My dad didn’t want me to transfer out of Stanford and accepted my decision not to be pre-med. But my parents’ disapproval weighed heavy on my shoulders. It was the beginning of sophomore year and I needed to declare a major. Even more, I needed to prove I knew what I was doing when in fact I did not.
Since I enjoyed traveling, I thought a degree in International Relations might prepare me up for a career in diplomacy. So I enrolled in Elementary Economics and International Politics, two entry-level courses for the major. Economics, I couldn’t understand. Even when given a 50% chance of answering correctly on tests (whether the demand would increase or decrease) I still couldn’t get it right. Afraid that I might fail, I chose the Pass/No Pass option for that class. My International Politics class also didn’t go well. I found a tutor to help me with my essays and I could barely understand the lecture or reading. I earned a B and had no idea what I had learned by the end of the quarter. I also took a class on Chinese history thinking I might pursue East Asian studies. I did well, but the course and professor were not inspiring. I continued to take Chinese. I finished my first quarter having made no progress toward a major. It seemed like a complete waste.
Winter quarter I took Economic Development of China, General Psychology, and Chinese.The Economic Development class spoke to my inner Peace Corps persona. But I soon found that I was way over my head. I did not have enough prior academic knowledge to understand the coursework, much less provide analysis. And I didn’t need a Ph.D in Development to do non-profit work in a rural part of China. Psychology was an excellent class. I enjoyed it. But even though I had received an A- I didn’t think I was smart enough for the field because I was not excelling in the course. It was difficult and I didn’t think I was tough enough. Psychology majors were required to do research and there were technical aspects to it. I soon realized Psychology was a rigorous discipline, not the touchy-feely subject I thought it was. Unbeknownst to myself, I had begun to lose confidence. I had also not realized then that Stanford’s Psychology department was one of the best in the world, and that of course it would not have been easy. (Read more about this below in the Author’s Reflections.)
Spring quarter I took Chinese, The Human Organism, and the Short Story. Having thus far failed at my attempts to find direction and a major, I thought I could work in the medical field in some non-clinical capacity. At least I could find a job. It sounded practical. The Human Organism was a core class for the Human Biology major, which was an interdisciplinary approach to studying biology. Since I had not been successful finding direction in my passions, I began to think practically. Surely a Human Biology major could lead to job in the stable medical field. I didn’t have to be a doctor. I could work in healthcare. I was completely lost, just needed to find a major, any major at this point. I studied furiously, attended every discussion group, went to office hours, got a tutor. I was determined to do well in the class. It was graded on a curve, which I thought was definitely in my favor until I discovered, to my horror, that the second worst score on my midterm was mine. I had never in my life done so poorly on an exam and somehow ended up with a B- in that class. My confidence was completely shot.
As for the Short Story course, I had chosen it to fulfill a requirement. I was never a fan of fiction. On the first day of class the Professor Packer read aloud a passage, possibly something by Chekov. As she expounded on the text and discussed the author’s crafting of character and theme, I sat riveted in my chair. I could actually understand what she was talking about. I was surprised. It resonated with me. We spoke the same language. Even so, I struggled through this class, had no opinions to share during discussions, had no experience writing papers about literature, and had to get another tutor. I earned a B in the class but was satisfied. After surprising encouragement from my dad that good writing was the basis for any career, I decided to major in English.
Looking at my college transcripts, I was surprised to discover that I had earned an A- in Psychology. All these years I thought I had done quite poorly in the class when in fact, I had done well. I had quit because I didn’t think I was smart enough. I didn’t think I was tough enough. Plus it was difficult. But unlike chemistry and biology, I did like the subject matter. It is unfortunate that I quit because I had a fixed mindset. According to Carol Dweck, people with a growth mindset believe that effort and practice can improve intelligence. Those with a fixed mindset believe that smartness is fixed, whether determined by genetics other limitations out of one’s control. Because Psychology was not easy for me, my fixed mindset told me that I would not be able to excel in the field. People with fixed mindsets fear failure, do not take risks, and quit easily at challenging tasks. (See Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.) I was also surprised that I deemed a B- in a class a failure.
I also think the “Little Fish I a Big Pond” phenomenon that Malcom Gladwell describes in his book David and Goliath may have been at play. One reason I dropped out of Psychology was because I lacked confidence that I could do well. This may not have been the case if I had attended a less competitive university. Gladwell makes the point that Ivy League schools are not always the best schools for talented students seeking careers in math and science. He writes that “the more elite and educational institution is, the worse students feel about their academic abilities. …How you feel about you abilities–your academic self-concept–in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks.” His research revealed that students at the lower third of the Harvard class drop out of math and science just as much as their counterparts do at Hartwick College, a far less prestigious college in upstate New York. This is surprising because one would think that because Harvard students have far higher SAT scores than Hartwick students, they are more academically prepared and would be less likely to quit their majors. But research showed that top Hartwick STEM majors are far more likely to pursue STEM careers than Harvard STEM majors who are in the lower third of their class. Less competitive schools may a better choice for top high school graduates interested in STEM. (For a more detailed discussion of the above findings read chapter three of David and Goliath.)
A friend who read this blog told me she was undeclared going into college but she was not stressed about it. Eventually she picked something that she enjoyed and she didn’t feel pressure to choose the right path and have her life planned out in college. College tuition at a public university was also less expensive than it is now, so she didn’t feel like she was wasting money by searching.So that is what it looks like to go through college without angst. It’s possible to search without feeling miserable and anxious doing so! She also commented that unless you are going to professional school, your college major doesn’t have to relate to your job anyway. And that most people work in jobs that they are not passionate about, but the important thing is that you can support yourself in whatever work you do. That is a great perspective.
Questions for Discussion: What is your experience with declaring a major? How did you go about doing so? Do you think students should have an idea of what they want to study before enrolling in college? Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset.
Questions for Parents: What type of college do you think is ideal for your son or daughter?
If paying for your child’s tuition, how long are you willing to pay for him or her to explore before declaring a major?
Questions for Teens: Are you currently a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond? Do you think you would think differently about how smart or successful you are if you were at a different school with a different set of classmates? Do you give up easily? Do you think you a smart? Do your grades define what you can or cannot do?
Author: Patricia Tina Wu
I'm a teacher educator, realtor, mom, and now also a blogger. I've worked in corporate sales and marketing and as an elementary school teacher. Settling into a career has always been difficult for me. I hope that my experiences will help career seekers, young people, and their parents navigate what is sometimes a confusing and difficult area of life. I'm not out of the desert yet, but things are finally starting to make more sense. View all posts by Patricia Tina Wu