[Note: I wrote this piece two years ago during the application season. The prompt for this scholarship essay, as I remember it, was something like, “some college students have trouble deciding on a major – write an essay to give them some advice on how to choose a major.” My previous post mentioned how I would be an econ/math major again if given a second chance, and that reminded me of this useless essay that I wrote two years ago.]
Conventional wisdom tells you that you can use any one or a combination of the following to help you decide on a college major: explore the subjects, talk to advisors, follow your true passion, or simply sit and wait. But if after you have read about the subjects and consulted with advisors, you still haven’t found your true passion and don’t want to sit and wait, the question of “how to choose” is then reduced to the practical and pressing question – “what to choose.”
Once upon a time, students didn’t have to declare a major in college. Gone are the good old days when everyone was automatically a philosophy and mathematics double-major at Plato’s Academy. Today, although choosing from the plethora of academic majors that emerged some two thousand years after Plato’s time may appear to be a daunting task, the solution remains simple: If you can’t make up your mind just yet, you can still double-major in philosophy and mathematics.
The greatest benefit of this strategy lies in the fact that you have effectively postponed your big decision to a later time, not as a passive move, but in a proactive way. Career inspirations are, in some way, like wisdom teeth: Unless you belong to the small percentage of population that are born without them, you know they lay dormant inside you and may erupt at random stages of your life: in high school, in college or even long after you graduate from college – you just don’t know when and have little control over them. If yours do not emerge by the time you need to declare a major, you can’t do much better than picking philosophy and mathematics. Philosophy teaches one how to think critically and is widely considered “the ultimate transferable skill”, whereas mathematics forms the basis for most natural sciences, and increasingly, plays a crucial role in many social sciences as well. Learn these two subjects well, and you are set for the big challenges ahead. Chances are, when your true career inspiration is awakened, the analytical thinking and quantitative skills you have acquired through the study of philosophy and mathematics are immediately applicable to your new career-specific training.
Setting career planning and strategic thinking aside, there is a strong probability that you will actually enjoy studying philosophy and mathematics. You may argue that you hated them in high school and have never been a great performer in either, but that is likely due to the fact that high school curricula rarely offer an in-depth treatment on either subject. Take mathematics for example: once the beauty and simplicity behind upper-level calculus and differential equations are revealed, other math courses then naturally become a cruise in the breeze, sometimes even irresistibly attractive. After all, if Plato and Socrates were to be believed, you never need to “learn” mathematics and philosophy – you merely “recollect” what your soul knew all along but you forgot at birth. In that sense, mathematics and philosophy are not at all boring or difficult, as anyone can rediscover the lost interest and reclaim their forgotten knowledge if properly taught. My personal experience as a math challenged turned math major seems to be consistent with this theory.
Bottom line: if you are having a hard time choosing majors, declare a double major in philosophy and mathematics, like everyone did back in the glorious days of Plato. At the very least, people will look at you somewhat differently at your next Greek party.