College applications: why your major matters

One of the most appealing aspects of an American liberal arts education lies in the notion that a student should not have to commit to any course of study before he or she is ready to do so. Unlike Britain, for example, where students apply to a specific course of study, American students applying to liberal arts colleges may at most be asked to state an academic interest. At many institutions students are in fact only called on to declare a major – such as mathematics, economics or sociology – at the end of sophomore year. (Note that engineering programs, for example, are very different, given the very high credit count of the accredited degree.)

Admitting students without reference to their major recognizes the fact that at college students will change their majors as often as they change their minds. It is also an encouragement to explore broadly and by roaming through an interdisciplinary reservoir, find the different lenses through which they can look at the issues that interest them.

It is easy, however, to confuse such an approach with a kind of academic drifting that lacks rigor and discipline. Many college applicants check the box that declares them undecided about their intended major because they genuinely cannot commit to a course of study. But for many it is simply a lazy way to avoid engaging with college as an academic institution or to think deeply about what they hope to achieve there. It is a bit like embarking on a trip without having wasted too much thought on either the route or the destination.

In the admission process to a selective liberal arts college, a lack of any academic focus can also help to weaken a student’s application. Some colleges will require applicants to express an academic interest even if their admitted students have a lot of leeway in changing majors. An applicant at Cornell’s College of Arts and Science, for example, has to be able to, “describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you.” Michigan asks applicants to describe how a particular college within the university will meet their academic interests. It may be possible to answer these questions without committing to a specific major, but it will probably be a lot easier to set out an intellectual evolution that has a major at the end of it. When a student is exploring what a school such as Cornell or Michigan has to offer, he or she should therefore spend as much time checking out departmental and program websites, as student activities and housing arrangements.

Even when a selective university does not require any commitment to an academic field, it is still interested in gauging what Stanford calls the “intellectual vitality” of its applicants. A student who wrestles with how best to pursue, for example, an interest in South East Asian culture – is it best to major in Asian Studies, International Relations, History or even Anthropology? – reveals just such a vitality and engagement.

Contrast such an intellectual tussle with a student who limply expresses an interest in mathematics, “because I am good at it”; or who wants to study psychology “because my friends always ask me for advice” and sociology because “I am a social person.” (These actually appeared in applications!) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these ideas and in truth they probably do motivate many students. But they are superficial and thoughtless at best, and applicants to selective colleges do not want to give admission readers reason to doubt their depth. So while high school students should be encouraged to explore the many ways in which colleges differ from each other, from size and location to study abroad options, they should also be prodded to consider, with excitement and anticipation, the academic opportunities and choices at the heart of their college experience.

By Andrea van Niekerk

Navigating the freshman year: tips from your fellow students

As they move further away from their last days of high school, seniors are turning their attention to the moment when they can leave for college.  Preparing for that first year is exciting and incoming freshman are getting to know their roommates online, thinking about the extra long sheets they need to buy, and making plans for traveling to campus.

I asked a few current undergraduates and recent graduates  – including my own children – about the advice that people gave them before they left for college that helped them navigate their first year.  Or, looking back with hindsight, what counsel they wish someone had passed along before they stumbled into college life.

