Off-topic: Should you go to college at 16?

Note: this post is off-topic; it has nothing to do with Kerika, Lean, Agile or even software…

After a couple of years of lurking on Quora, I finally decided to contribute; here’s my (slightly edited) answer to the question What are the benefits of going to college at 16?

In my experience, the benefits of going to college at 16 are outweighed by the disadvantages. I finished high school in India at 16 and had to make the critical decision of what to study next, and where.

Pretty much by accident I ended up studying Physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi: Physics had been my favorite subject at school, and I assumed that at college I should simply study more of whatever had been my favorite subject at school, because that’s what it meant to pick a major.

(Although the IITs were already well known, I was actually completely ignorant of their existence, which says something about the unusually cloistered nature of my high school education. I happened to meet the head of the Physics Dept at IIT Delhi who encouraged me to take the entrance exam. I crammed for 3 months for the exam, got admitted, and never even applied elsewhere. Big Mistake #1.)

Looking back, almost every aspect of this decision was ill-considered:

  • College is actually a different chapter in your life, not a more focused continuation of  school. I discovered that just because Physics was my favorite subject at school, I had no real desire to make it my career, nor the talent to be in the first rank of scientists.
  • You cannot pick a school by reputation alone; you need to have a savvy understanding of your own needs and see what the overall college experience can bring you that you need most for your personal development.  After I got admitted to IIT Delhi, I was persuaded by friends that I had already won the lottery of life, and so I never even considered other colleges.
  • At 16, I had just finished eleven (!) years of boarding school life and it turned out that I really didn’t know how to work well with people from more mainstream backgrounds. By going from an “elite” boarding school to an “elite” college, I did myself no favors.

And so after 3 years at IIT Delhi I learned that

  • I really needed to explore a wider range of subjects than the very narrowly focused curriculum at the IITs would support. (It was as essential to read Bertrand Russell as to learn thermodynamics.)
  • I had no real experience or skill in dealing with “ordinary” folks from ordinary, middle-class backgrounds, and was lacking some critical skills in that respect.
  • I really liked computers far more than Physics or any other subject. (An introductory class on FORTRAN IV did the trick.)

I ended up quitting IIT Delhi to study at Washington State University and considered it one of the smartest moves I ever made, but it was a move I made at 19 when I was finally old enough to understand myself.

(And quitting IIT Delhi turned out to be a bizarre experience in itself: they had no expectation that anyone would ever want to leave, since getting in was so hard in the first place, and hence no idea how to deal with my request to exit. I think they finally struck me off the rolls for cutting classes, a couple of years I had already moved to the U.S. By then I had given up trying to explain to them that I really did want to leave.)

If you are 16 and done with school, don’t go to college. Do a bunch of different activities, read, paint, travel, meet people, explore ideas,  and, most importantly, take the time you need to understand yourself better before you go off to college a year.