Open Letter to a Freshman

By Jonah Kagan

September, 2012

Originally published at brownconversation.org

Dear Freshman,

Welcome to the greatest university-college on Earth! I’m glad you made it–not everybody does. But you did. You accomplished what probably seemed like your sole life goal for the last four (or maybe more) years. You got into a great college–no wait, scratch that, I said the greatest.

So now that you’re going to Brown, you might be wondering: “Now what?” Unfortunately, the first thing you’ll learn at Brown is that nobody can answer that for you. Actually, you won’t “learn” that in the conventional sense of the word. If you’re like me, or like many other Brown students I know, you’ll spend at least the first year or two here asking everyone you meet, “Now what?”, and never getting a straight answer. Of course, you won’t just ask them outright, but you’ll come up with your own ways.

To your advisor, you’ll ask: “What courses should I take?” To your friends1, you’ll ask: “What do you want to do after college?” To your family, you’ll ask: “How is everything back home?”

And that last one doesn’t sound particularly related to the question of “Now what?”, but trust me, nostalgia is one of the first warning signs that you might be suffering from the affliction that we all share here: the plague of the plan-less.

Of course, in theory, you should already know what you’re doing here. In your application to Brown, you had to answer: “Why do you want to go to college?” But in that context your answer was probably a bit biased. You knew who would be reading it, and you had to show off your good side. Since you got in, you were probably smart enough to not just say, “Because my parents wanted me to,” or, “Because I can get a higher paying job if I have a degree.” But those are both reasons that a lot of people decide to go to college. I won’t judge them as “good” or “bad” reasons, but they are valid reasons. So now that you’re off the hook–now that nobody’s watching–why don’t you try again?

Exercise 1: Answer truthfully: Why do you want to go to college?

Oh, you didn’t know there would be exercises? Well I don’t expect you to just accept everything I say as gospel, so I’m adding in exercises so you can prove (or disprove) my arguments to yourself.2 I strongly urge you to write down the answers, both for posterity and because writing is a great way to organize your thoughts.3

If you were able to complete the first exercise, then I’m very impressed. When I first got to Brown, I don’t think I really knew why I was here. If you feel like I did, that’s okay. Let me repeat that: it’s okay to not know why you’re going to college. Or at least, it’s okay for now. But you should try to figure it out, because when you’re facing the abyss that is the Open Curriculum, you’ll want to know what your goals are.

In the coming days–and years–you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions. If you want to make good decisions, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve with your decisions.

Exercise 2: Prove or disprove the following theorem: Making good decisions requires well-defined goals.

What do I mean when I talk about all these important decisions? Well, here are some examples of decisions I’ve had to make since I started Brown:

  • What courses should I take?
  • What grade option should I pick for each course?
  • Should I go to class?
  • How much time should I put into this reading/problem set/project/etc.?
  • Which concentration should I choose?
  • Where should I work over the summer?

These are all pretty practical academic decisions, but some have been more subtle, such as:

  • Should I follow my advisor’s/friends’/parents’ advice?
  • How much should I drink tonight?
  • Should I break up with my significant other?

Yes, believe it or not, decisions about your social life also depend on what your goals are at Brown. Your goals might be more or less academically- or socially-focused, and college has a knack for interweaving your academic life with your social life.

You might be thinking, “I faced all these same decisions in high school. What’s so different about college?” Well in high school, you had at least one well-defined goal: to get into college. In college, the next step is much more hazy, as is the causal connection between your actions now and your future pursuits.

You could say that the next step for all of us is to get a job, since that’s how one makes money to buy food and shelter. But just like going to college wasn’t the only option after high school, getting a job and making money isn’t the only option after college. You could, after all, go to grad school. Or you could move back in with your parents. Or you could travel.

If you do manage to decide on one of these goals, it’s still not clear what you need to do in college to achieve that goal. College does not work the same way as high school. You don’t necessarily get where you want to go by getting good grades and accumulating activities on your résumé.

Exercise 3: Prove or disprove the following theorem: You won’t get a job after college by getting good grades. Then prove or disprove this corrollary: You won’t achieve your goals by getting good grades.

Now, I don’t expect that you can give a very strong proof for or against this theorem. At this point in your life, you don’t have enough information to support a statement like this. I don’t either. But the fundamental assumption up to this point in your life, through all of schooling so far, is that the way to achieve your goals is to get good grades.

