Undergraduate Street-Smarts (Part 1)

Your professors won't make you succeed, even if you do everything they tell you to. They will give you tools, give you lectures, and give you knowledge, but it isn't enough. I've collected some of the most important things I've done/wish I had done during my undergraduate years. 
Don't just be an academic. Have academic street smarts.

1. Join your professional association.

For CS students, join the ACM - something you can do the first day of college. It may cost you a few bucks, but it's worth it.

Why? Access to tremendous resources, the opportunity to keep a watchful eye on your field, and a resume check mark which shows that you engage in your field. It may also give you a heads up for interesting speeches and conference. More on that later.

2. Make a "net presence" for yourself.

Sadly, this revelation came to me only after my graduation. Create a Twitter account and find people to follow in your field. Create a LinkedIn account and start making connections. Create a blog. Even if you update it once a week, write a paragraph about what you are thinking about.

Why Twitter? Think of Twitter as a more productive instant message. If you follow the right people you a) get up to the minute updates in your field (or points of interest) and b) are suddenly included in a network with "all the right people." Bonus: There are lots of Twitter gatherings at restaurants that can give you an opportunity to get face time with influential people (at least, more influential than you). Networking, networking, networking. 

Why LinkedIn? LinkedIn is a professional Facebook. There aren't wall messages, there are recommendations. You don't post music, you post your resume. Even more crucial, important people use LinkedIn, not just your college buddies. More networking, more connections = good.

Why Blog? Since I've started blogging, not only has it increased my awareness in the field, but it has made me more articulate when I speak about issues that are relevant to my area of study. Need another good reason? Many top-notch graduate schools don't even have time to interview you. Their only exposure comes through your application. If you have a blog, you create an opportunity for graduate schools to hear more of what you have to say. I found that some applications didn't cater to my strengths at all. It is good to have a place that does.

Overall Why? If I say the name "Barack Obama", you know who it is. Why? It is because his face, his words, and his opinions are everywhere. The names you know are the names you see. Expand your network and give yourself a soap box to stand on. Even if think you don't have anything important to share, start building connections for when you do. I have been fully engaged with social media for only a couple months, but Googling Evan Peck now lays me claimto 6 of the top 8 entries on the results list. Not bad. Once you have found something you really want to say, you'll want that public arena, so start building it now.

3. Take Some Writing Courses
I don't care what you do. Your major doesn't matter. Learn to write well. The better you write, the more people pay attention. Take a poetry class. Take a fiction class. Take a non-fiction class.

Why? As a computer science graduate student, surveying the writing proficiency in the field is pathetic. It's one thing to write so that your colleagues understand it (and sadly, this is enough of a challenge for many people), it is another to write so that it is accessible to the larger public. If 1,000 people are excited about an idea, it moves a lot quicker than if the 10 people in your class think it's cool. To put it simply: Ideas don't go anywhere if they aren't communicated well. If you want to go to grad school, you'll be writing journal articles. As I mentioned ealier, a graduate school's only exposure to you as a person comes through your personal statement. You'd better be capable of making it good. 

4. Learn Basic Design Principles.
I cannot stress this enough. Don't be the guy who uses Vegas colors. Don't be the guy who uses Comic Sans in his papers. If you can take a class, fantastic. If not, just take some time to look over design portfolios online. Try to learn a little about typography.
Focus on simplicity.

Why? It is downright amazing how great ideas can be sunk by terrible design. Personally, it's much harder for me to respect an application if it has a poor visual design, even if it is functionally perfect. We are visually inclined. That's why we like sunsets and deep canyons. It's why attractive politicians do better than unattractive ones (sad, but true). So design well, or at least, make friends that can design well.

5. Present Well. Present Often.
Present every chance you get. If you are in collaborative projects, offer to be the speaker. Create lots of PowerPoint presentations. Take a public speaking class. Present in comfortable situations, then present in uncomfortable situations. Present on things you know about and present on things you know absolutely nothing about. 

Why? You should present well for many of the same reasons you should write well. You become exponentially more valuable if you a strong presenter. I've seen whole hordes of people get excited by terrible ideas that were presented brilliantly. Presenting well also means that you get to meet more people - you get to go to more conferences, you get more face time in front of key individuals, and you can even excite people outside of your field's sphere of influence. Take the opportunity to hone those skills now, when presentations in front of 15 half-awake students don't matter. Experiment a bit and see what works. 

Hope you enjoyed the post. If you have any thoughts of your own, let me know.

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