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Picking a major is no big deal to some people; they have much more important things to worry about than checking off a box on the Common App indicating an intended field of study. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those people. It’s not that picking a major was on my mind more than, say, essays, but it seemed pretty daunting to me.
All I could think was, “This is going to determine what I do for the rest of my life!! My career depends on this; I CAN’T screw this up!!” I was clearly being over dramatic, but honestly, it’s not like I was the only stressed high school senior to be worrying more than I should about college applications.
So I kept putting it off, hoping that one day my mind would suddenly be miraculously made up. See, I was leaning towards a specific area of study, but wasn’t sure enough to make the commitment of putting a checkmark next to that major. After hours of consideration and fretting over what to do, I finally, reluctantly checked the “Undecided” box and submitted my application, the day before it was due.
I reassured myself that college is a time to pursue different passions, to see what’s out there; I shouldn’t have to limit myself to one thing before I’ve even set foot on campus. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been better off checking a major. Didn’t someone suggest applying as an English major and then transferring into the engineering school that’s ranked in the Top 10 in the country?
While I’d advise against selecting a random major just to try to increase your chances of being admitted, I will say that based on my own experiences, selecting a major can’t hurt. Note the wording that they provide you—because it’s an *intended* field of study, checking a box is not a binding contract to study astrophysics or Russian Literature.
Instead, it simply gives the admissions committee a general idea of where you’d fit into the school. Plus, if accepted to the college, you’ll automatically have access a wealth of resources just by the virtue of being a chemical engineering or art history major. It’s like getting all the benefits without much commitment, as most schools will let you switch majors anytime before the end of sophomore year.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of this at the time, so when I submitted all of my applications, it was with the box “Undecided” checked for every single school. As I quickly came to learn through a series of events, choosing a major would have done me quite a few favors.
Finding out my advisor was a philosophy professor, a field I had no intention of pursuing.
Sometime mid-July, my school notifies all incoming freshmen of who their academic advisor is. This professor would ideally be someone who can provide guidance on which classes to take each semester, what internship opportunities are available, and can possibly even write a reference letter somewhere down the road.
If you select a major, you’re almost guaranteed a professor in that department as your advisor, which would have been biology for me. Instead, I opened my student account to find that my advisor was a philosophy professor, someone who probably didn’t know the first thing about selecting introductory biology classes and whether I should take genetics sophomore year or junior year.
I tried to reassure myself that he’d still be of help for distribution requirements (he’s at least in the College of Arts & Sciences, my school within the university), but after meeting with my advisor the first week of school, I realized that anything he knew, I could probably figure out on my own or simply ask an upperclassman friend.
I’ve learned not to underestimate how useful an academic advisor is. Having been assigned to you, at first they’ll be obligated to help you. However, oftentimes you may end up taking one of their classes or asking them for advice, and before you realize it you’ll have found yourself a mentor for life who will be able to provide you with lots of wisdom, from what careers would suit you best to which café has the best sandwich on campus.
Trying to build a first semester schedule with no major requirements to guide me.
Being an indecisive person and attempting to choose classes with essentially no limit as to what I should pick is a combination for disaster. I know that schools such as Brown University boast of the complete freedom students have when it comes to choosing classes, given that they essentially design their own major.
However, I didn’t choose to apply to, nor wanted to attend, Brown, and for good reason. I need some sort of structure in all aspects of my life to function, so my anxiety levels would have been off the charts were I to attend somewhere like Brown.
I thought that one or two semesters of choosing classes on my own would be okay; even if some of the classes ended up not counting towards my eventual major, I’d still have plenty of time to catch up. Turns out I was pretty naive.
Four years is shorter than you may think, and taking a few classes that aren’t useful freshman year might set you back enough that the rest of your schedules will be loaded near capacity. If you’d rather not take near the credit limit multiple semesters in a row, an advisor would definitely be helpful to guide you in mapping out your projected schedules a few semesters in advance.
If you want to build your own major, then you might not find this post all that helpful. However, I will say that I have a friend who essentially built her own major at my school (where it’s not the norm), and she still found it beneficial to have an advisor for a number of other reasons.
Becoming complacent in my “exploration time” and scrambling to declare a major second semester sophomore year.
Having started as an “Undecided,” I somehow fell under the illusion that I’d have endless time to explore my options. Second semester sophomore year seemed so far away, and yet, it arrived faster than I could have ever imagined.
If you deem yourself a blank slate major-wise, you might become stuck in the mindset that you have all the time to explore, and then panic when it’s time to decide on one thing. However, if you already have something, you have a goal to work towards, and you’ll have a better sense of whether or not you actually like the subject you’re studying if you decide to eventually switch.
Discovering the wonderful world of minors!
You’re bound to take a class sooner or later (whether it’s because you heard the professor was great or you needed to fulfill a distribution requirement) that will spark your interest and make you want to take another class in that field. That happened for me, and I seriously considered making it my major for about a week or two before finally deciding against it.
The thing is, when you don’t have a major, anything you’re interested in can be appealing as a potential major, even if it’s completely impractical. But, if you’re already committed to a major, you’re likely more open to the idea of minors, which can be a great excuse to study a more far-fetched interest of yours while maintaining your professional aspirations.
That’s not to say that everyone who has declared majors already will stick to it; many do end up switching precisely because they took a class they just couldn’t get enough of. However, staying open-minded about minors gives you the best of both worlds.
Hearing about all the advising sessions I missed out on as an Undecided major.
Many departments/majors will have listservs for all the students who have declared their majors. For example, our biology department sends out periodic emails about mandatory advising meetings for freshmen, resources for questions and who to go to for answers, and college-wide events relevant to biology, including professional networking events, lectures and seminars, and volunteering opportunities.
If you declare only in sophomore year, you may have missed out on some key advising options and opportunities. Having been left out of so many of those emails, I’m now of the opinion that it’s always better to be aware of excessive resources than to not know about them at all.
I should say that some college applications are, in fact, essentially a binding contract when you select the major of your choice; you’re committed to it as soon as you step on campus. In those cases, the option of “Undecided” is not even provided on the application.
However, if you’re applying to a school like that, you’re probably one of those people who already has your life impeccably planned (I aspire to be like you one day), so you’d probably know about this condition before you go through the trouble of filling out everything else on the application.
For those of you who are on the fence like I was, I encourage you to put down a major you’re interested in. If nothing else, you can say you got to experience the most classic of college experiences once you’re at college: changing majors five times before settling on something completely different than what you started with.
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