College: A Major Decision

Ajibike is a 17-year-old from Monroe, Louisiana. She enjoys watching Novak Djokovic play tennis, playing tennis and golf in imitation of the pros, devouring books, starting her own novels, and dreaming about medical school.Stella Costello speaking at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference by Bettina Tizzy.

Webster’s dictionary states that college is: “an institution of higher learning, esp. one providing a general or liberal arts education rather than technical or professional training.”  The more practical definition of college is as follows: “an institution of supposed higher learning at which college students learn to multi-task between parties and finals, students are stressed out beyond measure, an all-encompassing concept that scares high school students into joining every club at their schools in order to resume build.” That, my friends, is college.

While college is destined to be both an exciting and academically stimulating experience, deciding where to go to college can be stressful. So you have finished your applications, mailed them in or submitted them online, sent in your resumes, paid the application fees, had your SAT/ACT/AP/IB scores sent in, sent in your musical, robotic, creative writing, or artistic supplements. In short, you finished. Momentarily, the stress was lifted off of your shoulders; and then the day came–December 15th or December 31st or March 31st or April 1st. Whichever day it was or will be, the acceptance letters rolled in and the rejection letters followed. This could be the most exciting moment of your life–if you were accepted to the school of your dreams. The most stressful moment of your life–if you were accepted to multiple schools (can you imagine making the Harvard or Princeton decision?). Or even the worst moment of your life– if you weren’t accepted to your top pick: let’s hope this isn’t so.

So you have survived the frenzy of applications, and parents you have survived the months of hearing your child recite essays, revising the afore-said essays, encouraging your child to study for standardized tests, and figuring out how to financially meet the tuition costs looming ahead. And now, the next step is deciding where to go to college and to start narrowing ideas for a college major. And while these are pressing decisions, they can be relatively easy to decide upon.

DECIDING ON A COLLEGE

College can be an intellectual mecca or a party school. Every school has a stigma. Harvard is classically seen as stuck-up (which may not be true; I visited the campus and the students were quite nice), Columbia is often mentioned to have over-competitive pre-med students (which also may not be true), Tulane and LSU are often noted as party schools. Every school is different, thankfully so, which provides a lot of options when it comes down to decision time. Here are a few ways to narrow down your choices and decide upon which school is right for you:

1. Location–Location can be one of the most important factors in the decision process. If you want to be close to home (because of finances, emotional immaturity, the comfort of being at home and eating at Cafe de Mom), pay closer attention to the colleges around town. If you are ready to leap out of the nest, look beyond your backyard. Of course, you must consider weather, airfare (if you are financially able to handle the travel fees between home and college), and if you are definite about being away from home. Many students from the West Coast, head to the East Coast in hope for a different atmosphere. The West Coast, generally, is more relaxed than the East Coast. Many East Coasters head to the West Coast. There are many cases of disappointment as California isn’t as sunny as some expect, and New England is a lot colder and stuffier than most West Coasters would like. Have realistic anticipations about your location; remember that moving to an area far from home may require a complete new set of clothing.

2. Visit–An acceptance to a college means that the admissions board believes that you would be a great fit–or a wonderful addition–to their freshman class. However, you know yourself better than an admissions board. Even after getting your acceptances, take some time to visit the campuses. You may find that the pictures on the internet are glossed up, the virtual tour online only hits the high lights and strays away from the idea of the high crime rate around your prospective college. College visits illuminate aspects about a college that you may have never considered, or known about, prior to setting foot on campus. Often times, students have “the moment” once they step foot unto the quadrangle; they can see themselves playing ultimate frisbee on the quad or sipping Starbucks on campus. If you haven’t had “the moment” or have had many “moments,” the decision may be more than just a gut feeling.

3. Outside Advice–Nobody knows more about the college than students that have been there. Seek out students that have had the (insert college name) experience. Have them be brutally honest. It’s easy for an alumni or a current student to say, “I love absolutely everything about Princeton,” but it is more beneficial to hear the drawbacks of the school. “Princeton is in sort of a small town, but the strong community makes up for it.” Those comments can add depth to your prospective of your potential colleges.

4. Rankings/Prestige–While this shouldn’t be the case, many find themselves deciding upon college on the basis of rankings and prestige. Rankings, however, do have a benefit. They give an unbiased comparison of the colleges of your choice. If you’re deciding between Ohio State University and Miami, and you’re enamored by both, a gap in rankings could be the deciding factor.

5. Likes/Dislikes–Even before you start the college search process, you should have a list of qualities of what you’re looking for in college. Here’s my list, as an example (creative writing program–minor, strong biology/biochemistry program–major, close hospital–volunteer work, urban environment, safety–police force on campus, guaranteed dorm rooms, New England location, intellectualism at its greatest). After visits and time have passed between applications and the reception of acceptances, your likes and dislikes may have changed. Personally, my location ideas have expanded while everything else has remained pretty much the same. Make sure the college you attend fulfills at least the most important of your likes. You shouldn’t have to compromise for college; it’s your playing field. Choose the college that will make you happy, and your family proud (which will happen regardless of your decision).

