Curtis G. Northcutt

Advice to Freshman: How to be Successful

It doesn’t matter what you’re interested in, what you’re majoring in, what you think is important. When you are in Biology, tell yourself you are going to be a Biology professor; and when you are in Astronomy, an astronomy professor. You don’t just tell yourself, you deeply convince yourself of the profession. If you can do this, you’ll find that learning comes much easier – because you aren’t learning for an exam, you are learning in order to perform the occupational pursuits of the rest of your life. We do well in the subjects related to our future because the knowledge impacts our future success – convince yourself every minute of every course is relevant, and top grades and honors will follow.

Never fall behind. If you miss a problem on a homework, find out why immediately. There should be no question about the material that you cannot answer, and if there is, answering that question should become your immediate priority. If you don’t understand it on the homework, you won’t on the exam, nor the final. But if you never fall behind, success will follow.

You know those students who always seem to know what's going on in class even though it’s a really tough class? There's no reason why that student isn't you. Its easy. For technical classes (math, engineering, etc.) read the lectures before class. I know… nobody has time for that. So don't do a very good job of it if you're short on time, but make sure you dedicate some time before every class to read over what you're about to learn. I call this the exposure first technique. If you have seen it before and have a general idea of what the teacher is going to say next, you can learn the material much more deeply and understand it at a much higher level.

Seek character-expanding opportunities. Endeavor an internship every summer, leadership positions, boards, mentorships. If can diversify you’re thinking on the world, you can apply to more scholarships, and develop more complex, multi-dimensional arguments.

Never miss lecture when you're starting out. Don’t create excuses to defend absence. Professors are your most valuable resource at this point in your life. You only have four years, don’t miss a second.

Get to know your professors. Connections with professors lead to friendships. Friendships lead to advice. Advice leads to internships. Internships lead to growth. Growth leads to success. Success leads to success in excess. Get to know your professors.

Have a cohesive plan when you apply for scholarships. The pieces (internships, scholarships, activities) of your past, current, and future should be woven into a clear picture defining how the scholarships fits you and your future goals. If they don’t, discover the story that does.

Be genuine, honest, and kind. Coming to Vanderbilt, it’s common to think a successful academic is one who is purely intelligent. Abstain from this ignorant point of view. Honesty and kindness can outrank intelligence. Affability and morality can outrank textbook memorization. Always be genuine in your scholarship essays – this will give you an edge on the competition.

Understand the snowball effect. My academic record in high school landed me a job at NASA. This landed me a job at General Electric. This landed me an REU for the National Science Foundation -> Goldwater Scholarship -> Job at Microsoft -> Top research at Vanderbilt -> PhD acceptance to MIT -> NSF Fellowship -> Founder’s Medal at Vanderbilt. A small success when you first get to Vanderbilt, leads to a greater success, then a greater success, and so forth, until one day you find that you have surpassed your own dreams and expectations. The moral of the story – apply for scholarships as soon as you get to Vanderbilt, no matter how small of a snowball they seem.

Stay Idealistic. This may be the hardest one, but the perhaps the most important. In college, you'll face many obstacles - you may experience loss, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, poor performance, etc. Some people focus on these things, dwelling on their faults. This does nothing! Instead focus on what drives you, how you want to change the world, how you are going to make the world a better place. Be idealistic in the face of adversity. When everyone says you can't, and everyone is focused on getting a job for money or doing well in school to land a job that makes money; preserve your idealism about what matters most in the world and focus on doing well for that reason. The most successful people in this world succeed because they are motivated by idealistic goals. To change the world. To help people. To make people smile. To fight poverty. Improve healthcare. Reduce suffering. Improve the global condition. These goals can help you overcome almost any obstacle you face in college. Don't focus on the obstacles, focus on the goals.

Long-term successful people are short-term successful people. To get a 4.0 in college, all you have to do is focus on getting an A on the assignment due tomorrow, and continue to think like that every day until you graduate. Today you have a lot of small choices to make. Study vs. watch a movie. Engage in conversation with someone incredible or walk by them. Think deeply on what is being said to you or play on your phone. Be successful in the short term. Work hard in this hour. In this minute. In this decision right now. Don't worry about getting that 'A' four months from now, worry about getting an A on THIS ASSIGNMENT RIGHT NOW. Obviously you want to keep your long term goals in mind though in order to make sure your short term goals are in the right direction. But for grades, you just need to focus on this assignment right now. Students who get 4.0s don't focus on the end grade until the end. They focus on getting an A on every assignment due this week and they keep doing this over and over until week after week goes by and they get an A in the class.


Life Mantras - These are a summary of mine. Develop your own:

Transcend obstacles you weren't even supposed to know existed.
Make a global impact. Do work that improves the human condition on a global scale.
Optimize every aspect of your health (social, intellectual, physical, spiritual, religious)
Push the boundaries of what is reasonable. In doing so, you will achieve the unreasonable.
Never stop expanding your viewpoint, welcome every new experience.