The internship search was also successful through all of the chaos of flying around the country (mainly the coasts) pretty much every single week. A small bit of advice here is that you should definitely make rewards accounts with every airline to collect mileage points since miles are awarded to the traveler, not the buyer, of the ticket.
GF and I broke up during the summer. Since we were in separate cities over the summer, it didn’t really affect me that much immediately. But when I got back to school, I ended up reinforcing my hermit tendencies. I found that I had a hard time being social and instead just committed to my school work. I only missed 2 lectures the first semesters of senior year and those missed lectures were due to flying out for interviews. Also for the first time in my college career, I got a 4.0 semester GPA and made it onto Dean’s List with High Honors.
At this point, seeing the payoff of my studying and avoiding anything that isn’t studying like the plague made me want to double down on what was bringing me supposed success. But dropping off in social contact with all my friends really hurt me. Even my roommate who isn’t usually sensitive about these things or vocal about it expressed some concern about my isolated behavior. It took a few late night talks and drinks but I did finally start the understand that I just wasn’t happy. I gradually began getting back in contact with a lot of my old friends. I was a little anxious at first since I was the one who pretty much started ignoring everyone. But most were really happy to see me back in their circles. It took some effort to find a good rhythm with friends while not just completely abandoning my study habits.
Ironically COVID-19 then hit all of us just I was integrating myself back into my friend circles and starting club activities again. I even started assistant directing with Scotch’n’Soda Theatre again. We had cast the show (over 15+ hours of arduous auditions, callbacks, and deliberations) and had begun preliminary rehearsals by the time the lockdowns started happening.
Along with pretty much everyone else in the class of 2020, I finished my final semester remotely. Not having the formal setting of a graduation made it easier to swallow the sad feeling of finally making it through, and leaving, CMU. But I still felt melancholy sitting in my room at home since CMU really has stretched and stressed me into a better person.
Of course I couldn’t include every detail of my academic experience (I don’t even remember all of it!). While writing all of my thoughts down, I had a dumb smile on my face pretty much the entire time. While I had some lows, I also had plenty of highs in my time at CMU.
I think once I started getting my shit together and wasn’t constantly behind I started enjoying my experience a lot more. And with that, I got over my imposter syndrome bit by bit. I still sometimes feel kinda dumb since everyone around me seems so brilliant, but I’ve accepted that I’ve actually done pretty well for myself and I am proud of what I have accomplished.
Not only the knowledge I’ve acquired at CMU, but the people I’ve gotten to know over the years have changed me tremendously. Even relationships that I’m not really in contact with anymore have influenced me a lot. This is a little cliché but the true CMU experience for me was the people.
Also I’ve listed some of my favorite courses (in no particular order) that I’ve taken at CMU. Some of these courses are required courses, but they are all courses that I would highly recommend to take if you are somewhat interested in their subject matter. Keep in mind that I was a Cognitive Science major so plenty of the courses listed below are related to that.
- 80-315 Modal Logic
- 15-745 Optimizing Compilers for Modern Architectures
- 15-387 Computational Perception
- 85-382 The Psychology and Neuroscience of Consciousness
- 15-418 Parallel Computer Architecture and Programming
- 10-707 Topics in Deep Learning
- 85-435 Neural and Cognitive Models of Adaptive Decision Making
- 15-150 Principles of Functional Programming
- 15-251 Great Ideas in Theoretical Computer Science