Craig Zilles's Advice for Undergraduates

Having an Effective and Enjoyable Undergraduate Experience:

  I highly recommend reading Richard J. Light's book "Making the Most of College" (you can check it out from the campus library or get a used copy at Amazon for, like, two bucks). Light led a research group that did numerous interviews of students and came up with many conclusions. Three suggestions based on that book are:
  1. Get involved outside of the classroom: Activities outside of classes don't hurt grades and they increase the enjoyment of the college experience and often make the class work more meaningful.

  2. Learn time management: Probably the leading cause of academic trouble is the inability to appropriately allocate time.

  3. You don't have to go it alone: Studying in groups can be more effective and more enjoyable. Also, ask for help when you need it; people like helping people. If you are worried about looking bad, you'll look worse if you don't ask for help.

What are Faculty Advisors good for?

  Every undergraduate in our department is assigned a faculty advisor, but some students don't take advantage of them. One key to effectively using your undergraduate advisor is to know what kinds of things to get out of them:

  1. First, what not to ask faculty advisors: Don't ask them whether SUK 201 fulfills your Gefilte fish requirement; faculty don't keep up with the changing requirements. A good rule of thumb is don't ask faculty questions that could affect whether you graduate or not. The people in the academic office, like Steve Herzog, are a much better resource for this kind of question. Steve is also a good person to go to if you find that you life is falling apart some semester and you don't know who else to go to. Also, faculty don't really know which classes are hard or should be taken together; your fellow students are a better reference for this kind of question.

  2. So, what good are faculty advisors? Faculty advisors are good for asking more nebulous questions about: (for example) getting and choosing between summer internships, what classes you should take if you are interested in peer-to-peer systems, how to choose between doing a senior project and senior thesis, what graduate school is all about and how you can figure out whether you want to go, doing research as an undergraduate, what skills are needed for different kinds of jobs, etc. Basically, they are good for asking the big picture questions of "how do I figure out what I want to do after graduation?" and "what can I do to prepare myself for it?".

  3. What if you don't like your faculty advisor? Go to the academic office and tell them, and ask to have another one assigned to you. Remember, you are paying for this, so get your money's worth.

Preparing for the Future:

  At the end of your undergraduate career, you are likely to be looking for a job or applying to graduate school. At that point you will want/need two things:

  1. A "Portfolio": You'll want something that demonstrates that you will be a successful post-undergraduate. You should have the makings of a portfolio that demonstrates your past successes. Such a portfolio is most compelling if it is populated with work done outside of class because it demonstrates that you have the initiative to do more than is required. There are many opportunities for projects (ACM, WCS, open source projects, undergraduate research). Your portfolio should demonstrate that you are a "doer" not a "sayer" and that you have the persistence to get things done. You want to be in a position where you could say to a potential employer "you'd be a fool not to hire me".

  2. References: A graduate school application typically requires 3 letters of recommendation. These letters are uncompelling if the professor can only comment on the grades you received in their classes. Building the relationship that will result in a compelling letter takes time; it can't be done at the last minute. Thus, set as a goal to get to know one faculty member per year. They need not all be professors from your major. Given that it can be intimidating to approach professors, I recommend using mechanisms like the ACM Power Lunch and Exploration classes as useful mechanisms. Also, given that office hours are often poorly attended, most professors welcome students dropping in on their office hours (whether you are in their class or not) to discuss their area of research if you are genuinely interested.

    References are important for students looking for jobs after their B.S. as well. Many people find jobs through personal networking. Most faculty get requests from companies to identify prospective employees. The more people that know what kind of job you are looking for, the more likely you are to find it.

Other people's advice:

  Rather than replicate advice already on the web, I'll just link to it:

Craig Zilles /
Last updated August 24th, 2006.