How to Make the Most of It

“You know that ‘What are you going to do with that degree’ question that your peers and family keep asking? Your mentor, mercifully, won’t ask.”

By August Wright, College of Charleston

At some point, if you’re majoring in the humanities, you’ll be approached by a concerned family member or friend who will ask, “What are you going to do with that degree?”

Don’t panic.

It’s a valid question that every undergrad should consider when choosing their degree. When I was a college freshman, I immediately chose to major in chemistry for two reasons. First, I thought that if I didn’t major in math, science or technology, I would never obtain all the luxuries of post-college adulthood: a job, a salary, and a place to live.

Second, I had initially told my parents that I was thinking of majoring in English, which prompted them to ask how long I’d be living with them after I graduated from school. At eighteen, the thought of having to live with my parents in my 20s made me a little nauseous, so I chose to major in chemistry—despite having to take college-level algebra twice and then promptly failing calculus (numbers are hard).

I didn’t choose my first major until I was a junior and I didn’t take on my other two majors until I was a senior (I am now a super, super, super senior). My attempt to major in a field that required more math skills more complex than counting set my estimated graduation date back and my G.P.A. suffered. I also realized that I didn’t like chemistry and that I had absolutely no back-up plan. I was lost and panicking, but not unlike other young college students.

My advice to anyone going through this is simple: don’t panic, find a mentor, take your time and make the most out of your undergrad experience.

Find a Good Advisor/Professor and Use Them

My biggest mistake as a freshman was ignoring the team of freshman advisors that were at my disposal and willing to help. A good advisor (or professor) can assist you in choosing a major. When I dropped my chemistry major and chose to pursue multiple degrees, I went to a professor I trusted and I asked her for help.

Graduation Advice from a Triple MajorBecause I had had multiple classes with this professor and because I often visited her outside of class, she knew what I was good at and what I wasn’t. It was eventually this professor that recommended I major in international studies. The next year, this same sort of situation happened with another teacher and so I ended up adding the classics major to my international studies major.

If you’re a freshman or sophomore and haven’t yet formed any close relationships with your professors, don’t panic. Most schools have first-year advisors that are there to assist you. I resisted these advisors because I thought I had everything figured out. I also thought that needing a mentor meant that I was helpless in some way (spoiler alert: there is no shame in seeking a mentor).

My advice is to find at least one professor or advisor with whom you’re comfortable going to for help. Having a mentor is incredibly helpful for those struggling with degree decisions, mainly because the mentor acts as an impartial third party. You know that “What are you going to do with that degree” question that your peers and family keep asking? Your mentor, mercifully, won’t ask.

College Isn’t a Footrace

My sister graduated in five years with a degree in accounting. For the next two years, she lived with my parents and struggled to find work since she had no on-the-job accounting experience. Even now, my sister doesn’t spend her time crunching numbers for people—she teaches English overseas (probably because numbers are hard).

Don’t rush. Take your time. My sister graduated and then spent two years oscillating between work and unemployment when she could’ve been taking classes or interning. Sure, she saved two years’ worth of tuition, but the end result was her having to find a job out of the country. School is expensive and your financial aid will run dry if you stay too long (you do have a lifetime limit on federal aid. I know because I’ve reached it), but college is the only point in your life where you’ll have the opportunity to try out as many new things as possible without judgment.

Life Lessons from "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”

It’s the only point in your life where you can enroll in, say, Sailing 101, and spend 3 hours on a beach twice a week for a grade. Maybe it’s cool to brag about how quickly you finished school, but college isn’t a footrace and there’s no award for being the quickest to graduate. My advice: commit to taking one course in which you’re genuinely interested (one “fun” class) each year or every semester—whatever your schedule will reasonably allow. That one “fun” class can really brighten up the semester, especially if it’s something like learning how to horseback ride or fencing (both courses, plus the sailing class, are occasionally offered at my school).

When I declared English as my final major, it was only after I enrolled in a creative writing course (my “fun” class). I loved the class and the teacher so much that I met with him to talk about the major after the first few weeks of school. I told him that I wanted to major in English, but I was worried about my timetable for graduation. This professor—probably my most thorough mentor—discovered that, since so many of the required courses overlapped, I could take one class and have it count toward all three majors.

If I hadn’t resolved to take one “fun” class, I probably never would have declared a major in English.

Try to fit in that one class you’re genuinely interested in, even if it means pushing your graduation date back by a semester or a year. If you find that that novice acting class you took inspired you to pursue an acting career—or at least piqued your interest in theater as a hobby—your time and money will have been well spent.

 Do Your Research, but Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Favors

 Pursue as many undergraduate degrees as you want, because once you graduate with one bachelor’s degree, financial aid is harder to get. Grab a course catalogue, speak to an advisor (or several) and do your research. E-mail department heads with your questions about the major, your concerns, future job opportunities and so on. Most of the time, these professors will appreciate your interest and tenacity, and they will be more than willing to assist you.

If you’re a student in need of a mentor, this research phase is a great time to see who would make a suitable guru. However, don’t make these professors do all the work for you. Departments usually have their own website or page where they list all the requirements for the degrees they offer.

For single majors who are thinking about becoming dual or triple majors, compare the required courses for your degrees using these webpages. My advice is to check your university’s policy on whether or not one class can count for multiple majors. Next, figure out all the classes you’ll have to take before you can graduate (Excel is good for this). At this point, you’ll probably notice that you have some similar classes. One degree might require, say, a course on Greek philosophy while the other degree might require reading Plato in translation.

If you find that the first class just won’t fit in your schedule, ask the department head if the Plato course would be an acceptable replacement for the Greek philosophy class. As a dual or triple major who is undoubtedly pressed for time, has no money and works full-time, most department heads will be amenable to accepting classes that are similar, so don’t be afraid to ask for favors (or shamelessly guilt your mentors into assisting you).

When I tell people I’m a triple major, a lot of them think I spend all of my time doing homework and patting myself on the back for pursuing so many degrees. But the truth is that I was only able to pursue multiple degrees because I had a great network of professors who held my hand when I needed it. If you’re struggling with your degree decision or you’re undeclared, consider pursuing multiple degrees. Seek out mentors. Ask for favors. Make the most of your college experience because you’ll only be an undergrad once.