Go to college for free

Below are my presenter notes for this talk, given on November 4th, 2013 at Grapevine High School. Here are the slides.

It’s kind of jumbled; you’ll likely have a better experience by just watching the video. I’ll go through sometime and reorganize it in essay form better suited for reading.

I know of at least one person that’s followed this advice since I gave this talk and received a full academic scholarship (Terrance Alexander, President’s Scholar at SMU, class of 2020). If you or someone you know are in a similar enlightened boat, let me know!

See also: Peter Thiel’s Graph of the Year, Mike Rowe’s Work Smart and Hard movement, and The College Conspiracy Documentary.


  • Why listen to me?
  • Why go to college?
  • What colleges look for, and how to make them want you
  • Hack the system

Why Listen to me?

  • I graduated CHS in 2009
    • 101.0000 GPA
    • 2280 SAT, 33 ACT
    • 5s in AP Bio, Chem, Physics, English Lit; 4s in English, Psychology, World History, Economics, Calculus.
    • Green Jacket student ambassador, “Best Actor of 2008” Thespian Society award, competed in ACM Coding Competitions, directed and produced community film Game Over to warn students against the dangers of drunk driving
  • 2,334,856 in scholarships from 36 universities
  • Accepted the President’s Scholarship from SMU

SMU President’s Scholarship

  • Valued at $180K my freshmen year, worth ~$210K by graduation
  • Full tuition, student fees, room and board, and study abroad tuition and travel fees for two semesters, weekend vacation to Taos every year
  • I spent about $10K total my 4 years in college. Most of that was study abroad living expenses in Australia, textbooks, and parking tickets (SMU makes ~$1M/year in parking tickets)
  • Did ballroom dancing, Student Senate, Finance Committee, Modern Dance, ethnic hand drumming, learned how to use a 3D printer, became a member of the mile high club on the rockwall, garnered moderate fame eating fruit on TV, gave a TEDx talk on why everyone should learn to program (I get messages from all over the world from people that watch it)
  • CSE & Premedical Specialization (got into several Texas schools; deferred admission for a year to do CSE)
  • Graduated debt free, investing my college fund, working in software engineering with my dad in a technology startup
    • he’s a physician at EMC Express Care
  • Plan to retire before I’m 30 (MMM; another lecture)

I’d like to teach you how I did it.

I read a book by Felix Dennis - a billionare media mogle from the UK - on how to get rich. The first two chapters are about why you don’t actually want to get rich. The reasons people think they want to get rich are to be happy, or have financial freedom to do whatver you want, but his point was that you don’t need money to accomplish these things. Money doesn’t make you happy, and it doesn’t give you fulfillment. Ridiculously wealthy people can be some of the most miserable people on earth.

He tells you all of this in his book about how to become rich because you must understand what you want before you can get it. In this spirit, for the next few minutes, I’d like to try to convince you not to go to college.

Why do you want to go to college?

  • misconception in the U.S. that you have to go to college to be successful and happy and not a miserable failure like your uncle bobby
    • probably from playing LIFE as kids; that game is impossible to win if you don’t go to college, I’ve run simulations
  • it’s become the default path: middle school -> high school -> college -> internship -> job -> get married -> pay off student loans -> make money to pay for your kids to go to college -> make money to retire -> retire/die in Florida

Reasons people go to college

  • to make money/be successful: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2013/07/25/50-jobs-over-50000-without-a-degree-part-1/
    • “The average starting salary for 2013 grads earning bachelor’s degrees has risen to $45,000”: http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/04/15/college-degrees-with-the-highest-starting-salaries-3/
  • prepare for a career: true for certain careers, but in most cases you’d earn more and be better at most things if you spent 2 years at a trade school, or just doing it
    • majors that pay: http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report-2014/majors-that-pay-you-back
    • but don’t do it for the money; being miserable isn’t worth any amount of money. Do something because you can’t imagine doing anything else.
    • most pre-anything students swap majors by Junior year: anecdote
  • to learn: universities don’t hold a monopoloy on information anymore - we have the internet
    • google
    • khan academy
    • coursera
    • do something that requires the information. Wanna learn how to program? Build a website. You learn better when building because you have an immediate and applicable need for the information. (GUI students vs. me building websites)
  • research: one thing they’re good at (http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/)
  • to meet people/for the experience: a really expensive way to meet people. Would be more efficient to set aside $20K to travel and throw parties for the next 4 years.
  • to motivate me to learn: an expensive way to motivate yourself. Pay me $60/hour to stand over you with a whip when you’re not studying and you’ll learn more and come ahead financially

