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Studying Should I take a gap year to self study before college?

  1. Jun 14, 2017 #1
    I was admitted to a very good undergraduate physics program (Columbia University), but I think I would like to take a gap year (defer my admission) to prepare my self better. I do feel a bit intimidated as I come from Colombia and I would prefer it if I could further my studies before going to college, however taking into account the opportunity I would like to do plenty of things as well. My plan is to study german and possibly live there for a month, do Calc I through IV, read fundamentals of physics and as much as I can of the Feynman lectures, learn programming, possibly learn linear algebra, train for a marathon and read as much literature as I can. My purpose is to learn different skills that I think will be useful in College and in the future.Do you think this is a good idea?
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  3. Jun 14, 2017 #2
    No. Why do you feel that you will not be able to compete? Do you feel that you are not as well prepared as the other freshmen? If so, why?

    Understand that, by delaying entry to the work force by one year, it will be costing you on the order of $100000. Is it really worth that to you? This makes no sense to me.
  4. Jun 14, 2017 #3


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    As a general rule I've found that people tend to over-estimate what they can accomplish on their own without the pressure of classes that will occur whether they attend or not, external deadlines for assignments, critical feedback and examinations. The rare person can do this of course. But more often than not, what will happen is that gap year (or whatever the time period happens to be) slides by and the student wakes up one morning wondering where it all went.

    That said, taking a year off isn't always a bad idea if you don't feel that you're ready to go to school. I've also seen cases where people get pushed to go to school before they are ready and end up academically bonking because it turns out they were right... they weren't ready. Sometimes its a good idea to work for a year or two first. This can give you some extra maturity and life experience that you can bring to your studies. If you're working you might even be able to save up a sizeable amount of money for school, and avoid at least some of the debt that you might otherwise take on.
  5. Jun 15, 2017 #4


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    A Google search shows me that Columbia University accepts only 6% of its undergraduate applicants. This is one of the lowest rates for any college/university in the US. They seem to think you are capable of doing the work required. You beat out a lot of other people!
  6. Jun 15, 2017 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    This only makes sense if you think you will learn more on your own than at Columbia. Do you think this is true? (And if it is, why go to Columbia at all?)
  7. Jun 15, 2017 #6

    Meir Achuz

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    In my experience, foreign students (if they come from a good high school) are generally better prepared than American high school graduates.
    I don't think you have to be afraid. Also, Columbia still takes a number of students without great academic records. In years past, I taught two Nobel laureates at Columbia, but there were also many mediocre physics undergraduates. Another important consideration is that theoretical physics is for the young. Don't waste an important young year. You would look back and kick yourself.
  8. Jun 15, 2017 #7
    Thanks, but more than being intimidated what I want to do make the most of my time in college as I think this is the first (and who knows, maybe in even last) time I will have the opportunity of delving so deep into the subject that I love, which is why I want to be prepared to take as many advanced and accelerated classes as I can. It has been my dream really to do so. Is not that I fell i'll be the worst, is just that I know I can be better than what I am right know. Besides this, I would like to explore Math and programming a bit further and learn German. With the latter, in case I run out of money after my bachelors (which a serious possibility), or don't get accepted to good graduate school, I can seek other possibilities Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Does your opinion change with these remarks?
  9. Jun 15, 2017 #8


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    You want to decelerate now so you can accelerate later? To me, this makes even less sense than your opening post.

    As noted already, the net result will be that you will be be behind, not ahead. I think you are just plain doing the math wrong: 4+1>4

    The path presented to you(congratulations!) gets you a physics degree from Columbia in 4 years and the path you propose gets you the same degree in 5. Or to make the timing equal: After 4 years for your bachelor's you can use the 5th to be halfway to a master's, compared with your proposed path of only having the bachelor's and a couple of somewhat more advanced than required classes.

    I would never recommend self study to someone entering college unless they are studying something else and only want physics (or whatever) as a hobby. Delaying entry to a 4 year university can have merit either for true remediation or cost reasons, and the solution in both cases is community college. At least that way you may get transferable credits in addition to the remediation. But that isn't you.

