The Agony of Choosing

Over the past couple of weeks I have had an opportunity to talk with a good many students – not just my own academic advisees, but other students I have come to know from various events on campus.  Because it is almost time for spring course registration, many of our students’ minds are filled with these types of questions:

– Which classes do I want [at which times, and with which professors]?

– I thought my major was going to be [INSERT], but I am not doing well in [this prerequisite], so now what do I do?  Keep going on that track? or change?”

– I need to declare a major next semester and I have no idea which one to pick.  Aack!

– I want to go abroad, and there are so many places I might like to go.  Should I go to one where I already speak the language? Where I can take some courses that will count towards my Divisional requirements/my major?

These and other questions are weighing heavily on some of our students as registration nears.  For some of our students, making these kinds of choices is easy; they have a clear idea of major/courses/abroad possibilities and they have been marching steadily toward that destination.  For others, they may be having more difficulty, especially when they are trying to choose between a couple of courses (or potential majors) they think they might like.  For those students, I call it “the agony of choosing” – they are afraid to pick one over the other for fear they are making a wrong choice.

Here’s what I typically tell students in those situations.

Which classes do I want: This is where a student needs to do some self examination and some homework.  Each course has a description in the Undergraduate Bulletin that says in brief what the course will cover.  They can also look at the individual faculty member’s or department web page to see if there is additional information about that course or professor that resonates with them.  If it excites you or piques your interest, go for it.  If not, look for something else.

I thought my major was going to be X and I am struggling in the prereqs: A tough issue, because there can be many layers of complexity here.  For a student who had always expected to go into a health profession or enter the business school, poor performance in those prereq classes can shake their sense of who they are: I always said I’d be a doctor/businessman – told that to all my friends, my parents, myself.  If I have to change, will they think I failed?  Will I disappoint them?

Students who are struggling in one prereq class could do better in successive prereqs – or they could also perform poorly in those.  In the case of business school prereqs, if a student is struggling in Math 111 and still has to take Accounting 111, that could be a really tough road ahead.  Are they willing to have another semester where they are trying hard and struggling (even with help), or would they be better off considering different subjects?  Students need to consider where their natural gifts and talents lie, whether they can do better with appropriate tutoring, or if this will be such a struggle they will be unhappy attempting to continue that path.

There are also many roads to get to a career that satisfies you.  You don’t have to be a doctor to work in a health profession.  You could be involved in other areas of patient care, or counseling, etc.  You don’t have to go to the undergrad business school to end up in business.  Frequently I tell my students struggling with business prereqs to consider either the Summer Management Program, which is a summer business boot camp for liberal arts majors, or to do the 5th year MA in Management, where students learn essentially the first year and half of what is taught in MBA school.  Either of those options can help students who want business knowledge.

This is where parents can be immensely helpful by telling their student that YOU DON’T CARE if they are an X major; that you want them to choose whatever makes them happy and where they feel comfortable.  Sometimes it takes that blessing or absolution from the parents to allow a student to be comfortable letting go of that academic or career path.  If your student is in either of these situations, please consider gently and discreetly letting them know that it is OK to change courses, especially if the one they are on is a struggle they don’t enjoy.  We all have different gifts and talents in different areas – and if is it not in X, the student will find their place to blossom in Y.

Deciding between two departments they may wish to major in: I typically ask the student  “If you’ve sampled classes in both departments, which classes have you enjoyed more?  Don’t think about which one you think is more marketable or popular etc. – but which one do you think you could really be interested in and invested in?”  If it is a toss up, I typically recommend trying to take one of each course in those departments to kick the tires a little more.  Normally when you have a little more exposure to a subject, the answer might show itself.

So often, students are worried that their choice of major will predestine them (or doom them) only to certain careers or paths in life.  And as the Office of Personal and Career Development frequently tells students, “you are not married to your major, and your major is not who you are.”  They have some great advice on this page – and I often direct students to these OPCD resources to help them think through a major decision.

Where to go abroad? in what language? in my major: This is an area where students need to talk to experts in International Studies.  The counselors there can help students think through their options, and they have a greater idea of how different academic departments count credit toward majors, etc.  There is a great Getting Started page where students should go to see the steps they ought to take when considering an abroad experience.

Parents, if your student is anxious about any of these things, reassure them that you are in their corner and support their choices.  Sometimes hearing that from mom or dad or a close family member is the thing they most need to hear.   Let your student make his or her own choices, and affirm them.  My personal belief is your student will best fare in classes and majors where they like the material and feel confident – not where they feel like they are working their hardest and still not doing well.  If they get a good GPA as an X major and learn some other valuable skills via internships or job shadowing or other experiences (the OPCD can help here), they will be poised to succeed.

If they hear that from you, perhaps that will take a little bit of the agony out of choosing.

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