This principle may still apply for you in college. But it might not. The most important thing to realize is that it does not necessarily apply in college just because it applied in high school. If it does apply, you will need to rejustify it with new evidence.

How can you go about getting this evidence? Who has the information that can justify the way you approach college? I’ve been trying to answer these questions for a while. I’ve tried talking to professors, deans, older students, alumni, and employers, among others. Each person I talk to adds a new perspective, a couple more pixels that help define my image of how the world after college works.

As an example of where this search might take you, I’ll tell you some of the conclusions I’ve reached for myself. Of course, these don’t apply to every Brown student. Some of my closest friends are following principles that are in some ways the polar opposites of mine.

I decided that, for me, getting good grades is not the way to achieve my goals for college (one of which is getting a job afterwards). It took me two years at Brown to come to this conclusion, but once I did, I stopped taking my courses for letter grades, and started using the Satisfactory/No Credit option exclusively. I don’t calculate a GPA to put on my résumé.4

My goal in telling you this is not to inspire you to do the same. I haven’t even given you any justification for my decision. My reasons are complicated enough that it wouldn’t be worth it to write them out here.5 The reason I’m telling you my story is to show you that it’s possible to decide at the end of Exercise 3 that the principles from high school don’t apply for you in college.

When I first got to Brown, my freshman advisor gave me advice about courses and grades: that I should take courses in a variety of subjects; that I should take one course S/NC per semester (which I should use to explore new subjects); and that I should always take courses in my concentration for letter grades. This seems to be the standard wisdom at Brown. In fact, you can find these same recommendations in the section on Grade Options in your “Guide to Brown” booklet. For some students, this may be a very good strategy. Of course, it all depends on your goals.

This strategy did not line up with my goals. However, since nobody told me that I could have my own strategy that corresponded with my own goals, I followed the advice I was given without questioning if it was appropriate for me.

Of course, nobody forced me to continue following this path, and when I decided it wasn’t for me, I was able to change. This is what makes Brown so special. Nobody will stop you from doing what you want to do. The curricular structures here are incredibly flexible. However, nobody but you knows what you want to do. So if you ask others what to do, they will never be able to give you a complete answer. They can help–and their help will be indispensible–but ultimately you have to take responsibility for your own path.

Exercise 4: Building on your results from Exercise 1, come up with a plan for your academic life at Brown, including strategies for picking courses and choosing grade options.

This last exercise is a monumental task. You’ll probably end up changing your answer multiple times during your time at Brown. But that’s ok, because even if it seems intimidating, there are a lot of resources that you can use to help gather information and clarify your thoughts. Instead of trying to give you all my personal opinions and advice (like I haven’t already!), here are some places you can go to try to answer some of the questions I’ve raised here:

  • The Curricular Resource Center

    Run by students, the CRC’s goal is to help students “fully engage with Brown’s curriculum and utilize its academic resources.” Here you’ll find other students who know all the tricks to navigating the Open Curriculum. Find more info at the CRC website.

  • The Brown Conversation

    The Brown Conversation is a weekly dinner discussion group for students who are interested in thinking deeply about both the questions raised in this letter as well as anything else related to education at Brown. Drop in for a conversation and a delicious meal, or check out the Brown Conversation website.

  • Me

    How rude of me not to introduce myself. My name’s Jonah. I’m a senior at Brown, class of 2013. If you have questions about my experience at Brown, want advice, or just want to complain about your roommate, I’d love to chat with you. Just shoot me an email at jonahkagan@gmail.com.

I wish you luck with your first year here. And once again, welcome to the greatest university-college on Earth. It really is the greatest. Trust me, you’ll see.

Sincerely,

Jonah Kagan

P.S. If you don’t mind sharing your answers to the exercises, I’d be very interested to see what you wrote.


  1. Yes, don’t worry, you’ll make friends.

  2. If you disprove them, I’d love to hear how.

  3. See Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay”

  4. Fun fact: Brown doesn’t calculate official GPAs either. If you decide you want to have a GPA, you have to do it yourself.

  5. If you’re interested in knowing, just ask. I like to talk about it.

Thoughts? Am I crazy?
Let me know: jonahkagan@gmail.com