A waste of money

  • Average cost of tuition and fees in 2012-2013 in the U.S. was $22K for a public school, and $43K for a private school (College Board) every year
    • only $8K when your parents went to college in the 1980s (http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76)
    • add to that room and board (~$9K), textbooks (~$1.2K) every year, and the average state school expenses for a 4-year degree will be (22+9+1.2) _ 4 = $128.8K for a public school, (43+9+1.2) _ 4 = $212.8K for a private school
    • this is probably the most expensive thing you will ever do
  • Let’s forget about private schools and round off that $128.8K to an even $130K for the rest of this presentation.
    • if you disagree with this number, nudge all of my calculations up or down accordingly
  • If I gave you $130,000 in a sketchy briefcase right now, do you believe the best thing for your future that you could possibly do with it would be to give all of it to a university?
    • If you invested $130K in a full market index fund for 10 years, and earned an average of 6% interest. That money would double! You’d now be able to safely withdraw from that fund $10,400 every year for the rest of your life ($866 every month). If you can reduce your cost of living to a reasonable amount, and you were earning three times more than you were spending during those 10 years, you can now retire.
  • Imagine every day before High School going to the bank and withdrawing $32.2K/year / 180 days = ~$200. For each of the four classes you have, after class you pay the teacher $50. How many classes that you’ve had do you think were worth $50/day?
    • That’s enough for a 4 hour Miley Cyrus concert
    • despite what they tell you, college classes aren’t that much different from high school classes; it’s just the lifestyle that’s different
    • 180 school days/year, 90/semester

What college should be/reasons you should go

If you’re going to go to college, you need to know why you’re going to college. I’ve seen so many people at SMU that were there because that’s just something they were expected to do. They picked a random major, took the casses their advisor told them to, show up for class most of the time, if a class was too hard they switched majors, they memorized useless information before exams and then brain dumped immediately after, and kept going for 4 years.

  • contrast with what college should be: imagine something you love doing. Could be anything. My 11 year old brother is obsessed with minecraft - he plays it all the time, knows all about the history of when certain mob characters were released, what they can do, strategies for beating people at multiplayer games in minecraft - he’s incredibly passionate about this game
  • think about something in your life that you’re this passionate about, and imagine being in a room with 30 other people who were just as passionate as you are. If you could go there a few times a week and talk all about minecraft, and hone your minecraft skills, and swap strategies for beating other players. What if there was an expert at Minecraft there that organized the agenda for each day and shared with you his life experiences in Minecraft, and he was actually programming part of the Minecraft game and you could work with him and see how Minecraft was being developed first hand. That’s a class my brother would pay $50/day for
  • that’s the passion you should approach every class you take. If you’re in a biology class, you should be in it because you love biology.
    • and you should! Biology is fascenating. We’ve figured out how life works! Humanity has collectively figured out a good chunk of it, and from that we can debug our bodies and figure out why things are happening at the molecular level. We’re at the point where we can create new life from a man-made genetic code. In the future you’ll be able to make up an organism like in Spore and print it out and it will just exist! You could make Pokemon!

Think long and hard about why you want to go to college, and realize that in most parts of the world (Australia, Europe), coming to the conclusion that you don’t want to is perfectly fine.

3. What colleges look for, and how to make them want you

Now the fun part: if you can convince a university that you’re the kind of person that would be successful and happy even if you didn’t go to college, they’ll pay you to go there.

Aside: you want an academic scholarship. More money in academic scholarships than in athletic scholarships: $9.5B vs. $1B, and you don’t have to do anything time consuming to keep getting money (just keep learning)

So what are colleges looking for? I sat on the scholarship interview committee for all four years I was at SMU, and got to interview two or three candidates each year, so I know exactly what SMU is looking for; other colleges probably aren’t that different.

  • they give you an overall score based on:
    • curriculum
    • GPA
      • takes out “non-core” electives
    • Test Scores
    • Subjective
      • leadership positions
      • high school activities (debate/band/cheer/sports)
      • essay
      • volunteering
  • if your score is above a certain number, you get scholarship money, and get considered for more with an interview

Maximize cirriculum and GPA

  • No-brainer
  • if you love learning in a classroom so much that you’re preparing to spend the next 4 years paying $50/class/day to keep doing it, you better be making the most of your high school classes while they’re free
  • HS classes are more work, but less intelectual than college classes. Get your work done, be responsible, and study effectively so you can do other stuff too.
  • Don’t aproach it as studying for a test. Find something genuenly interesting about the subject and latch onto that
  • Forcing yourself to study something boring is hell. Memorize vocab to have a more impressive vocabulary to impress the ladies, not to do well on your English vocab quiz
  • don’t worry about class rank. If you’re not validictorian, as long as you’re in the top 10% it’s not a big deal

Test Scores

  • Scores on standardized tests: SAT, ACT, and AP
  • this is the most important part of your application, and the easiest way to get scholarship money
  • most schools give you automatic money if you’re a National Merit scholar ($5K/year for SMU; I was one point off)
    • only one kid at GHS was a national merit scholar, Flower Mound had 46. They’re not any smarter than you, they were just better at taking the PSAT
  • Let me repeat that: if you get a high score on your SAT, and have a respectable GPA, colleges will - by default, without any extra work - give you money.
    • if you dead-set on going to go to college, you’re making money when studying for these tests. It’s now your full time job

Studying for the SAT

“but you can’t study for the SAT!”

