Stanford was one among my “dream schools” in high school. But when I got my first SAT scores, I told myself to keep dreaming. 

I recently finished reading A Practical Education by technology writer Randall Stross, where I learned that a Stanford education offers connections and direction, but offers no guarantee of success. I strongly recommend this book to any family considering the most selective colleges. I can make one guarantee to anyone who reads it: if you can get into Stanford, you will have to learn how to plan your courses, especially if graduate or professional school is not in the immediate future. 

Stross organizes A Practical Education around two themes: the pressures on Stanford to offer “practical and employable skills” to all students, regardless of their major, and the successes of alumni who chose a liberal arts major versus the more marketable majors in Computer Science and Engineering. Those successes were not immediate. Those profiled did not know what they wanted to do after they had earned their degree. Quite frankly, their stories could be the same as those of Rutgers graduates, only most of the Stanford alumni profiled in the book wanted to make their connections in Silicon Valley.  

None of the alumni Stross profiled had earned a degree in mathematics or the sciences, although some had taken Stanford’s introductory courses in Computer Science numbered 106A and 106B, and a few had taken the third course in the sequence for the major. The first course, 106A, is the most popular introductory course at the university for prospective majors and non majors. Computer Science has been the most popular major at Stanford for all undergraduates since 2012 and for women (as of 2015).  Stross mentions that the introductory courses have been so heavily subscribed that the Computer Science faculty seeks senior majors to complement graduate students as teaching assistants. If my teaching assistant had been someone who was yet to earn their bachelor’s degree, I would have been quite disappointed in my school. 

While Stanford’s liberal arts students take these courses, taking them alone, even achieving high grades, did not assure that they would be welcomed with wide open arms for communications or sales positions with technology firms in Silicon Valley. The path, for example, into marketing at a firm such as Google was more likely to begin with a sales support position handling customer service calls. Even those positions required training that was unlikely to be offered by taking Computer Science 106A and 106B. 

The major takeaway from reading A Practical Education is that a Stanford alumnus will have a tough time in the job market immediately after college just as any other liberal arts graduate who is headed towards graduation with little to no direction for their future. Even a notably selective college with notoriously demanding courses will not be able to help a student who does not take the time to help themselves earlier in their education, to really consider what they want like to do for a living after graduation. 

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