One Difference Between College and Real World

How much does college prepare you for the real world? That’s a question I’ll be thinking about in the coming months and years.

One big difference between college and the real world is that college is an information-rich environment which makes it very easy to track your progress (and be motivated) day-by-day.

In college you constantly receive reports on your progress. You turn in assignments, you receive grades. Rarely does a week go by without some affirmation or refutation of effort from an all-knowing expert (professor, advisor, whoever).

In the real world, best I can tell, the information you receive from your “market” (customers, boss, whoever) is far more ambiguous. Anyone who’s built a company knows that months can go by without clear feedback about whether you’re on the right track. Indeed, sometimes it takes months of unyielding effort with your head down before you figure out whether you’re creating something of value.

The most successful people I’ve met in the real world have a tolerance for ambiguity and are self-motivated enough to take care of business even if there aren’t routine, external validations or challenges.

So do college students get spoiled by the constant information delivery and assessments that’s part of structured education? Is there a risk that such an explicit reward system will retard a student’s ability to be intrinsically motivated? Will a student, upon graduation, be able to apply consistent effort without receiving a decisive “A” or “B” for each of his tasks?

(thanks to my friend Cal Newport for sparking this idea)

11 comments on “One Difference Between College and Real World
  • Ben, in graduate degrees, where the degree of ‘prescription’ reduces and gives way to much work being done by the student on his/ her own steam and according to his/ her own interest in pursuing some topics in greater depth than others, this feedback system already changes significantly to become like the real world.

    However just like some students respond better to feedback, by taking corrective action more swiftly, in the real world too, some have greater advantage in terms of ‘receiving’ feedback actively and then using it to make changes as required.

    The point is not to lose the ability to get feedback – and act on it, where necessary – from whatever system one is in.

  • Perhaps this is specific to US colleges. English universities generally only have assessment at the end of the year. The Classics program at Oxford only has assessment twice in 4 years (exams after 1 + 2/3 years, then again at the end of 4 years).

  • Ben, I think everyone that has been in college is fully aware that it’s not going to prepare you for the real world. The large percentage of people going to college (especially one like Pomona) are not working while attending school, are riding on their parents’ dime, and are basically going through high school again without the constant presence of their parents–and there are exceptions to even that.

    I think you’d be much better off to approach it from a different point of view: what, precisely, is college teaching you? It’s certainly not about living in the real world. I’m pretty confident most everyone knows that.

  • This is specific to the US style of undergraduate education. In the rest of the world and in most grad-schools, course-work is minimal and end-of-term assessments matter for 80-90% of one’s grade. The US is known for constant ‘hand-holding’ whereas universities in Europe allow students to be more autonomous and focus almost exclusively on a single exam as the source of evaluation.

    Surely, constant feedback can be gained from fellow-students, an advisor, etc. This helps one understand if he or she is on the correct study path for success. Similarly, in the real-world, one should constantly seek some level of feedback from potential customers, analysts, advisors, etc. That said, the criteria for success in school are still well-defined, whereas ‘success’ in business, esp. at an individual — not company — level is typically more ambiguous depending on one’s role. Granted, mature organizations define and measure success at the individual quite well, while start-ups team around the company’s success and a leadership team’s cheer-leading efforts.

    Often ‘market-validation’ requires statistical significance of more than 30 customer exchanges. But, without adopting a ‘customer-a-day’ interaction strategy most product managers who develop services or products end-up missing the mark by launch. Employing this strategy helps mitigate ambiguous and extended feedback loops.

  • Ben,

    You’re right on in your thoughts.

    I went from college to being a trader in the options and futures pits of Chicago where I was instantly rewarded with the knowledge of whether or not the actions I took bore fruit.

    But the trading pits aren’t the real world. Since then, I’ve been involved in a lifelong process of losing my need to know, and my desire to know it today.


  • Very good questions.

    Looking at it from the side of College management, there’s a business angle to it. If students (or their parents that fund them) are not constantly reminded through their scores / grades that *you are improving*, many might as well drop out midway realizing that it’s been a big mistake. [My money is down the drain, It won’t get me there!]. The college stands to lose out on the tuition / other fee revenue for the rest of the session and it’s hard to get another sitting duck midway to recoup the lost fees. Indian students that can’t make it through stiff IIT entrance, but can afford the mind boggling fees of foreign universities, easily manage to secure admission to expensive colleges in US and Europe – all for emitting a signal at the end of the term by waving a degree that’s not much. At the workplace, their emptiness is exposed and the enormity of their foolishness allows them a silent grief, though a few have admitted it aloud later.

    From the student perspective, most creative and entrepreneurial minds find structured curriculum dull and would like to fit into something on their own. They get into college with an expectation of refining their traits / skills with high quality external inputs to power their own heuristics. The periodic grades in most structured systems instill an illusory sense of accomplishment and the average student passes out, enters the real world to find that it’s not helping him much. That’s exactly why Harvard MBAs spend their first two years running errands to copiers at Goldman Sachs and pull more charts out than doing meaningful analysis that track down multibagger investment ideas. That’s their way of retraining with real life systems. Till they learn how to take out a good copy, in the process unlearn all their Harvard illusions and distil down to brass tacks, the fund managers don’t let them get within a mile of a client account.

    If and when they are allowed a violation and let in as green horns without these filters, you get LTCM, Bear Stearns like meltdowns.

  • My daughter seemingly was only motivated by grades, but although she only took physics because it was required for her degree, after she completed the class, her way of viewing the world had completely changed. She could identify physics principles everywhere around us. So this seems like a misrepresentation of college to me. It would be interesting to see what you write in a decade or so.

  • This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a classmate who was writing a paper about negotiated grading. In this type of grading, a teacher might ask each student to assign himself or herself a grade for the course at the end of the semester.

    At first, I thought it was a horrible idea cooked up by the sort of people who came up with “new math.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was a great idea. It actually makes the student think about his or her performance in the class, and it encourages the type of critical self-evaluation that is required in the workforce where there is usuallly no constant feedback about performance.

    I think it’s unfortunate that we ask students “What grade did you get?” much more often than we ask “What did you learn from the class?”

  • The A or B is called a pay raise. Smart execs know to use the power of the purse to motivate the minds of their best and brightest.

    As your fellow student, I like the grade more because I want to see what my reader thinks. I don’t really give a damn if I think I’ve deserved higher.

    The only problem is that the law schools might…

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