  • that’s stupid; yes you can. It’s dead-simple too; I’ll save you the $2K from an SAT prep class, and it applies to any standardized test: take as many practice tests as you can
  • here’s a book for $5 with 12 practice tests: http://www.amazon.com/Kaplan-12-Practice-Tests-SAT/dp/1607146649/ref=cm_lmf_tit_3
    • do all of them
  • After you take a test, go back over it and find out why you got each question wrong, then learn enough information that you’re confident you’ll never get a question like that wrong again
  • really hard at first:
    • if you get a vocab question wrong, you should go learn all of the SAT vocab words (there’s only ~1,000 of them: http://www.majortests.com/sat/wordlist.php) - also a stunning vocab to impress the ladies
    • if you get a trigonometry question wrong because you don’t know trig, go to khan academy and watch their 14 videos on Trig: https://www.khanacademy.org/math/trigonometry
  • answer every question
  • Do this for the PSAT and you won’t need to study as much for the SAT - it’s just longer.

This should be your full time job. If you can raise your SAT score by 10 points in 10 hours of studying, and you go from a 1700 to a 2100 in 400 hours, and you get an 80K scholarship you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, you’ve made $200/hour. If I were your parents, I’d find it very worthwhile to pay you $20/hour for studying for the SAT.

AP Tests

Same strategy as the SAT. Get a good review book at least a month before, read it cover to cover, and take ~4 practice tests, reviewing the ones you got wrong. Even if you didn’t take the AP class, you can get a 4 or 5 in a month of studying.

Subjective stuff

  • checkbox for leadership positions
  • looking for things you’re passionate about
  • sports/band/cheer, but everyone talks about those, so if that’s your thing you better be super into it

The Essay

The only time to see you in your application.

  • I wrote three:
    • one I started my sophomore year and made it my life story, including all the highlights and important things I’d done. Went over it a bunch of times, sent it out for other people to edit, and declared it “perfect”
    • second was a much better essay about when my school did Phantom of the Opera, how nervous I was for the auditions, and how passionate I was about the show
    • The third, and best essay I wrote (and the one I sent to most schools), was this: (READ ESSAY - unpublished)
  • all good essays I’ve read follow some themes:
    • they’re all really different
    • they’re all really interesting and entertaining
      • Write about something you love talking about
    • they show something deep and respectable about the person writing them
      • be opinionated, but show understanding for other opinions
      • don’t tell me you’re hardworking, show me a time you had to work harder than anyone else around you, and then chose to work harder
  • High school english doesn’t teach you how to write an interesting body of text. Forget most of the things you learned and have fun.
  • Be memorable: this is your only time to be a human

General Application Tips

  • if the scholarship you’re applying for has an interview, everything on your application is just a talking point (LaTeX story)
  • You’re not going to talk about how high of an SAT score you have - everyone there is going to have a high SAT score. They want to talk to you about something interesting you did, something you consider yourself an expert in, something you’re excited about. Make it easy for them to find these talking points
  • looking to see that you’re well rounded and have good time management, leadership positions
  • Math/Science teachers usually rate really highly, but have horrible writing skills
    • show form from application
  • when trying to decide what activities to do, look at President’s Scholarship at SMU, McDermott Scholarship at UTD and see what those kids were doing. Lots of NHS, lots of speech and debate

4. Hack the System

  • Every school has a “scholarship drawer” with local smaller scholarships
    • $100-$5,000 a pop
    • mom: garden club has $3K of scholarships to give out, only two people applied
    • usually just require an essay
    • the easiest time in your life to make money writing 500 word essays
    • if you have a 10% chance of getting a $1,000 scholarship, and you can write a 500 word essay and fill out the application in two hours, if you fill out 100 scholarships it’ll take you 200 hours and you’ll statistically get $10,000 = $50/hour
  • google “school name + merit scholarships”
    • ex: Hunt’s scholarship at SMU
    • screenshots of UT scholarships organized by deadline
  • Story of how I won $2.3M by applying to every school on the common app
  • most scholarships don’t cover textbooks, but textbooksplease.com does :D

Here’s a list I found googling for a bunch of small texas scholarships.

5. Recap

  • life isn’t LIFE: you don’t need college to be happy, successful, or rich
  • if you’re going to college, it’s your full time job to pay for it. The easiest way is with academic scholarships
  • to make colleges want you, maximize your gpa/cirriculum, test scores, and do interesting things
  • hack the system by applying for more scholarships than anyone else