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Study What You Enjoy, Build Skills Instead : ApplyingToCollege


I recently posted on another thread and a very kind commenter (thanks /u/chanoanderson!) suggested that I make a full post about the subject of choosing a major. Considering that I’ve gotten more comment karma off that one rant alone than many of my previous posts, I figured it could be worth a shot.

Why Listen to Me

I’ve helped dozens of students apply to universities overseas, and with a handful of exceptions, you have to declare a field of study as a part of your application. Therefore, knowing what to study is crucial. I’ve got years of experience helping even the most indecisive figure out what they want to do. Additionally, as a part of my day job of advising companies about how to best do business in very specific parts of the world, I’ve had a lot of candid conversations about what employers actually want. Why do they talk to me about it? Probably because they look on LinkedIn and see that I do this as well as the other, and they’re always happy to talk about their university days. Regardless, this advice comes from some of the top finance, consulting, and multinational companies around the world. I’m not claiming to be this guy when it comes to understanding what moves the wealthy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few CEOs in my Contacts. Or the past four years of sporadic posts (what can I say, I like email more than Reddit) has been a fraud for fake internet points. Stranger things have happened.

The Key to It All

If you want to read a tl;dr right now, take this one piece of advice with you: major in something difficult that you love. If we go back to the entire point of education, the idea is to teach you how to think. Being able to understand ‘why’ is crucial, and ‘how’ is right behind it. Any good major will give you the tools to be able to think critically.
For a scientist, it’s being able to understand how shifts in temperature may impact how rock formations form that ultimately lead to where oil or gas deposits may exist. For a historian, it may be seeing how the consolidation of China in the East led to the Great Migration that endangered the Romans in the West. In a world where conclusions are drawn by most faster than you can tap ‘like,’ that’s a rare talent. Of course, thinking critically involves being able to use both words and numbers to make your point, as well as being able to draw on the latest tools to do the job, and be able to sound like they know what they’re doing when they are in front of someone that they are selling something to. We’ll come back to that sales idea in a minute, but for now, let’s look at words and numbers and how it can relate to our choice of major.
While a noted douchecanoe in later life, James Watson was part of the team that published on the structure of DNA. Read the article. It’s less than two pages, but it is beautiful in that it set out to explain something clearly. If you did pretty good in AP Bio and Chem, you’ll be able to get the gist. That ability to write something clearly and plainly is a real talent, and, frankly, something STEM programs need to focus on more. Now consider Florence Nightingale, who was in many ways the mother of modern nursing. She figured out that preventable deaths were killing more people than actual battle in the Crimean War, so she drew on a way to artistically represent that data in such a way would speak to the masses in London. Despite it being very numeric, she created one of the world’s first infographics to attempt to sell the British people on the need for more nursing support. It worked brilliantly.
My point in this is that a balance is best. We’ll talk more about it soon, but being able to communicate those really advanced ideas and make them accessible is THE skill that employers (and investors) want in the next fifty years. One other thing. A truth I learned too late in life is that everything is, at some point or another, about sales. After all, you have to convince someone of the value of your work, whether it is a used car or an interview at a government agency. Shoot, even dating is sales, and in the interests of keeping this PG, that’s all I’m going to say on that subject. To a great degree, charm matters. Study something that makes your face light up when you talk about it. If nothing does that yet, keep looking. Now let’s dig in a bit deeper.

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STEM Vs. Humanities

There is the false idea that you have to choose one or the other between STEM and humanities, and nothing could be further from the truth. Even for my clients who have to choose one or the other, we find a way to make sure that they are increasing their skills in the other, be it through clubs, personal interests, or any other method.
As I mentioned earlier, the ability to combine the humanities with STEM findings is crucial As someone in STEM, it is not enough to do research or figure out the solution to a problem. Instead, you’ve got to show that it is useful knowledge and be able to communicate that to others. Watson and Crick would not be remembered today had they not written their conclusions so succinctly (and I bet there may well be a war in the comments about if they deserve to be remembered at all, and that’s fair). Nightingale would have been another nurse had she not created such a stunning way to explain her observations. As someone in STEM, you must be able to write clearly and present data in a memorable, easy to digest way. Lest you humanities people start thinking that I’ve forgotten you, don’t worry, I haven’t. You absolutely need to know how to leverage technology in order to explain and enhance your work. And technology is changing the humanities in a rapid way. Thirty years ago, the idea that academic journals could be accessed from your phone was unimaginable; now you can search JSTOR from most college libraries’ websites.
It’s not just technology, however. An understanding of science and math are helping us to better understand previous cultures; we finally figured out that the beer that the Egyptians drank when building the Pyramids had some pretty powerful antibacterial compounds floating around it. Classical Indian archaeological sites make sense when viewed as mathematical apparatuses. Big Data even helped us figure out that Shakespeare co-authored some of his most famous works. Simply put, you’ve got to have skills from both.

Developing Skills

But what are those skills? We’ve already alluded to critical thinking, which is by far the most important. There are others worth mentioning.