6. Traditions–Special characteristics can make the college decision easier. Look into the traditions of your prospective colleges. These traditions are what you will remember four years later once you are finished with college are ready to enter the work force or graduate school. Schools with traditions, such as an over-the-top Homecoming, or the Wellesley hoop rolling games that parallel feminism, or the University of Chicago campus-wide Scavenger Hunt that are clear signs of a strong community spirit.

7. Athletics–If you’re a fan or an athlete, athletics play a part in the college decision. As a fan, do you care if you college has never won a football game (or any game for that matter), or do you simply just want to watch and eat popcorn? Or as an athlete, do you want to play varsity or simply a club sport? If you are a mediocre player, a Division III college may be the right choice for you–you have a better chance of more playing time. If not, Division I colleges may be the way to go. You have to decide how much you see athletics to play a part in your college experience, or if other extra-curriculars will play a stronger role.

8. Clubs and Greek Life–College is not simply all work and no play. Make sure the college you hope to attend has the clubs/extracurriculars that you want to start in college or continue from high school. If the Greek scene isn’t what you’re looking for, don’t choose a college that is predominantly Greek or pushes the Greek scene heavily. In most cases, you can hang out with the frats and sorority parties without having to rush.

9. Religion–This is definitely another important factor as well. I’ve attended private Christian schools my entire life. However, I am heading toward a college that is not necessarily affiliated with a specific religion (on the basis of hoping to see a grand variety of individuals). However, if you want your college to be an extension of your faith, a religious college may be the right choice for you. And if you are hoping for something different or are simply not religious, I don’t suggest going that route–although it could all work out in the end.

10. Finances–Money! Money can be the biggest problem. If you like two colleges equally, a higher scholarship from one college can make the decision for you. However, if you do obtain a scholarship, you can use it to “barter” at another college; so never feel as if money is keeping you from your dream school. File the FASFA if you have financial problems and use scholarship searches (fastweb.comzinch.com,scholarshipexperts.com) in order to find a myriad of scholarships that may suit your unique characteristics (vegetarian and left-handed scholarships are definitely around; unfortunately, I don’t quality for either).

11. Research–Do research on your potential colleges to learn more. Maybe you’ll find that the student population is socially awkward, and you don’t want to be around that. Or maybe you’ll find that the students are almost always stressed out or tense, you may not want that either.  Are classes generally small? Taught by a TA? Do you ever get to meet your teachers on a personal level? A college’s atmosphere is an important factor in the decision process.

12. Programs/Majors–Programs that your college has to offer can make all the difference. You may want a college with a more undergraduate focus, so that you can delve into the world of scientific research your freshman year. Or you may be looking into study abroad programs (some colleges offer more programs than others), this can be a deal-breaker in itself. If you have an inkling of an idea what you would like to major in, the availability of your major can also factor into your college decision. Also, the strength of the major/concentration/program (and this refers back to rankings) can help you decide which college to attend.

And that brings us to the next segment: how to decide on a major.

DECIDING ON A MAJOR

  1. Strengths and weaknesses–Consider your strengths and weaknesses as you consider your major. If you aren’t a strong writer, veer away from the English and Creative Writing programs as if they had the plague. If science is boring, don’t major in biology, or chemistry, or physics, or biochemistry, or even environmental science. You don’t want to major in a concentration that you don’t really grasp (that would only be stressful and would bring down your GPA, by a lot. You wouldn’t want to lose scholarships or lower your chances for graduate school). Choose a major in an area you are passionate about. You have to be interested in order to study and do well.
  2. Future plans–Do you want to be an English teacher? Major in English. Would you like to be a doctor? You could take the traditional route–a major in biology, chemistry, or biochemistry. However, practically of the major does not necessarily limit you. Major in what you enjoy. If you are heading to grad school, you don’t need to choose a major to please the graduate school admissions board. Simply fulfill the pre-law/pre-med requirements. However, choosing a major that is not “directed” toward your future plans can add unto your course load and make your four years extremely busy.
  3. Major requirements–Different majors require a different number of classes, and different classes at that. Four years go by quickly, and if you choose to major in biochemistry, you may have to take 16 or so classes (in addition to the general education requirements of your college). Some majors are more time consuming than others: consider this as you decide what major to stick with for the rest of your college experiences.

While the college decision may be approaching quickly, you don’t have to decide your major once you step into the grand halls of your future alma mater. On the contrary, you have months, or even until your sophomore year at some universities, in order to work out the kinks. You’ll figure it out, so don’t worry too much about the small details. I know exactly what you’re going through–decisions are tough. I’m narrowed my current acceptances to a decision between MIT, the University of Chicago, Georgetown while dreading the last set of (hopefully) acceptance letters to arrive in April that will only complicate the decision I have at hand. I’ve plotted my own pros and cons charts that are just starting to do a lot of good. Don’t fret, my fellow seniors, we will get through this. Good luck, future class of 2014.

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