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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]