Major Problem: Selecting Your Academic Path

Preparing for college is overwhelming, and amidst the stressful hurricane of packing lists, visa applications, student forms, roommate selections and ...

Aug 30, 2014

Preparing for college is overwhelming, and amidst the stressful hurricane of packing lists, visa applications, student forms, roommate selections and more, it can be easy to forget one important aspect of your higher education: the education itself. As you wade through the paperwork and emails that will get you to your fall semester, your potential major may be the last thing on your mind. For those who are currently undecided majors, the thought of shaping a career path can be especially difficult.
Fortunately, freshman year is a time for academic exploration. Professors are understanding, classes are graded as pass or fail and final marks are not included in a cumulative GPA. Your first year offers you ample opportunity to choose classes that interest you or pique your curiosity. In fact, for undecided majors, staying open-minded is the key to finding courses and subjects that you may wish to pursue in the future.
“I think the worst decision I made my first semester was choosing and specializing in a major without giving myself the chance to explore first,” said senior Attilio Rigotti. “That’s my number one recommendation I guess. All students come in with incredibly different and crazy passions. Explore them! Take courses in all of them! Don’t just lock yourself in a major immediately! If you do choose a major, know that that’s flexible and leave it open for change.”
Whether it be an unexpected but interesting class or a professor who surprises you, you may find that the major you have in mind coming into freshman year is subject to change.
“I realized that I wanted to be a psychology major when I was enjoying my psychology classes much more than those that were required for my previous major,” said senior Layla Al Neyadi. “I recommend that students don’t rush themselves when it comes to choosing a major, and that they should let it come to them through exploring the options that they are interested in, and those that they have not been exposed to before.”
When beginning your year, use the Add/Drop phase to shop around. Sit in on classes and experiment with different subjects, teaching styles and classroom environments in order to find out what you most enjoy. For the 2014-2015 Academic year, the Add/Drop period ends Sept. 9 for 7-week courses, and Sept. 18 for 14-week courses. Keep these dates in mind as you start sketching your first semester schedule. The course load you picked at home on your computer may look completely different from the one eventually you end up with after the Add/Drop period at school.
When selecting your course load, ask for feedback from your peers on different professors, subjects and class syllabi. The Room of Requirement Facebook page has a helpful online document that consists of honest, straightforward feedback on different professors and their courses. Pop open the Files tab on the group page and select Course Reviews 2011/12 to read all about that Intermediate Arabic class you are interested in.
When choosing courses, it is important to strike a balance between fulfilling core requirements and dabbling in your interests. In order to graduate, a student at NYUAD must complete eight cores, five of which must be completed by the time you study abroad. While the core curricula — which ranges across several disciplines from science to literature to art — can be a good way to learn about a new topic, don’t choose a core just for the sake of completing its requirement or getting it out of the way. Often, cores can be unerringly specific, covering only one small niche in an entire discipline. You will find cores, for example, that focus only on the science of rhythm, the study of genetics or even just the human voice. Don’t take these courses unless you are truly interested in the subject because you can find the material to be very intensive and precise.
“I do not think [focusing on] the core curriculum is a good idea, because the difficulty and what you take away from them is highly dependent on the professor,” said senior Tamás Csillag. “You may run into a core class that is extremely challenging or one that does not offer you anything interesting. Check the professor who’s teaching it and make sure you don’t take something just to delay the time when you actually have to pick [a major] that you want to work with.”
You will also have the option of taking classes that do not fulfill core credit but fall into a requirement for your major. For example, if you are taking a class like Intro to Psychology, you will be able to count that credit towards a potential Psychology major. But that also means that if you end up deciding not to major in Psychology, the course credit will unfortunately not go towards anything and may have filled up elective space.
“I don’t believe in the ‘follow your heart’ approach to selecting majors,” said senior student Anthony Spalvieri-Kruse. “If you’re interested in maths or sciences, especially [computer science], coursework is vital, and entering your major late will put you at a clear disadvantage for future internships and job applications. That said, no amount of coursework will make up for a lack of passion in your field.”
That said, if you realize after freshman year that you wish to go into the sciences, you can finagle a way to do so — especially if you have the help of mentors and professors.
“I originally thought that I wanted to be an economics major when I first arrived, but because I took quite a few core and elective classes my freshman year… I was able to discover that what I actually liked doing most was science,” said senior Alex Larkin. “It takes a little bit of coordination, but switching into the sciences your sophomore year is not impossible, and you can still come out of it with a study abroad experience.”
Don’t let the thought of requirements and credits deter you from trying out a new course, but do remember that you only have so much time to finish a major’s requirements. Make sure to keep an eye on the NYUAD majors page to see what the different the course requirements look like, and keep those in the back of your mind. Some majors, such as history, only have one required course and seven required elective courses, while majors like economics will have seven plus four required electives. For the majors you are interested in, take a look at their sample course schedules and budget how much schedule space you have. Know that, according the NYUAD majors page, “Students must complete the requirements of a major, which vary. Students declare a major by the end of the second year, however, some majors have requirements beginning in the first year.”
If you have found a major that you may be interested in, talk to your professor or mentor and reach out to that department. Often times, the different academic departments at NYUAD will host events, like lunches and meet-and-greets, that invite students to learn about their majors while meeting with professors and fellow students from that field. These departments also send out mass emails to interested students. If you are even considering a major, make sure you get on an available email list in order to keep up with any potential policy changes regarding course requirements and prerequisites.
When it comes to double majoring, know that it can be difficult to balance two academic disciplines. In terms of your senior capstone, you must either incorporate both majors into your capstone project — or choose one major and then take two extra electives from the other. For example, if you are planning on double majoring in literature and film, you can revolve your senior capstone solely on literature, but then you must take two extra film courses.
Remember — there are mentors, professors and upperclassmen out there who love to help and offer advice. A face-to-face conversation can soothe anxiety and offer candid insight about building a major. Know that others have gone through the same difficult decision-making that you have, and don’t forget to enjoy your freshman year at the same time.
Zoe Hu is an editor at large. Email her at
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