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What Should I Go to College For?

feature_whatshouldIgotocollegeforApplying to colleges is a rough enough process on its own. If you're interested in a lot of different subjects that don't necessarily mesh nicely together into one major, then figuring out what you should go to school for can seem like an impassable obstacle on the road to figuring out where to apply to.

In this article, I'll take you through the same steps I (someone with multiple different interests) took back when I was looking at colleges to figure out what I should go to college for.

I'll also go through how, as a well-rounded student, you can narrow down what kinds of schools you should apply to.


The Dilemma of the Curious and Well-Rounded Student

In his article on how to get into Harvard and the Ivy League, PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng talks about developing a "spike" to make you attractive to highly selective national universities.

The idea of developing a spike makes sense for students who are both dedicated to being the best at one thing in particular and who are interested in applying to the Ivy League and similarly selective universities. If attending somewhere like Stanford or Columbia is your goal, you want to have one area that you really stand out in, rather than being well-rounded.


For students who have grown up being told that being a well-rounded student is important, the fact that you probably won't get into a top national university by being good at everything can feel like the deepest betrayal.

Now, I didn't know any of this information about not being well-rounded or having a "spike" when I was applying to schools.

But even if I had known about this strategy, I doubt I would have opted for it, because it just didn't match who I was as a student. Rather than that picture of one ball with a spike rising out of it, I was more like a morningstar—lots of spikes going off into all different directions for all my different interests.


body_morningstarA morningstar, or my different interests? Impossible to tell apart!


If you're a well-rounded student not just because that's what you've been told you should strive for, but because you're genuinely interested in (and good at) multiple different subject areas, then figuring out where to apply for college can be tricky. It's hard to choose a school that's strong in the areas you're interested in if the most you can limit it down to is "probably not history?"

I know all of this because I was once a high school student who had so many interests that choosing a school that fit those interests (and figuring out what major to select on applications) seemed unlikely, if not impossible. Despite this, I was eventually able to narrow down my list to the eight schools I ended up applying to and ultimately ended up choosing a school at which I thrived.

In the next section, I'll go into more detail about my academic background and interests as a high school student and how that pulled me in different directions when it came to choosing where to apply to.


body_alldirectionsofinterestsThe different directions of my interests, but with Ludwigsburg tourist attractions instead of academic subjects.


My Academic Background and High School Interests

For high school, I attended a good public school in the New York suburbs. Most of the students from my school, then and now, go on to attend 4-year colleges immediately after high school.

Because I went to a high school where most students went to college and because my parents had both gone to college and expected their children to as well, I was encouraged to start thinking about where I'd want to attend college during eleventh grade.

Growing up where I did also meant I was familiar with at least the names of a lot of Northeastern U.S. colleges (if only because I'd driven by them), but I did not really have a sense of what schools were strong in which areas.

As a high school junior, I would likely have described myself as being extremely interested in the following college majors: creative writing, Chinese, music, neuroscience (or psychology), math, or something else I hadn't studied yet but might discover a passion for in college.

For me, a perennially curious student, the question was less "what should I go to college for" than "what should I base what colleges I apply to on." Figuring out the answer to the question "what should I go to school for?" was particularly difficult for me since none of my interests seemed to mesh together well, at least not on a surface level.

Being unsure of what you should go to college for is not an uncommon dilemma for well-rounded students. Based on my own experience, I think this is particularly true at public schools where if you qualify for an advanced class, even if it's not a subject you're particularly interested in, you take it because otherwise you'll be bored in the non-advanced version of that class.

Case in point for me: going into junior year, I wasn't super into U.S. History (to put it mildly), but since we had to take it in 11th grade either way, I knew that it would be better if I took AP U.S. History than regular U.S. History.


body_FDRmemorialThe far-off look of a man consumed by U.S. history. FDR Memorial by David/Flickr.


Over the course of my junior year, I thought more about what I was specifically drawn to within each of the subjects I was interested in. This deeper analysis, which I'll go into next, is ultimately what ended up helping me narrow down what schools I applied to needed to be strong in (and what intended major I should put on my applications).


How to Choose a College Major (While Still in High School)

During the summer between junior and senior year, in between avoiding thinking about colleges and trying to get my summer homework done, I took some time to think about how much I'd explored each of the subjects I was interested in so far and how much it should affect my college search.

