(Life Transitions, Part II)
This was a tough piece for me to write, it’s not always easy to be honest. I made this because I truly believe it will help other people make the right decision. I’m trying to be the person I wish I had in my life a few years ago.
I’ll preface my story by saying I went into the College of Chemistry for Chemical Engineering at Berkeley, which is a much different experience from what one would have in another college at Cal. Chemical Engineering is considered one of the toughest majors because of the rigor and quantity of required classes needed to graduate. There are far fewer electives, which impacts your GPA considerably. It’s certainly not for everyone, and if I’m honest, most undergrads don’t like most (or any) of the required classes. It’s hard to like something when the average grade is C+/B- (and these aren’t slackers) and a professor won’t hesitate to fail you. If you get below a C-, you’ll have to retake the class and wait a year, and per the statistics, about 10% of kids get Ds and Fs in each of the required ChemE classes at Cal. I’d like to reemphasize the facts: we all study hard and there is a lot of stress.
Why did I do chemical engineering in the first place? I liked the scope of the work one could do with a degree, you could easily work in several different industries like healthcare or silicon processing or energy. I wanted to have as many options as I could down the road because I had no idea who I was going to be later in life. The more I worked outside of school, the more I realized my passions lie in healthcare and the application of biology and chemistry to help people. Fortunately, there was a Biotechnology concentration that I am working on in which I get to take more classes that interest me, but they are tougher (grade-wise) because you now have yet more required classes.
The main point I’m making is that at Berkeley, Chemical Engineering in particular, if you can just do average, you’re doing great. You must remember that the students at Berkeley were the top 20% of their class in high school (there are exceptions, but this is a good average rule to apply). So, doing average (top 50%, which is the median, but if you assume symmetric distribution it’s the mean as well) in a Berkeley class (which is top 20% of the general student population) is actually top 10% of the general student population. Being in the top 10% of general student population in a Berkeley class with a C+ average means getting a C+. This comes as a shock to people who are used to getting an A. Unless you’re above the top 5% of general student population, it will be very difficult to get an A at Berkeley (heavily dependent on the class too, subjects and departments and professors make a big difference).
Something you’ll learn at Berkeley is that no one discusses GPA. We all know it’s going to be low, don’t be surprised to see a 2 as the first digit. The College of Chemistry at Berkeley is more impacted than most other colleges at Cal, which means that the average student is above top 20%. When I did my orientation for the College of Chemistry, they said that they had 800 transfer applicants for the ChemE program and only made 80 offers. That makes getting a C+ that much more difficult, and the C+/B- average applies to most of the ChemE required classes (you can confirm this on the BerkeleyTime Catalog grade distributions). A ChemE professor is considered generous to make the average a B-.
What I’ve just said are statistical facts, not speculation nor feelings. The average grade given to students who go to other universities in which the average student was at least top 20% is most often a lot higher. The median grade at Harvard is an A-, according to the Harvard Crimson. You will on average get a much lower GPA at Berkeley than another university.
When I got my acceptance letter, I was very aware of the grade deflation and stress involved at Berkeley’s ChemE program. Knowing that someday I wanted to go to medical school, it would be an understatement to say I was torn. Medical schools use GPA as a major component in their decisions, much the same as Berkeley. I spent so many hours on the phone with college and med school counsellors trying to figure out what to do. I talked to physicians and anyone who’d listen about my predicament and try to get some insight. It was hell.
Why did I decide to pull the trigger with Berkeley? It was a bunch of personal reasons I won’t go too far into. I’ll just describe what my time was like since I started.
I think it’s important to describe the first weeks at Berkeley. For me, it was stressful. I kept telling myself I shouldn’t be here, “I’m not good enough.” (In hindsight, that’s a very common theme at Cal). That statistic (800 applicants, only 80 offers for my program), was burned into my head. Within the first two weeks, of the 5 transfer friends I made, 2 had dropped out. I’m not going to say that after the first week everything got easy, it didn’t. The feeling of acceptance was elusive. I kept thinking that I was the dumbest kid in the lecture hall (not joking either). I’d sit next to undergrads who seemed like they should be in grad school right now. And indeed, some of them were already taking graduate level coursework as sophomores.
One of the things I really didn’t like about the culture at Berkeley was the arrogance. During the College of Chemistry orientation, the speakers kept throwing this term around: “tradition of excellence.” The chancellor wore this sport jacket and walked around the front of Latimer 120 (main lecture hall), telling us that we were chosen because we were the best, and a lot was to be expected from us. We needed to be excellent because that’s what the College of Chemistry was. I walked out after a few minutes of listening to that stuff.
I kept asking myself: why the hell am I doing this? It ultimately boils down to: are you someone who genuinely likes to be challenged every single day? I believe that’s something only you can answer in practice. You can think you like “tackling tough problems” (phrase from the UC Berkeley promo video), but until you’ve actually done it on a day-to-day basis (not just read or heard it), I don’t think you’ll have an answer.
I cannot blame a single person for not finding any of what I do in school appealing. It’s what makes the ChemE program at Cal what it is. It’s why so many people drop out, change majors to anything but ChemE, and hate science forever after.
It’s why I cannot stress enough how important it is to be honest with yourself. We’re not all meant to be Chemical Engineers or go to Berkeley. There’s a world out there to enjoy and a life to live and happiness to be had. But at the same time, don’t let that scare you away if it’s something you’re truly passionate about.
If you ask me now why I’m doing this, I’ll give you a cliché answer: I’m doing this because I want to prove to myself I can finish something I started. Can I see something through to the end? My reason has nothing to do with Chemical Engineering anymore. I feel like I’m at mile-20 of a marathon. If I give up now, why did I just run those past 20 miles? Different people have different answers to that question. Some people think “life’s about the journey, not the destination.” Who cares if you cross the finish line, look how far you made it. Think about all the things you saw along the way.
I am not one of those people.
If you’re not either, then maybe Berkeley and/or ChemE is for you.
(Post script: My name is Vincent, message me if you'd like to check out my blog where I discuss more of my experiences and advice in school)