MICROSOFT VISITOR CENTER INFORMATION FOR STUDENTS
My Advice to Students: Education Counts
By Bill Gates
Chairman and Chief Software Architect, Microsoft Corporation
Hundreds of students send me e-mail each year asking for advice about education. They want to know what to study, or whether it’s okay to drop out of college since that’s what I did.
A smaller number of parents send messages, often poignant, seeking guidance for their son or daughter. "How can we steer our child toward success?" they ask.
My basic advice is simple and heartfelt: Get the best education you can. Take advantage of high school and college. Learn how to learn.
It’s true that I dropped out of college to start Microsoft, but I was at Harvard for three years before dropping out—and I’d love to have the time to go back. As I’ve said before, nobody should drop out of college unless they believe they face the opportunity of a lifetime. And even then they should reconsider.
Kathy Cridland, a sixth-grade teacher in Ohio, wrote to say, "Several of my students claim that you never finished high school. Since you are a success, my students perceive that as a reason not to care much about getting a good education."
I finished high school!
I Don’t Know Any High School Dropouts
The computer industry has lots of people who didn’t finish college, but I’m not aware of any success stories that began with somebody dropping out of high school. I actually don’t know any high school dropouts, let alone any successful ones.
In my company’s early years we had a bright part-time programmer who threatened to drop out of high school to work full-time. We told him no.
Quite a few of our people didn’t finish college, but we discourage dropping out. Having a diploma certainly helps somebody who is looking to us for a job.
College isn’t the only place where information exists. You can learn in a library. But somebody handing you a book doesn’t automatically foster learning. You want to learn with other people, ask questions, try out ideas and have a way to test your ability. It usually takes more than just a book.
Education should be broad, although it’s fine to have deep interests, too.
In high school there were periods when I was highly focused on writing software, but for most of my high school years I had wide-ranging academic interests. My parents encouraged this, and I’m grateful that they did.
Although I attended a lot of different kinds of classes in college, I signed up for only one computer class the whole time. I read about all kinds of things.
One parent wrote me that her 15-year-old son "lost himself in the hole of the computer." He got an A in website design, but other grades were sinking, she said.
This boy is making a mistake. High school and college offer you the best chance to learn broadly—math, history, various sciences—and to do projects with other kids that teach you first-hand about group dynamics. It’s fine to take a deep interest in computers, dance, language, or any other discipline, but not if it jeopardizes breadth.
I think kids sometimes trap themselves into a narrow identity. I wonder if they’ve just decided, "Okay, I’m the person who’s good at accounting."
A friend asks, "Hey, what have you been reading?"
"Well, I’m reading about accounting."
It’s just their sort of self-definition, and it’s probably comfortable for them. But it’s unfortunate if it comes at the sacrifice of learning about the broader world, or learning to work cooperatively.
I’m as impressed as the next person is when an 11-year-old can do calculus. He or she is learning to think logically. But a kid who is reading about Robinson Crusoe is thinking logically, too. It’s not completely different.
Focus on Doing Well; Specialization Comes Later
If you fall into an obsessive pattern in high school, you’ve got two problems. One is that you’re unlikely to change when you go to college. The other is that if you don’t get reasonably good grades, it’s hard to get into a college that has the highly motivated, capable students who can really help you learn about the world.
In college it’s appropriate to think about specialization. Getting real expertise in an area of interest can lead to success—unless the specialty ends up being a dead end or you’re not good at. Graduate school is one way to get specialized knowledge, although extended college education isn’t always a good investment from a purely economic standpoint.
Choosing a specialty isn’t something high school students should worry about. They should worry about getting a strong academic start.
There’s not a perfect correlation between attitudes in high school and success in later life, of course.
But it’s a real mistake not to take the opportunity to learn a huge range of subjects, and to learn to work with people in high school, and to get the grades that will help you get into a good college.