How Should Students Who Want to Study Computer Science Prepare for College?

Future computer science majors should be curious about technology.


This question originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Ben Y. Zhao, professor of computer science, on Quora:

When in high school and preparing for a career in computer science, a few things come to mind that might be helpful.

First, you need to make sure that you can get into the major. That is an increasingly nontrivial challenge. If you get into elite schools such as the Ivies, Stanford, Duke, or MIT, you shouldn’t have a problem choosing your own major. But at many public universities, it is increasingly hard to get into CS because of the sheer demand by incoming undergrads. You need to make sure that your application is strong enough to get into the CS major if the school separates admission by major.

Second, it helps to be curious about technology. CS is one of those fields with numerous subareas that can cater to different types of students: math-oriented (theory, crypto, or scientific computing), practical (systems, networking, databases and data mining), or hands on (architecture, systems). No matter what, it helps to have a strong curiosity about technology driving your desire to learn. That’s something that will help you when the going gets tough, helping you grind through courses outside of your research interests.

Third, almost all of the general advice regarding college applies: be open-minded, eager to learn, work your ass off to get the most out of every moment in college, etc. Out of these general pieces of advice, I’d perhaps emphasize one: that it is OK to fail and that failure teaches us resilience and how to take risks. I gave a keynote at the Mobisys 2016 Ph.D. Forum on this topic, using anecdotes from my personal experience to prove the point. One of these days I might put the slides up.

Finally, I think having prior experience with technology, computers, and programming will help in general. It can certainly make some intro CS classes a bit easier to deal with. But it’s unlikely to make a difference in the long run, which is why I don’t rate this factor higher. This is also something that has unfairly skewed away women and minorities who are less represented in CS and technology majors. But I know first-hand that female students and minority students have as good a chance as any at succeeding in CS, despite their perceived disadvantage at often being exposed to the area later on in life.

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