When choosing major, pick one that you enjoy

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As a high school senior, I was pretty clueless about choosing a college major.

Because I never had a niche like my friends who were "English people" or "math people," I thought I could pick any major.

I figured as long as I studied something practical, I'd cruise into a successful career. I decided to pursue chemical engineering because such graduates have some of the highest starting salaries and I liked chemistry.

Unfortunately, halfway through my sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, I realized that I had made a big mistake.

After switching my major to political science, I've realized there's a ton of misconceptions being spread through high schools about college majors by everyone from guidance counselors to friends with older siblings. If I had known then what I know now as a senior, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

One thing I really wish I had known is, just because you like a subject in high school doesn't mean you should major in it in college. I had liked chemistry in high school, but later realized that perhaps having a great teacher and enthusiastic classmates had contributed to my perception of chemistry more than the subject matter had.

Because classes are so different in college, you should consider classes you may not have liked in high school as well -- you might be surprised.

I also wish I had known not to base my decision about a major on one or two introductory classes. The myth that taking introductory classes is the best way to choose a major is one of the biggest misconceptions about college majors.

While exploring my post-engineering options, I took an introductory-level communication class and hated it.

Later, I was told by friends majoring in communication that the intro classes are nothing like the middle- and upper-level classes and that I probably would have liked the major once I got through the initial requirements.

A better idea would have been talking to an adviser or upperclassman in that major, or sitting in on a few upper-level classes.

Something else I wish I had known is choosing a major doesn't have to mean giving up another major. Outside of engineering and business, it is surprisingly easy to double major, and it's even easier to tack a minor onto your major.

At the University of Pennsylvania, a degree in political science requires a total of 32 classes, 12 of which must be political science classes. That leaves room for 20 classes outside of political science that can be used to obtain a second major.

Because of my switch, I won't be able to complete a double major, but I am pursuing an English minor -- with just six classes.

I also wish I had known there is difference between choosing a major and choosing a career. It is completely possible to select a major and pursue a totally different career later. Knowing this can take a lot of pressure off.

I'm a political science major, but I'm looking forward to a career in journalism. A lot of successful people have gone on to careers unrelated to their majors

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was a chemistry major, and singer Art Garfunkel has a master's degree in mathematics, for example.

Another worry many students have is how their majors will affect their chances of gaining acceptance to graduate school.

Like many of my peers, I had believed that certain majors were more or less required for admission to certain graduate programs, until I met an economics major who was applying to medical school.

I learned that you really can't go wrong, as long as you fit the required classes into your schedule and take any required standardized tests.

The best decision I made the first time around was choosing a university where I would have a lot of options. This is the most critical advice I have for the undecided crowd.

In the back of my mind, I knew I was on the fence about engineering, which is why I chose Penn over universities that emphasized engineering more. If I had chosen a less flexible school, I might have had to transfer to a different university to major in political science. At Penn, I just had to take three summer classes.

The most important and over-arching lesson I've learned is to choose a major you enjoy. College-bound students should stop worrying about grad schools and careers and what everyone thinks of their majors because, in the end, people are much more likely to succeed if they love their majors.


Dana Vogel, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, majoring in political science and minoring in English. She can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com .


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