  • “Be proactive at seeking out opportunities that campus life offers. They are not always visible and they will rarely just fall in your lap.”   [Yale ’15, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “Though it took me time to open my mind to trying new things or inviting the new into old routines, it was worth it in the end.”    [Delaware ’15, Computer Science]
  • “It is easy to slip straight into your degree requirements and you should use your first semesters to complete some requirements. But otherwise take what interests you, not what you have to.”   [Rice ’13, Structural Engineering]
  • “Ask people for recommendations on courses and good professors- you may find something new that you come to love.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Explore the different majors at your school as early as possible even if you think you’re happy with the major that you’re in.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I had a better idea of how careers correlated to courses. Even in freshman year I wish I had known better what I could do with what I studied.”   [Rice ’11, English]
  • “Most of us won’t end up in a career related to our major, and I wish I had taken a couple of courses with career applications, like economics.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Writing is always required, regardless of what you do, and I wish I had taken the time to improve on my writing and composition.”   [Rice ’12, Art History]
  • “Work really hard through your freshman year. It is easy to think you will breeze through college, but a bad first semester will damage your GPA. It’s really easy to focus on doing fun things and only working when you can fit it in, but you need to get in the rhythm of getting your work done.”   [Rice ’11, History]
  • “Anyone who tells you that he looked back after college and said, ‘Man, I wish I had spent more time in the library,’ is lying.”   [Rice ’11, Religious Studies]
  • “Freshmen come in a little wide-eyed and don’t realize that these professors are not only willing to help them but are sometimes dying to be approached by interesting students.  I came in a little shy, and didn’t make use of the people around me early enough.”    [Stanford ’11, Bio-Mechanical Engineering]
  • “Approaching professors doesn’t mean you have to become a research assistant performing menial tasks.  Your interests can drive a joint pursuit with a professor, curricular (forming research questions, leading discovery) or otherwise. It can help you do whatever you want to pursue.”   [Stanford ’12, History]
  • “I’m glad that I was told to not be afraid to reach out to professors. I got in touch with the engineering adviser even before I got to campus and met with him before classes started. He gave me great advice about class selection that really helped me, and without which I would probably would have been very overloaded first semester.”   [Yale ’15, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “I wish I had been busier first semester; I wasn’t involved with as many things as I should have been, and I wound up with a lot of free time, sort of scratching my head and thinking ‘is this it?'”   [Oberlin ’15, Undeclared/Music]
  • “Be outgoing and try to meet people because freshman year is the best time to do so.”   [Yale ’14, Geology and Geophysics]
  • “I wish I kept better track of current events. It would have rounded out my education.”   [Rice ’10, Mechanical Engineering]
  • “When I was a senior in high school, I had a huge crush on a TV character from The OC, Taylor Townsend. When Taylor was giving her valedictory address at the Harbor School, she said something that confused me as an 18-year-old:  ‘There’s no one older than a high school senior, and no one younger than a college freshman.’  Looking back, I love that notion, and I wish I applied it more when I was starting out.  I took safe risks, and didn’t do anything that was too off the radar.  I took the transition from high school to college too seriously, as if that moment were a rite of passage I had to treat with soberness.  Kids should have fun, not over-think the transition, and feel alright about stepping out of their comfort zone.  I don’t mean they should do weird things just for the sake of doing them, but I think most of the people I know played it safe because they didn’t want to put themselves out there, take a chance, and face the possibility of falling flat on their face.  Being a college freshman is a time to be young again, and I think too many kids come in wanting to seem anything but that.”   [Stanford ’11, History]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

College searching: what information matters and why

This summer rising seniors and juniors are actively researching colleges in order to plan trips and identify the schools to which they may want to apply. These are indeed important summer activities, and there is no shortage of resources to use – from college guides like Fiske to online search engines and college websites.

But this flood of resources does not tell students why the information they are gathering, matters.  They read about class size and student to faculty ratios, the number of undergraduates and even graduation rates. But none of this means much unless they also know why all those bits and pieces of information may, or may not, matter to them.  Big school or small, open curriculum or core, college or university, residential or commuter – none of these qualities are necessarily good or bad in the abstract.  Their value derives from whatever a particular young person needs in order to thrive at college.

Here are some of the choices students may consider:

  • Big or small: At larger schools class size usually depends on the level of the course, but at smaller colleges most classes are almost inevitably smaller. To one student class size will make no difference at all to the learning experience; to another, it will mean being deprived of focused attention and mentoring support that he or she needs to do well.  For these students, the presence of an honors college may be important to explore.
  • University or college: While most colleges have no graduate school at all, research universities may have as many graduate students as undergraduates.  For some students, access to the greater research resources of a university (resources necessary to train graduate students), will be very appealing.  But yet another may feel that those graduate students siphon off the university’s attention away from undergraduate teaching.
  • Availability of undergraduate research: Research takes place at all colleges and universities, but students should note how accessible research opportunities are to undergraduates.  In some fields of study, doing research beyond what is required in class may be unusual. But if you are excited by the idea of producing knowledge or simply know that research hones skills and adds to a resume, the availability of such opportunities at schools like Harvey Mudd may be reason to choose one institution over another.
  • Study abroad: High school students often make note of study abroad programs, even though many college students will in fact study overseas with programs administered by a school or organization other than their own.  But even though you can still spend a semester in Spain even if your own school does not offer such a program, your college’s commitment (or indifference) to the value of studying abroad may have an impact on how readily it grants you credit for courses taken elsewhere.
  • Curriculum: Even though college is presumably above all an academic experience, many high school students have no idea how a liberal arts college’s curriculum is structured or why they should care.  These curricula do in fact all try to achieve the same thing: a well-rounded education in which a student is exposed to a broad range of ways of thinking.  But they get students there in different ways, and while one applicant may find the shared intellectual conversation of a core curriculum exciting, another may find it restrictive. Similarly, the same open curriculum that some students find liberating may perplex or intimidate others.
  • Range of majors: High school students often understand a liberal arts education as little more than the chance “to study a lot of different stuff,” and may spend more time checking out the school’s mascot or reading about its traditions than they will spend on the school’s list of majors or the websites of specific departments.  This superficial understanding of a liberal arts education is reinforced by an application that may not ask you about your future major and the knowledge that you may change your mind anyway.  But there is a difference between thinking broadly and being intellectually scattered, and if you are interested in studying Classics, Geophysics or anything else, whether or not you change your mind later, you should make sure your college offers you the chance to explore that field!

