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Column: An Open Letter to KAIST Freshmen
[ Issue 104 Page 10 ] Monday, February 21, 2011, 23:07:10 Tim Thompson kaistherald@gmail.com

As I watch the 2011’s freshman class entering KAIST and starting their university classes for the first time, I think back to my freshman year in university. I am reminded of how little I knew and how much I thought I knew about what it takes to be successful in university and beyond. I would like to share some advice with our freshman as they embark upon one of the most exciting periods of their lives.

The first lesson is a simple one. Manage your time. Do your work before you play. It sounds easy enough and when I say this to my students they all nod their heads, but then I watch them forget to do it over and over. It happens every semester - students hope for an A+ but don’t demonstrate the effort and commitment that will earn them the grade.

The second lesson is to understand that being a student is your job. Take responsibility for yourself. Your professors are here to help you but we are not the same as your high school teachers. You need to come to us when you have a problem in our classes. Attending a university is an option, not a requirement. You don’t have to enroll at a university and if you don’t attend class or ask about an assignment that you don’t understand, it isn’t our job to come find you or make sure that you understand everything. You have to sink or swim on your own.

On a similar note, don’t wait until the semester is over to discuss your grade. I told my students during the first week of the semester that they can ask about their progress at any time over the course of the semester but once the final exam has been given and graded, the grade is final. Once all of your work is done, you can only go back and change something that happened earlier in the semester if you have a time machine. As technologically advanced as KAIST is, we still don’t have one of those, so debate each assignment’s grade as it is returned to you.

Each new class of the semester is an opportunity to audition to get a reference. Ask yourself why a professor would risk their reputation to write a letter of recommendation for you. Think about what you are asking them to do. They must write a letter that says you will be on time, be responsible, work independently, cooperate with others, and do all of your work without direct supervision. Are you demonstrating those traits in each and every class you attend?

Embrace an entrepreneurial spirit. Don’t just join a club, found one. What are you doing to leave a legacy at KAIST? How will people remember you when you graduate and move on? Joining a club is great for social networking and finding a common interest to enjoy. Becoming an officer in a club demonstrates leadership skills and is attractive to employers. But if I’m hiring workers, I’m going to be most impressed by a candidate that founded their own club and created something where before there was nothing. This is the type of person who either starts their own company or leads a company into the future.

Your friends will be your competition. In any class you are taking, look to your left and right. The same people who are your current friends and classmates will soon be your direct competition for the best jobs. Other candidates will have degrees from KAIST, SNU, POSTECH and the best foreign universities. What will make you a better candidate than them? Can you speak more languages? Do you have more diverse experiences? Do you have a more impressive list of extracurricular activities? What will make you the best person for the job?

That is why it’s important that you don’t waste your semester breaks. Too often when I ask a student what they did during their summer or winter vacation they tell me that they played video games and took a rest. I understand the importance of recharging your batteries but there is a long list of productive activities that future employers will value such as traveling abroad, getting experience from a part-time job or internship or learning a new skill that you can do between semesters. These activities can be fun if you find the right match for your interests.

This brings me to my last point. If you want to be successful, you have to accumulate skills. I don’t know of any jobs that are looking for people who can only read books and take tests. Companies want to know what you can do to help them. What can you offer that other candidates cannot? It’s never too early to make a CV and tape it to the wall above your desk in your dorm room. Look at how empty it is. What are you going to do to fill in those blanks over the next four years to make yourself a sought-after employee? Good luck and don’t hesitate to let me know how I can help you be more successful.

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