No, You Do Not Need to Know Your Major: What I wish I Knew as a Freshman

At 17 years old, I decided I knew exactly what I wanted to study: neuroscience. When I applied  to Penn, I checked off the Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) major with confidence and ease. I wrote my “Why Penn?” essay about the similarities between the brain’s neural networks and college campuses. I signed up for Intro to Cognitive Science, and quickly realized I was neither fit for a career in neuroscience nor interested in BBB. I had missed out on taking a freshman seminar, instead fulfilling basic requirements for a major I ultimately was not going to pursue. 

Though my interest in science and medicine hadn’t faltered, I recall feeling lost during  my first semester. My friends in Wharton were taking classes that sounded logical and practical to me; and though my engineering friends were drowning in work, they too seemed to have a purpose and direction. In a pre-professional school, I felt like I was the only freshman who had already failed her four year plan. Moreover, I felt like being undecided wasn’t an option; in my mind, being undecided was equivalent to being a failure. Though my advisor told me to branch out and try classes in a variety of departments, I didn’t listen. A few of my friends also agreed that we should disregard our advisor’s words and just register for classes that pertained to our majors. 

In the spring semester of my freshman year, I realized that though BBB was not my calling, I had always excelled at biology. Confident that I would find my place as a biology major,  I enrolled in bio-specific classes. I completed a few general requirements and loaded my sophomore fall schedule with chemistry and biology courses. If you can’t already tell where this is going, biology didn’t work out either. Sure, I did well in Bio 121, but I also received a lovely 34% on my first chem exam. I felt that even if I had studied an infinite amount of hours, I wouldn’t have done any better. My grades ended up being fine, but biology wasn’t giving me the sense of purpose I thought it would. All my life, I had assumed that science was my thing. In low spirits, I made an appointment with my advisor. 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different  results — that was exactly what was happening in my case. I jumped from one science major to the next and called my parents to declare my newfound love for biology, even though my heart and mind were telling me that I didn’t want to continue down that path. When my advisor saw me the November of my sophomore year, he said two words that I will never forget: “Slow down.” 

I was progressing quickly through my foundational and sector requirements, but I had expended so much energy worrying about my “purpose” at Penn that I never thought to see the benefit in being undecided. Upon recognizing that I was on a made-up timeline that I didn’t need to  follow, I saw that I had foolishly created a stressful situation I could have avoided. It was then that I regretted not taking a freshman seminar or really any class for a reason other than fulfilling a requirement.

During my sophomore spring, I decided to enroll in anthropology, psychology, and history classes to fulfill college requirements. I enrolled in these courses because I was curious about them, not because my four year plan dictated it. My departure from the sciences ended up being the best decision for me. I thought I knew my strengths as a freshman. I had never considered that I should allow time to get to know my true abilities or that I could be involved in medicine without being a science major. My grades soared, my happiness soared, and my friends noticed that I was generally less stressed. 

My determined quest to specialize so early on in my college experience meant I had to enroll in a summer session to get back on track since I was somewhat behind compared to my peers. Through my experiences in different classes during my sophomore spring and the summer after, I was able to couple my science background with my skills in the humanities (something I forgot I even loved or excelled at). I stumbled upon the Medical Anthropology and Global Health major and officially declared this past September. 

While you might think you have it all figured out, I warn you: so did I. It’s true that I learned a lot about myself these past two years by persevering despite a difficult course-load. With that said, I also know that if I had come to Penn with an open mind about my major, I would have reduced my baseline stress level, and I might have found Medical Anthropology sooner.

There is nothing wrong with waiting to declare your major; in fact, I suggest it. As  seniors in high school, we often make decisions based on what we think we know about ourselves; but, there is no guarantee that we actually know where our true interests lie. I now know what it means to actually enjoy the courses I take. I look forward to my lectures and seminars and feel like I will become an expert in my field. I guarantee you can do the same if you allow yourself the time to find the right path for you.