Learning From Freshman Mistakes and a Newfound Focus: Sophomore Reflections

As you can probably tell, school and stress robbed me of my time and creativity for yet another semester as shown by the drought of posts on this blog but I’m finally back to catch you up on all the half-baked and half-formed thoughts and revelations I had this past semester but had to keep bottled up in between trying to debug my malloc code and experimenting with liquid nitrogen. Here’s my best attempt now to articulate those thoughts.

But… in order to talk about how I’ve been holding up this semester, I need to quickly rewind and catch you up on my freshman spring semester. You may recall, back in May, I wrote a couple of blog posts: Why Carnegie Mellon Computer Science?… Or Why Not (A Rising Sophomore’s Reasoning) and Freshman Spring Semester Classes at Carnegie Mellon. I still stand by what I wrote in both of those posts, but I don’t think either one truly captured how low I was feeling about myself my freshman spring and I definitely left some details out.

This time last year, I was sitting in my room at home, back from my first semester of college, similar to how I am now, and I was binge applying to tech companies for summer software engineering internship positions. Before winter break ended, my total company application count was 60+. I also had a Google interview scheduled for January that I stressed about the entire break. Needless to say, spring semester my freshman year started on a stressful note. This only multiplied after I got rejected from Google the second week of the semester in addition to the almost daily rejection emails I got unsurprisingly from all the companies I applied to and that didn’t want to hire a freshman with no experience.

A couple more weeks into the semester, I dropped one of my classes to focus more on my two other CS classes. A week or so after that, midterm grades came back and I realized there was a possibility I might not even pass both of my CS classes and had to make arrangements to drop and not fall out of full-time student status if it came to that. I was so unhappy with myself and how I was doing academically on top of how jobless I was compared to what I felt like were a lot of other freshmen. I was feeling like CMU made a mistake admitting me into SCS, I wasn’t enjoying any of my classes, and I couldn’t relate to any of my friends who weren’t struggling and they couldn’t relate to me. It was just an overwhelming feeling of being alone, lost, and confused the entire semester.

After that semester ended, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I ultimately passed all my classes and even did a lot better in one of my CS classes beyond my wildest expectations. I had lined up a part-time internship, research and a TA position for over the summer and things were looking better. I think the more generalized feeling that other college students might experience with the novelty of being a freshman wearing off, being hit with what most people consider the hardest CS course requirement at CMU, struggling to find a job, comparing yourself to other people, or questioning if you even like your major hit me all at once last spring and it. was. rough.

It was so rough that I told myself I would never let something like that ever happen again. And that’s what I set out to do this semester. I wanted sophomore year to feel like a fresh start. Moving on and learning from my mistakes started with re-evaluating my priorities and identifying what didn’t work for me from last semester and what I needed to change.

Understanding my limits. One of the ideas that took me a while to accept since leaving high school was that some people need to work harder than others to achieve the same results. Now, I think there are plenty of reasons as to why this is the case that have nothing to do with intelligence, and more to do with, backgrounds, high schools, upbringing, etc. Putting Stanford duck syndrome aside, none of these reasons change the fact that sometimes your peers simply do not need to work as hard as you to get that same grade and that same success. However, this idea feels so difficult to accept because something about it just feels so inherently unfair and frustrating. I don’t know that I’ve settled upon a way to best articulate this feeling as I feel that I’m still struggling with it, but in any case, I’ve come to tell myself at least that there is nothing you can change about how much or little effort another person needs to put in to get that A or that job that you also want. The only thing you can control is how much harder you choose to work. For me, in practice, realizing this meant that in certain CS classes I took this semester if someone I knew said they finished an assignment in 10 hours, that I would probably then need 20 hours. If someone studied for only a day, then I would likely need to study for at least three days. In this sense, I learned to understand my limits. I learned to manage my time according to these adjusted expectations. I learned that I’m never productive past 2 am. I learned that for certain types of programming homework I’m far more productive working alone in my room, but for other types of math homework I’m better in a group. I learned that studying habits that work for others may not necessarily work well for me or dictate how I should be studying. By better understanding the limits of my abilities and skills and optimizing around that and less so worrying about how much others were or weren’t studying, I was able to feel comparatively more productive and focused in my work throughout this semester. Looking back, this was sort of my take on the more cliche notion of not comparing yourself to others.

Learning when to say no. I know there’s a really big cultural notion about the college experience™ and people generally make a big deal about how college is this crazy thing where you have a once in a lifetime opportunity to have experiences that you’ll never have again after college and you should make the absolute most of your time while you’re there. While I agree with that sentiment to a certain degree I think it still greatly depends on how an experience, when it’s presented to you, stacks up against what you’ve determined are your priorities. Fresh out of online high school freshman me chose to prioritize friends and relationships as a way to figure out who I was and what others thought of me outside an online context. Sophomore me knew that coming into the fall semester, I wanted to prioritize school and career. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a fraud and if I put in enough time and effort that I could thrive both academically and career-wise. So when my friends invited me to stay out late or go off-campus on the weekends, I learned to say no. In many situations, understanding my limits and that I needed to stay in and work harder than others meant saying no to other opportunities. By far the hardest thing I had to say no to this semester was going to a concert with tickets that my friends and I had purchased months in advance because my code that I had spent the last week writing and was due the next day still had bugs. It was incredibly painful to admit that I just wasn’t good enough or smart enough to have the luxury to take the night off and have my code also work. My freshman self would have been additionally terrified of missing out, scared that friendships would decline, or that I wasn’t being the ideal friend who would say yes to everything. All those thoughts still ran through my mind, but my resolve to not make the same mistakes I had the semester before fueled me with the determination to say no to a lot of things that I knew wouldn’t help me in the end.

Minimizing regret. I believe regret is inevitable in life. Mistakes and bad decisions are bound to happen. But as someone who tends to have a hard time forgetting mistakes they make, I made it a goal this semester to minimize any future feelings of regret I might have looking back, since I had been filled with so much regret from the previous semester. The also daunting milestone of entering my 20s this year forced me to think a lot about regret and its place in this period of my life where I’m growing and learning from new experience, but also having to take full responsibility for my choices, the same choices that could have significant impact on the rest of my life. These are big thoughts that I still don’t have answers to, but in the interim, I feel like I’ve identified two sources of regret that I can control and minimize: regretting that I didn’t put sufficient effort in and regretting making decisions that I had the foresight to know were bad before I acted upon it. With this mental schema at the forefront of my mind this semester when I had to make decisions about time management and other things relative to my priorities, I think it led me having a more purposeful and self-aware semester overall.

I started the fall semester of my sophomore year with a problem: feeling insecure, feeling like an imposter, feeling regret, feeling like I couldn’t get the ranks that I wanted. So, I made it a mission for myself to solve this problem through re-evaluating my priorities, being more self-aware of my capabilities and limits and trying to maintaining grit throughout.

I realize this post has been pretty bleak and depressing to read, but overall I’m happy to report that things seem to be taking a turn for the better. No doubt it’s still been extremely difficult mentally and physically, but I’ve done far better academically this semester compared to my freshman semesters, I’ve had a blast TAing this semester, and I’ve managed to land myself a job at Google this summer… but more on that next time 🥰 As for next semester, I’m still not entirely sure what my plans are and if or how my priorities might get shuffled around again, but I guess we’ll see. Maybe SCS is making good problem solvers out of us after all… but in unexpected ways. Hmmm…

until next time,
– your resident comp sci blogger who gets lost in her thoughts too often and is stressed that she’s 20 and needs to figure the rest of her life out now