 

These days everyone in college admissions talks about the idea of a good “fit.” But whether one is buying a suit or choosing a college, fit is about individual measurement and taste, and students should examine the information they gather about each school through a lens of self-awareness and personal reflection.

 

History as a college major?

Recently the History Department at Rice University offered a class on “Methods and Theory in History,” aimed at introducing history majors to the demands of upper division seminars and honors theses. But the class also presented history majors with a panel discussion on life after college with a history degree, in which four current students and recent alumni spoke about the trajectory of their own careers and intellectual development with a history degree.  As it happens, my son, a recent Rice history graduate now making his way in Houston’s natural gas sector, was one.

 

Concern with the usefulness of a history degree has been a long time coming, and occupies the mind of high school seniors and their parents as they look towards college.  Families fret about new economic realities, including unemployment amongst recent graduates and huge student debts. Traditionally many viewed a history degree as a common avenue into law school, but now law schools are shrinking in the face of declining demand. New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, in a piece entitled The Imperiled Promise of College, recently highlighted these concerns.  Bruni pointed out that according to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

 

No wonder then that many students feel compelled to set aside their love of history and consider more practical fields as they look towards college – Stanford, with one of the top departments in the country, now only graduates about 70 history majors a year, and at Yale where history has historically been one of the most popular majors, the number of history degrees granted fell from 217 to 131 in the last ten years.

 

Bruni is indeed right in cautioning students that hard economic times require them to be thoughtful, flexible and proactive as they think about their education. But students who love history and would like to study it in college, should not despair either!  If the problem with a history degree is that it does not come with a technical expertise that will ensure a job – like a degree in engineering or nursing may – that flexibility is also an asset.  As that panel at Rice confirmed, countless history majors are still leaving college to find interesting, productive and steady careers in an astonishing diversity of careers, as they always have: in politics and law, entertainment and news (Edward Norton, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen), writing (Malcolm Gladwell) and business (Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook).

 

This is surprising only to those who remember history as the mindless memorization inflicted by Mrs. Smith on their fifth grade class.  In college, history students learn to gather, analyze and interpret conflicting evidence.  They construct arguments that fit the evidence, study change over time, and learn to communicate all of that with good writing. There are few profession in which demand for these skills – research, critical and constructive analysis, and the ability to communicate well – is not at a premium. In fact, William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that narrow pre-professional programs, ” do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.”  An undergraduate degree in history, on the other hand, will give students, whatever their future careers, exactly that kind of flexibility and critical judgment.  Look at the list that the recent SUES committee on undergraduate education at Stanford identified as important skills that Stanford students ought to gain during their time on the Farm: “the capacity to communicate, critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretive judgment; formal and quantitative reason­ing skills; an ability to think historically; facility in both sci­entific and social scientific analysis, including the abilities to formulate and test hypotheses, assess data, and weigh competing theories; and, last but not least, a rich capacity for creative expression, in whatever domain or field.”

 

Why do we still need students to study history?  According to the American Historical Association, it is how we “gain access to the laboratory of human experience.”  Whether a student wants to become a businessman who needs to understand China’s position on international trade, a teacher in high school, a researcher for a think tank on social policy, a government employee or an online journalist, studying history will impart useful knowledge and strong analytical and communication skills.  And in a rapidly changing world, the study of history will above all give students the flexibility and adaptability to keep up the pace.