When It’s Time to Choose a Major, Quit Fooling Yourself

The best advice I received before freshman year was to study a subject in which I had already demonstrated real interest and aptitude, rather than engage in self-torture.

When It’s Time to Choose a Major, Quit Fooling Yourself

My mind was made up. On the application to Stanford University, I listed economics as the field I would study upon matriculation. Months later, once I was accepted, there was no doubt that I would graduate with a degree in economics.

It made almost too much sense. Data indicated that a degree in economics yields the highest earning potential of any major. This credential could be used to enter a wide array of lucrative industries, from finance to management consulting. Career prospects aside, I grew up idolizing preeminent economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, though I had yet to read their more technical works.

There was only one obstacle standing in my way. Stanford’s economics program requires students to take nearly two years of high-level mathematics courses—including calculus and linear algebra—of which I had never learned an inch. And, unfortunately, it seemed that mathematics was an essential component of just about every university economics program.

I say “unfortunately” because mathematics was my weakest subject throughout high school, hands down. Instead of taking AP Calculus in my senior year, I opted for the far more comfortable AP Statistics. I strategically took the ACT over the SAT, since the former contains roughly half as much math. Even still, my composite score would have been a full point higher had it not been for the math portion.

No problem, I believed. How difficult could it really be to compete with the engineering students for a passing grade? After all, I had been accepted to Stanford! Compared to the hyper-competitive admissions process, holding my nose and swallowing differential equations for two years would be a breeze. I could force myself to be good at math—perhaps enjoy it—if I simply tried hard enough.

It was at this point, when I had fully convinced myself that I could thrive as an economics major, that my father intervened. After watching me for eighteen years, he recognized what I refused to acknowledge: there were many things that I could do well, but math was not one of them. Attending Stanford, he explained, did not bestow superpowers. Despite the acceptance letter and bucket hat I had received in the mail, I nonetheless “sucked at math.”

What I did know was how to read, how to write, how to speak well, and how to argue. Due to a longstanding love for American politics, I also knew who won the 2010 Senate election in Pennsylvania, against whom, and by what margin. I knew which three federal agencies were responsible for regulating banks (until 2011, when the DoddFrank Act added a fourth). I could rank the Supreme Court justices from most liberal to conservative by voting record, and tell you which president appointed each of them. And so, my father asked me, “Would you rather be an excellent political science major or a crappy economics major?”

Now, one year into my political science degree, I could not be more relieved that I took his advice. Every course that I took in my freshman year reaffirmed that I made the correct decision. In effect, I got to continue my studies from eighth grade onward—only at a far higher level than before.

What would have happened had I disregarded my father’s advice and began studying economics? My best conjecture is that I would have taken one advanced mathematics course in fall quarter, spent considerable time and effort attempting to learn the material, failed in spectacular fashion, and finished with an atrocious grade. After an unhealthy dose of anxiety, I would have ultimately broken down and switched my major to political science anyways. The only indication that I ever intended to study economics would be the nasty bruise to my ego and a math-induced blemish on my transcript.

This scenario is not pure guesswork. Rather, it is extrapolated from what I witnessed dozens of times among my freshman peers. Their attempted majors were not always economics; more frequently it was engineering, or chemistry, or computer science. They all believed that they could enter an academic field at a premier university with no prior experience or interest. They selected their majors without any reference to their own unique abilities, thinking only of expected income and job prospects. And one by one, I watched as reality closed in on each of them.

I cannot blame these students, as Stanford’s culture does everything possible to lure pupils into STEM subjects. A bulk of your friends will spend their evenings whittling away at problem sets and attending labs, not writing essays. You will, at times, feel silly for coming all the way to Silicon Valley only to avoid science and technology. And the reputed bias against humanities at Stanford does exist, permeating everything from our presidential selection process to the school’s construction preferences.

Too many undergraduates with enormous potential succumb to these pressures and quickly morph into middling computer science majors. I urge you to resist this temptation, and to embrace STEM fields only when your interest is genuine.

The time to decide one’s field of study is far more limited than it appears. College is often sold to students as a time for unchecked academic exploration, as though one has ample room to switch majors halfway through. Yet of the 180 units a Stanford student must take across four years, general education and breadth requirements will take up approximately 70, and a typical major demands 80 or more units of its own. That leaves a total of 30 units, or a mere six to eight classes over four years, for pure “exploration.” Drastically changing one’s field in one’s sophomore or junior year may not be an option given these constraints.

I am therefore deeply grateful that I followed my father’s guidance as a freshman. His advice to incoming students today would be this: If you have never written a line of code in your life, don’t expect that you will major in computer science. If you barely made it through AP Chemistry in high school, refrain from studying chemical engineering. And if you are squeamish at the mere sight of blood, reconsider a degree in human biology.

Instead, study a subject that you already know a thing or two about, that sincerely interests you, and that you know you can master through sufficient effort. To arrive at Stanford, you needed to be exceptional at something; why not capitalize on it?

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