10 Tips STEM Majors Should Know, from a Stanford Student

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Amanda Orbuch
Amanda Orbuch

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As a sophomore at Stanford, I’ve met my fair share STEM-oriented students. So, what would a Stanford student recommend to STEM majors before you get to college? In fact, at many universities, it feels like everywhere you turn, you bump into another STEM student (a.k.a. “techy”). Let’s talk about how to prepare.

In a recent conversation with a friend of mine who is majoring in Mechanical Engineering, minoring in Electrical Engineering, and hoping to purse a Master’s in Computer Science, I asked him some questions. I asked, “What are ten things you wish you’d known about being a STEM student before entering college?” What follows here is a redacted version of what that Stanford student told me. 

1. Challenge yourself in high school.

Oftentimes, college STEM classes assume a substantial amount of prior knowledge. Especially at a school on the quarter system (like Stanford), professors simply don’t have time to go over basic or fundamental information. In light of this, it is in your best interest to come into college with a solid foundation of math and science. How should you do this? Challenge yourself in high school. If your school offers Honors or AP classes, take them. In the short run, this might be more difficult for you, but taking these classes legitimately makes your transition to college-level STEM academics easier.

2. Ask for help when you get stuck.

This might seem intuitive, and it sounds like a lesson you heard even in high school, but in college STEM classes, it’s even more important. Classes are a semester long. If you don’t understand something, it can be tempting to cling to your pride and try to do it all on your own. You will find, however, that work piles up quickly as you devote yourself entirely to working out a single problem that you could have gotten help on. And this is advice coming from a Stanford student, who usually falls among the brightest minds out of their entire cohort! Do not sacrifice academic performance or time management for your pride.

In fact, this goes for all kinds of help. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance and support if that’s what you need to succeed.

3. That being said, be wary of long wait times for help with TA’s or professors.

Office hours, the college equivalent of extra help, are genuinely a great resource to work through specific problems or to get help with more conceptual issues. That being said, especially in STEM classes, the wait times can add up. A lot. It is not uncommon to wait an hour and a half for help on a problem, so make sure you factor that into your planning. For some people, talking to other students is definitely more time-efficient and sometimes even more helpful, since other students tend to speak in easier language. A reminder, however, to check your school’s Honor Code and plagiarism policy before you speak to a friend.

4. Mandatory English classes can be a struggle. There are ways to make it easier.

For many STEM students, writing is a challenge. Given the fact that many schools require that students take one or more writing-based classes, many STEM students face substantial difficult. One suggestion that actually makes a difference: see if you can find a writing class with a STEM focus that fulfills the requirement. It’s easier to write if you’re writing about something you’re interested. Also, don’t neglect your English classes while in high school. Pretty much any Stanford student will say that learning how to write before college makes the mandatory English classes much more manageable.

5. STEM classes can be large. Actually, huge.

At Stanford, the introductory coding class, CS106A, can have more than 700 students taking it at a single time. Because of this, it is often very difficult to meet and connect with your STEM professors. If you want to do so, the obligation is on you to make the effort. It is definitely worth it though; for the most part, professors are incredibly helpful and relatable (and definitely not intimidating) in a one-on-one setting.

6. Try to ignore people who can make you feel insecure.

Invariably, there will be students who raise their hands in class just to make a tangentially-related comment in order to show how extensive their knowledge of the subject is. It can be very intimidating to be in a room when this is happening and easy to feel that, in some way, there exists a failing on your part. Don’t feel this way. Focus on the material the professor is asking you to learn and ask questions when it seems productive to the discussion. Don’t feel inferior whatsoever.

7. STEM problem sets (PSETs) are different from high school homework.

In high school, teachers go through a million practice problems and tell you what to expect from your homework. In college, in-class lessons are often strictly conceptual; that is to say; sometimes professors will only explain the theories behind a topic, and provide minimal, if any, practice problems. This varies depending on your university, but as a Stanford student, I would say it holds true. In light of this, PSETs can sometimes feel like they’re coming out of left field. When this happens, your textbook is your friend! Even if textbooks weren’t useful in high school, they will be in college, so open them up when you’re stuck.

8. STEM exams can carry a lot of weight.

For STEM classes in particular, the emphasis in terms of grades is placed far more on test performance than it is on participation or discussion. In high school, you may have had weekly quizzes to buoy your grades. In college, a single exam can count for 50% of your grade. This is not intended to scare you, because this means less rote studying, but it should emphasize how important time-management is in college.

9. Attendance in STEM classes is frequently not mandatory.

Especially if classes post slides, notes, or even videos of the lecture online, there is a pretty substantial incentive to not show up. That being said, most classes only post one or some of these things; for these classes, attendance is incredibly helpful. Professors tend to explain STEM subjects in more relatable terms in person, so showing up is often worth it. Moreover, some classes, specifically the bigger ones, track attendance through “clicker questions,” wherein the ask students to answer a fairly simple quiz question on a small, student-specific “clicker” that only works in a certain range.

10. Maximize your studying and preparation.

Some classes only meet twice a week, which makes a fast pace inevitable. A word of advice: read the material being covered before lecture; professors often move quickly, skip details, and make logical jumps, so having some background makes a huge difference. Along that same vein, in college STEM classes, there is far less practice material than you may be used to in high school. Oftentimes, you will have 1 practice midterm and 1 practice final. Make good use of them. Take them under testing conditions— timed, on paper, with whatever materials you’ll have access to during the test— to be most efficient.

The life of a STEM student in college can be hard. Expectations are high, the material is challenging, and the pace of learning is incredibly fast. That being said, there are ways you can make this journey of following your passion easier. It starts by educating yourself. I hope these tips provide a helpful start. For more college counseling, visit the team at Empowerly for support and pointers!

Questions? Let us know!