Do You Actually Want To Study Undergraduate Computer Science?

CS applicants — more competitive and numerous than ever.

January 13, 2021

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The question in the title might at first seem odd — what student applying to Computer Science (CS) doesn’t actually want to study it?

I’ll start by saying — if you compete in Code Jam, go on GitHub more than social media, or spend your free time on Linux forums shilling for Arch — this article isn’t for you.

Where I grew up, however, students were by default a CS major. Unless you had firm beliefs regarding your major or intended career, the common consensus was “just study CS, and you’ll work it out later.”

Perhaps they’re not wrong. CS pays well, with job opportunities in innumerable fields. Tech as a sector grows day-by-day, and the benefits of working from home only look more appealing in the time of a pandemic. Low-risk, unathletic, good pay, broadly applicable, easy-to-learn — who wouldn’t recommend CS as the go-to major for wavering high school students not yet sure of their purpose in life?

“Economics and the promise of upward mobility are driving the student stampede. While previous generations of entrepreneurial undergraduates might have aspired to become lawyers or doctors, many students now are leery of investing the time, and incurring six-figure debts, to join those professions.

By contrast, learning computing skills can be a fast path to employment, as fields as varied as agriculture, banking and genomics incorporate more sophisticated computing. While the quality of programs across the country varies widely, some computer science majors make six-figure salaries straight out of school.” — NYT

The issue is, CS is too appealing. In fact, undergrad CS at universities faces a problem other departments wish they had — an overwhelming number of applicants. There are only so many spots to fill, so the number of rejected students grows year-over-year by basic supply and demand. The percentage of accepted students applying to CS and engineering is a fraction of the overall acceptance rates, whether at prestigious CS universities or not.

Cutthroat competitiveness is naturally born from a shortage of spots, and even perfect grades and standardized test scores are not enough. In the last few years, I’ve seen the number of hackathons, coding competitions, and community tech organizations for high schoolers balloon to ludicrous proportions. Students fight each other for leadership positions, team captain spots, tech companies, and local government recognition.

Once admitted, this boils over to the college curriculums — CS and engineering majors are forced to take multiple “weeder classes,” a combative, often bell-curved system, where those with extensive prior experience and confidence benefit — creating deep inequities in underprivileged groups.

“As more colleges implement “competitive enrollment” policies to winnow down their computer science enrollment, women and students of color are again squeezed out. And, in larger classes where faculty cannot build student relationships, research suggests that underrepresented minority students often lose.” -Forbes

I say this not to scare, but to inform prospective students: there are systemic issues of discrimination in the tech industry, from on-campus studies to in-company culture. There should be more representation from under-represented groups in CS to help fix this issue, but hiding the existence of this bias — or refusing to acknowledge it — does everyone a great disservice.

Knowing all this, should I major in CS? My recommendation is to ask yourself these four questions first:

  • Am I willing to attend a less-prestigious or less-competitive university to study CS there?
  • Are there fields I enjoy and would rather do? Could I major in that field and take CS as a minor instead?
  • Will I take the initiative to learn new things, constantly being in a state of change and adaptation to survive?
  • Am I actually interested in CS, enough to spend years taking demanding classes and sandbagging GPA to learn it? (Remember, CS isn’t just coding.)

The greatest worry I have is that students will go to a university that is not a good fit for them simply because their family or peers pressure them to attend a school with a good CS program. Then, faced with the immense workload for a subject they are not interested in, it leaves them with the decision to either change majors in a college they dislike — or to drop everything and leave altogether.

However, it is also prescient to mention the other side of the coin; only 27% of college graduates have a job related to their major, and having CS skills while working in another field can be a powerful selling point, along with the analytical and reasoning abilities one naturally gains from studying the field. Though colleges may make the curriculum purposefully obtuse, there are many free online resources to help you learn the subjects. The job security provided by CS may help you explore ventures you may not have the financial freedom to do so before.

At the end of the day, you should never select a major willy-nilly — for the average student, it is more important what you study and why than where. Have these conversations foremost with yourself and your parents and your school’s College and Career Counselor.

Don’t let anyone pressure you into making a final decision — take control of your life and weigh the options, costs, and benefits; it is what a CS student would do.

Written by Kevin Fang | birds of feather SSH.useFlock together