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Is the College Major You Go In With, the Major You Go Out With?

Remember that the college major or concentration you think you want as a freshman may very well not be the one you graduate with. Be open to trying a number of different fields in your first two years. Most students do not proclaim a major until the end of sophomore year—how wonderful that you get two years to study any combination of courses your heart desires! Maybe you’d like to explore literature and computer science, or politics and environmental science, or public policy and Near Eastern languages. The first two years are yours for an interdisciplinary intellectual journey.

Therefore, please do not choose a university based on the one field you think you’ll be pursuing right now. If you are “almost certain” that you want computer science, but you have interests in business and public policy, do not choose the school that has an amazing computer science program, but no courses to speak of in business or policy. You never know…what if you change gears sophomore year? You’ll be very sad about not having a business department or policy task forces and research seminars to choose from so that you can follow your newly engaged interests.

Anecdote: A student of mine–let’s call him Theo—was absolutely sure he wanted to be a concert pianist. Theo had been studying at conservatory and winning awards for his performances all during high school, but he was also a very bright academic student. I explained to Theo that college is a time when many complicated decisions are made. Perhaps he might fare better in a dual program that presented the opportunity for academic and conservatory-level music instruction. It’s important for bright students to be at schools that feed them intellectually in a number of areas, offer a wide and well-regarded series of majors, and additionally provide renowned conservatory-caliber instructors (if they are music majors) either on campus or within a short commute. Students can find such arrangements at programs like: Tufts or Harvard and New England Conservatory of Music; Barnard and Manhattan School of Music; Columbia and Juilliard, Case Western Reserve and Cleveland Institute of Music; Johns Hopkins and Peabody Conservatory; Yale; Northwestern; Oberlin; U Penn and Curtis—but only if you have been accepted by Curtis; Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University; Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, to name a few.

Well, Theo chose to attend a music conservatory. Now, there are situations that make this the absolutely right decision—but they are the exception, not the rule. Sure enough, Theo decided by sophomore year that while concertizing was still dear to his heart, he could have greater global impact if he chose to develop an international music education nonprofit. In such work, he could use his talent in outreach, program development, and piano performance to help an underserved global arts community. Theo made a beautiful decision, but now he wanted to study business and entrepreneurship along with his music, and he couldn’t do that at conservatory. Before he knew it, Theo was filling out application forms for transfer to a nearby NYC university that offered business, nonprofit, and entrepreneurship programs for undergraduates. Stressful!

Moral of the story: decide your top three interests and then choose the college that has dynamite programs in all three—giving you more balanced career options. If you’re an artist, be smart enough to place yourself in a university setting that has access to a vibrant arts scene and high caliber music teachers; or, at least, look for an urban setting in which many renowned arts professionals in your field reside. Working off campus with a well-regarded, award-winning professional artist or performer can be as validating and important to your future as studying your instrument in a conservatory. Of course, performing artists should never place themselves at a college with no arts program! Performers need stages on which to perform! However, if you still want to attend conservatory after graduation, there are many waiting to take you the rest of the way. Just something to think about.

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