    Frankly, I think you just have cold feet.
  10. Jun 15, 2017 #9
    I had similar goals to yours going into university. Primarily to learn math, to learn some more of physics and programming, and to learn French. Attending university pushed me further along than I had expected. You can still do some self study, especially regarding German, while taking courses.
  11. Jun 15, 2017 #10


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    To a degree, you'll always feel as though you can be better than you are right now. That's because it's true. The only people who walk into a training program thinking they are perfectly prepared and know everything already are the ones who have deluded themselves, or who haven't thought their situation through.

    In some cases you really aren't ready. Usually this is the case when you haven't successfully completed the prerequisite material, somehow managed to squeak through the prerequisite as a result of cheating, or did okay in an extremely lax version of the prerequisite course. In most situations like this, the best plan of action to move forward is to take a remedial class. Self-study will rarely fill in the holes. I would also note that this is not the same as someone who did okay in an adequate course. That would mean you have some brushing up to do. This is where it helps to spend some time reviewing fundamentals. In most cases this can be done in the lead up to, or during the next course.

    Getting exposure to another language and culture is a great experience to have. It's probably not going to increase your future employment options as much as you might expect, but you know a lot more about the doors you want to have open in your life than we do. One option to consider along these lines is looking into studying abroad for a semester or a year. That might give you the experience you want, and even do it in a way that can maximize your experience.
  12. Jun 16, 2017 #11
    Usually with extremely high focus, one can finish one undergraduate course on his own for about one month (especially we have open course, physics forum, stackexchange, etc now)

    So why don't you do this in your summer break instead? say, do some reading on Apostol's Calculus (assuming you have taken Calculus), plus learn some German in Germany
  13. Jun 17, 2017 #12


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    While it is good to self study things, I would definitely not take a year off to do it. While you can definitely learn through self studying, many people who claim that they went through a course by themselves etc. have a lot of holes in their knowledge that they are unware of. They often miss many subtleties that would be pointed out in a class. The experience of doing the homework in a class is also not as easy to replicate through self study as one may think. Having to turn in problem sets every one to two weeks forces you to spend time on the problems and really understand things rather than rush through (which is a strong temptation when you self study). I would also emphasize that it is much harder to self study when you don't have much background in the subject. It gets much easier once you know more, for example example, if you wanted to study advanced/more specific topics in a subject you have already taken a course in.

    Another benefit from taking classes in colleges is being able to interact with your peers, TAs, professors etc. You will be around a lot of very smart and motivated people and you should take advantage of learning as much as you can from them.
  14. Jun 18, 2017 #13

    Charles Link

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    To the OP @Nicolas Beltran I think the top-notch university curriculum is probably not a whole lot different than when I went to school 40+ years ago. I think you are likely to find it very challenging, very competitive, and perhaps at times even exhausting. The system really is not set up to slow things down. It sounds like you are reasonably well prepared academically. If your coursework starts in the fall, I would suggest learning and reviewing as much mathematics, especially calculus, along with review of advanced algebra and trigonometry, before starting your classes. It can also be helpful to get as much help as possible from the professors and from the T.A.'s (teaching assistants). I would also recommend you put as much effort as possible into learning fundamental concepts as opposed to memorizing formulas. Memorizing formulas can be good for doing well on some exams, but be sure and learn the fundamentals.
  15. Jun 18, 2017 #14


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    Hey Nicolas,

    First of all, congratulations on getting into a good school!

    I recently worked as a teaching assistant at Columbia for their advanced level intro physics sequence, 2800 and 2801. I graded papers, held recitations, etc... I also took those courses myself as an undergraduate, so I've had experience with them both as a student and as a teacher. If you're sufficiently prepared when you start your freshman year then you'll possibly be taking 2800 and 2801 as well.

    Taking a year off is perfectly fine if that's what you want to do. You seem like a very self-motivated person, and there's nothing like a solid 12 months of free time to help you sharpen your learning skills. The physics program at Columbia is definitely among the best in the world, but one thing that it won't do is teach you how to teach yourself. When you start classes you'll be spending basically every hour of every day working on readings, essays, and assignments. You'll have tremendous pressure to do the work assigned by your professors regardless of whether you find it interesting or not, and regardless of whether you find it tediously simple or productively challenging. If anything Columbia will weaken your ability to to learn independently and dull your appreciation for the beauty and elegance of the subjects you're studying.

