Taking a Break: Choosing a Major in Five Years or Less
It’s August, and that means that a new school year is right around the corner. Now, the Coronavirus pandemic means that this new term won’t look quite like most have before. This is especially true for the incoming class of first-years. One time-honoured question remains the same for these new students, however: “How on Earth do I go about choosing a major?” Having spent years attempting to answer this question for myself, I’d like to take a moment to share some of my experience in the hopes that it will help you make your decision.
Be willing to wait for it.
Let me start by saying that I began university not by choosing a major but rather by stumbling into one. I started at Boston University, where the faculty quickly assured us incoming freshmen that most students have trouble choosing a major. Specifically, we were told that most new students struggle with narrowing down their wide range of talents and passions into one course of study. I fit that bill and then some: in school, I excelled at subjects from maths to history, and I’ve also long entertained the idea of a career as a stage actor and playwright. Talk about varied interests!
Nevertheless, the task of choosing a major was upon me. And that task sounds like a really important one, right? Well, then it may come as a surprise that I made my decision almost immediately. I hardly thought twice about it — I was going to be a Physics major! My father had studied the same, and I’d always done well with maths and science. I figured, “Why not?” When my college application asked for my intended major, I marked down Physics — and once I enrolled, I just kept rolling with it. Like I said, less choosing, more stumbling.
Now, in all honesty, I didn’t know at the time that I could have entered uni without declaring a major. If I had known, then I imagine that I would have done so. And this is my first tip to you, the reader — going in undeclared really is (in many cases) an option! It doesn’t need to be right for everyone, but there can be legitimate benefits in waiting to declare if you find yourself swimming in a pool of uncertainty.
Look around! Look around!
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, a Boston University education quickly proved to be far too expensive for my family. I was unable to finish my degree there; in fact, I left the school after just one year. I stayed in Boston for the next few years, though, paying the bills and trying to find my way forward.
Along the way, I took the opportunity to do a little personal and professional exploration. I followed up on my interest in stage acting by finding a short-term role in the greater Boston area. Inspired by a late night of watching Good Will Hunting on Netflix, I enrolled in an art program at the fantastic Bunker Hill Community College. (A college located in Boston’s historically Irish Charlestown neighborhood, I might add!) The plan was to build up an art portfolio that would get me into the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, to study film.
Now, spoiler alert: That plan didn’t pan out, either. But even so, the years following my departure from BU, as disappointing as that departure was, were full of opportunities, exploration, and a real-life education. My second takeaway, then, is this: Make the most of whatever situation you’re in, and leverage it as best as you can to learn as much about yourself as you can. Living in an apartment in the city taught me valuable skills like cooking my own meals (really, it’s a skill) and balancing my own budget. It also gave me ample time and space to step back and consider my direction and goals in a way that I hadn’t when I started university. And you don’t need to drop out of college to do the same. Whether it’s enrolling in university without declaring a major, taking a gap year before enrolling, or just being intentional in taking time to ask these questions of yourself, I’m sure you will find value in exploring your interests and your environment.
Don’t throw away your shot.
Fast forward to today: 23 years old, enrolled at a public university, and at the point of needing to make a decision and stick with it if I ever am to graduate — something I absolutely want to do. So, how do I go about choosing a major, after these years of exploration? I’ve probed my interests, and I know what I’m good at, even if I don’t exactly know what I want to do — how do I boil that all down into one course of study?
Well, I can’t claim to have any silver bullet or magic formula, but I can tell you how I made that decision. My last tip here is to aim as high as possible whilst keeping as many doors open as possible. For me, that has looked like returning to a major in Physics. I love acting, writing, and a whole host of other things, but I also do enjoy maths and science. So, if I have an interest and a talent in a number of realms, I figure that I might as well choose a direction that will maximize my potential. Most people do tend to value a degree in Physics higher than one in Liberal Arts, after all. And, at the end of the day, a degree in Physics won’t prevent me from turning up to an audition years down the road, but a Liberal Arts degree would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to gain admission to a Physics graduate program.
Blow us all away!
So, all you incoming first-years: Don’t sweat it if you’re only halfway through your course in five years time. It’s not a fate I would wish on anybody, but it’s also not one to be ashamed of — if anything, there’s a lot about it to be proud of. I hope that these tips help you collect some of your own thoughts on your choice of major: Take your time, look around, and aim high. Above all, remember how fortunate you are to be obtaining a higher education, and believe in yourself enough to know that you will succeed no matter what you study. Hats off to you!