  • Writing Ability – If you can write clearly and succinctly, you’re going to do well.

  • Oral Presentation – While things may have moved to Zoom, the ability to confidently speak in front of people matters.

  • Numerical Analysis – A growing number of jobs requires advanced math skills. However, much of that is applied. Understand statistics. Even if you don’t know how to do it, understand what calculus is. Be able to read graphs.

  • Relevant STEM Skills – I worked at a charity with a guy who built proprietary programs in C to help manage the non-profit’s clients. When he left, no one could maintain the programs, because finding someone who knew C and was willing to work for a rural non-profit was hopeless. He wrote in C because he felt that since he knew C and it was difficult, it was the best solution for all involved. It wasn’t. Had he written them in JavaScript or Python (or, let’s be honest here, even provided a solution in Access or Excel), it would have been much better for everyone.

  • Global Knowledge – This one is the sleeper, but it is only going to become more important. For most people, exposure to those with a different cultural background is a guarantee on a daily basis. Understanding the world matters, and even if you go full STEM and want to major in CS (which, if that’s your thing, go for it!), you will be working with people from a different background. Learn about their culture.
    If you’re in the humanities, then you should absolutely learn a foreign language. Consider that the humanities version of learning to code. Spanish and French are easy for English speakers, and spoken across more countries than any language save English. Even learning Esperanto means that you’ve thought critically about how language communicates and have the ability to speak to a (very small) population.

  • Basic Science Literacy – This isn’t so much a job thing as it is a get your head out of the sand thing. The world isn’t flat, but it is getting really hot. Also, drinking bleach doesn’t kill Covid-19, but washing your hands and wearing a mask will help slow it down substantially.

  • Job Specific Skills – Of course, if you know what you want to do, learn the skills to do that. Accountants need so many hours of training in accounting. Teachers should be certified. If there’s a definite career you want to pursue, focus on it.

STEM Example

One of my best friends happens to be a well-known physician. He’s no Sanjay Gupta, but he’s been interviewed on network news enough for his mother to no longer post it on Facebook every time it happens. Here’s how he did that. He majored in biology, but minored in history, because he knew he wanted to prove that he could write. Also, because of AP classes, it only took him three courses in college. He had learned French passably well in high school, but kept it up while traveling abroad. Since then, he’s added enough Spanish to be able to say ‘don’t eat that.’ He sought out opportunities to work on his presentation skills, ending up as an officer in our fraternity, which meant that he had to speak in front of less than interested crowds frequently; apparently it’s great prep for medical conferences. By the end of undergrad, he had offers from plenty of top med schools, and had been recruited to be Deputy Chief Science Officer at a healthcare startup.

Humanities Example

The humanities side is a bit trickier, so I’ll use my buddy who studied Classical Studies. He found a loophole so he only had to take a year of Latin, but then kept up with Spanish, continuing his studies in the latter from high school. As a Classics major, he was writing a lot of the time, and having to give presentations on what he was writing about. Meanwhile, like I mentioned in the original post, he hated pre-calc, so he took a stats class instead, and learned to write HTML/CSS because he wanted to maintain our fraternity website. And he definitely took advantage of opportunities to travel. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s one of the most successful guys I know.

Majors to Avoid

Major in something hard that you love. If that happens with CS, then great! Take a loop, array, and fourspace/tab into happiness! If it happens to be anthropology or economics or even sociology, awesome! Get your hands dirty with bones, butter and guns, or (messiest of all) relationships! Just make sure it is something that is going to build analytical skills.
A big issue no one wants to point out is that there are more majors available at lower-tier schools than there are at elite universities. Oxford has ~35 different undergraduate degree choices, not including combinations, and they don’t offer undergraduate business administration degrees (though management is offered as a combination with economics – that said, most Oxford grads who want to go into making enormous amounts of money study PPE, because it teaches them out to think.) Likewise, while you can study economics or applied math at Harvard College, you can’t concentrate in business. Even Wharton, perhaps the most famous undergrad business program in the US, still focuses on building these same skills. You’re just going to build them on your own. Compare that to all these places offering degrees in communications, healthcare management, or the like. Those are siloing you into a particular field, which if you know you want to be in that field, that’s great. However, there’s a reason that the internet is full of memes about communications majors. It’s not that it’s impossible to jump into a different career with those fields, but you’ll end up having to talk up your transferable skills, which with this advice, you’ve been doing since day one anyway. Finally, a cautionary tale. If you still want to be a STEM major for the money, make sure that you’re ready. A lot (by no means all) programs want to weed out those who can’t hang. Not every Intro to CS class is as masterfully taught as CS50 at Harvard. Organic chemistry can be traumatizing. If you want to challenge yourself, that’s great, just be sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Through all this, there is one other factor that matters, and that’s you. For each example I gave above, there’s someone else who didn’t go out and get what they wanted. They didn’t network, they didn’t hustle, they expected everything to be handed to them on a silver plate. That won’t cut it. College majors, as with all things, give you back what you put into them.

Edit: Formatting on bullet points.

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