    Take your time starting school if that's what feel is appropriate for you. Learn what it means to open a book just because you want to, and not because you have an assignment due. Learn what it means to get stuck on a difficult physics problem and be forced to solve it on your own without any hand holding. Learn what it means to learn. Learn what it means to struggle. Learn what it means to look into the darkness that is an unsolved problem, and what it means to dive head first into that darkness and illuminate it for yourself. Columbia won't help you with these skills at all. The world is flooded with smart young people who can blow through textbook problems, but short on people who can solve unsolved problems and develop fundamentally new ideas.

    That being said, make no mistake that you'll learn less in 12 months on your own than you would at Columbia, at least when it comes to raw factual knowledge. After a year at Columbia you'll know a lot of theorems in vector calculus, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics which you would never be able to pick up on your own (at least not at the same pace). The undergraduate literature for mathematics and physics is really quite awful, and you'll learn orders of magnitude faster from experienced professors and smart peers. Whatever you learn in 12 months on your own could be picked up in maybe 6 weeks at Columbia. That's not a reason to not take a year off though. Knowing lots of theorems and facts is overrated, and general problem solving ability is vastly underrated.

    Ultimately you have to decide for yourself which option is best for you. It's your education, and the person best suited to make decisions about it is you.

    I'm going to take the rest of this post to address some of the points made by others:

    Seriously dude, you're giving advice to a passionate young physicist based on the logic of maximizing lifetime financial gains? What's the matter with you?

    As I said before, this is 100%, absolutely, definitely, emphatically, true if you consider "accomplishment" to be synonymous with the acquisition of facts.

    During a gap year you might take a week to re-derive a difficult theorem in physics for yourself from scratch and then write a little computer simulation to see the theorem in action. A student from Columbia's physics department might look at you and go "Hahaha, we covered that theorem in 30 minutes of class, and then did 12 other theorems during the rest of the week." They'll argue that they "accomplished more," but really they just copied the theorem off a blackboard and then answered watered down questions about it on a problem set because their professor knew the full thing would make people cry and give up.

    When it comes to graduate school or job hunting you'll have a leg up on those students because you'll be better at doing research work or solving authentically challenging practical problems (assuming you put concious effort into the whole learning-how-to-learn philosophy). However, those people will have a leg up on you because they'll have broader experience with different subjects, which will make them able to work on projects which you'll be under-qualified for.

    The right thing to do is find a happy medium. You have to compromise between the two extremes, and how you do that is up to you.

    Totally agreed.

    It's true that it's useful to train your brain on mathematics and physics while you're young. That being said, it doesn't matter if you're slowly working through theorems on your own or pounding through a relentless torrent of them quickly at Columbia. Based on what you've written it doesn't sound like you would "waste" a year one way or another. I would even go as far as to say that it's freshman at Columbia who are wasting their younger years by not learning how to learn independently, and training the mathematical part of their brains to be dependent on homework assignments and authority figures.

    Frankly, russ_watters, I think you have an impoverished and limiting sense of what it means to be successful.

    At Columbia you won't even have any time to go to the bathroom without worrying about how it's putting you behind on your homework schedule, let alone do any independent studying. Among the Ivy's Columbia is notorious for overloading their students with core classes and draconian workloads. I've even heard the physics faculty say that they don't mind seeing C's and D's on a student's report card in non-physics courses for grad school applications, because it usually means that they actually took time out of their busy schedule to do some real physics instead.
  16. Jun 18, 2017 #15

    Charles Link

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    Some very sound advice for the OP. One thing that seems to be part of this input from @pmr is that the university curriculum tends to throw much too much at the students in too short of a time. With the exception of a couple of extremely gifted students, most of the students including the "A" students struggle considerably to maintain the pace. This seems to be a shortcoming of the university curriculum in general, and you simply give it your best to try to keep up with the pace which includes many, many exams, oftentimes with a lot of cramming to try to learn the material before the exam.
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