Best Advice for Selecting College Major

Professor Alan Roberts tells us in his The Thinking Students Guide to Colleges, 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education how best to select a major in college.

An assistant professor in Political Science at Northwestern University, Professor Roberts knows how majors should be researched and compared, and how students might best select one. In all honesty, don’t head off to a research university without reading this book: its 161 pages brim with sagacious pragmatism. His advice on selecting a major alone is worth purchasing a copy. Yet the book also includes insights on how a university works, choosing a college, choosing classes, being a successful student, and learning outside the classroom.

His first piece of advice is that choosing a major in college should be avoided during the first year.

There is a certain amount of trepidation in the college major selection process. Many entering freshmen are led to believe that the selection of a major will have a direct bearing on their job prospects, career prospects, and life. Possibly but more likely, there will be doubts about their major selection (according to a New York Times survey on student engagement almost a sixth of undergraduates have them). While selecting engineering, sciences or accounting is believed to ensure future employment, no career path is guaranteed.

Make a point of sampling a lot of departments. Many disciplines didn’t even exist in high school: astronomy, geology, linguistics, biochemistry. There will probably never be another time in your life when you can intellectually explore an array of disciplines with some of the leading minds in each—don’t circumvent this precious opportunity by opting for a pre-selected, seemingly ‘safe’ major.

Even subjects that you had to take in high school: English, history, math, and chemistry are a lot different in college. Don’t cross them off your list because you had a horrible teacher earlier—college might prove to be an entirely different world. The depth and scope of most courses far surpass most classes you took at the secondary level.

Additionally, the more subjects you investigate, the more departments you sample, the more you will find how differently each approaches its discipline. Some departments might emphasize close readings of key texts, mathematical modeling, field research, or philosophical introspection. The more familiar you become with various modes of investigation, the more ‘knowledgeable and creative you’ll be across multiple disciplines.’

There is one point that Professor Roberts, Professor Chambliss of Hamilton College, in his book, How College Works, and Nathan Heller, a New Yorker book reviewer, in his recent review of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, all agree upon, ‘there are no boring subjects, only boring people.’ Heller, in his article mentions that when he asked his freshman counselor which courses he should take, she responded: “The topics aren’t important. What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.” (p.72, New Yorker, 1 September 2014) There seems to be unanimous support for this kernel of truth.

No matter which major you select, there are four things you want to gain from your studies: a solid knowledge of the particular subject; a mastery of methods of inquiry in the chosen field; knowledge of how to analyze and process information encountered; and, practice in applying these newfound  tools in the field— namely through independent research.

Professor Roberts also talks about the advantages of smaller majors (“Keep an eye out for departments that are run like families”), and highly structured majors (“…ensure that all students have a grasp of the central ideas and methods of the subject.”). Yet his one critical point in any major selection is to choose a subject you love. This will make the hard tedious work essential in its mastery (the 10,000 hour rule) more tolerable. After all, “Choosing what you love is the best route to becoming an academic star.” It might make you shine for a lifetime.