Below, I've written out roughly what my thought process was for each subject. As you read through, you'll start to notice that even though I am interested in all five of the subjects, the degree to which I'm interested in each area (and want to make sure I can study each subject in college) varies quite a bit.


Creative Writing

How much have I already explored this?

  • I have been writing creatively almost as long as I have been able to read, in one form or another.
  • I spent the majority of five summers at a creative and performing arts camp working on and writing for camp publications (literary magazine, newspaper, yearbook, playwriting festival, etc); the last two summers (including the summer before senior year), I was a counselor-in-training and helped other campers with their writing.

How do I want to pursue this in college?

  • I would like to be able to take creative writing classes in college.
  • I don't necessarily plan to major in it, but it would be good if there was a minor (or a concentration within the English major)



How much have I already explored this?

  • I started taking Chinese (Mandarin) in 7th grade, have continued through now (and plan to next year).
  • I went to China sophomore year for two weeks with my Chinese class (which was an amazing experience).

How do I want to pursue this in college?

  • I definitely want to continue taking Chinese in college, which means any college I apply to has to have more than just introductory Chinese classes (since I'll likely place out of those).
  • Ideally, I'll be able to major in Chinese and study abroad in China for at least some of my time in college, if I so choose.



How much have I already explored this?

  • Since elementary school, I have taken lessons in and performed in ensembles for voice, violin, and viola, both in and out of school.
  • I also began composing and exploring some aspects of computer music in late middle school and have continued to do that through now (the summer before senior year).

How do I want to pursue this in college?

  • I want to learn more music theory, particularly for medieval and non-Western systems of music.
  • I probably will play in ensembles of some kind, maybe will pick up a new instrument, so it would be good if I could do that
  • I don't want music to be the only thing I study (so I don't want to apply to a conservatory), but the idea of attending a school that also has a conservatory where I can take classes (even if I don't major in it) is very attractive.


body_oberlinconservatory Well hello there yourself, Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Wallyford/Flickr.



How much have I already explored this?

  • I have been doing an independent research project for the past couple of years which has ultimately ended up focusing on the different ways brains of high school musicians and non-musicians interpret sound.
  • I enjoyed the process of reading all the research on music and the brain and neural processing in general; I've also quite enjoyed the research aspect so far.

How do I want to pursue this in college?

  • Any college I apply to definitely needs to have a neuroscience major or minor (preferably major).
  • I would like the opportunity to do original research as an undergraduate (rather than just running someone else's studies), but it's not a deal-breaker.



How much have I already explored this?

  • Since 7th grade, I've been in a two-years-advanced math class and have relished most of it; I will likely run out of math classes to take senior year because I already took BC Calc junior year.
  • I became interested in chaos theory and fractals after reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton in elementary school. I also read Chaos by James Gleick as part of figuring out what I'd study for my independent science research project (even though I didn't ultimately end up going with it).

How do I want to pursue this in college?

  • I  want to be able to take math and find what advanced mathematical areas appeal to me.
  • I definitely don't want to go to any kind of engineering or math-centric school, just want the option to take more math.


body_lovetolearnblackboardIf it wasn't for how legible the handwriting is, this is definitely something I could have written about math when I was in high school.



What Should I Go to College For? The Verdict

After sitting down and going through my main interests, I no longer felt quite so hopelessly well-rounded.

It was clear that while I was interested in studying lots of different kinds of things in college (probably a good sign for someone who wants to go to college), there were certain requirements that mattered more than others in figuring out what I should go to college for (and, as a consequence, what schools I should apply to).

Here are the distilled criteria I ended up using in my college search:

#1: The school must have creative writing classes (at least a creative writing minor or concentration).

#2: The school must have advanced Chinese (Mandarin) language classes.

#3: The school must have music theory classes and some way for non-music majors to take music classes and participate in ensembles.

#4: The school must have a neuroscience major or minor.

These four criteria were specific enough to help me figure out if schools were not a good fit for me, yet not so numerous that there were no schools that would match all four. I ultimately ended up applying to eight schools: Yale, Brown, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Vassar, Oberlin, NYU, and Brandeis.

And what about when it came time to choose a college major on applications? If a school allowed you to select multiple possible majors, I did that (usually selecting English/creative writing, neuroscience, Chinese, and music, in that order). If a school only allowed you to select one potential major, I went with "undecided."

Even though we have warned against choosing "undecided" as your major in other articles on the PrepScholar blog, being interested in many things is one case where choosing "undecided" makes sense, particularly if your many interests are demonstrated throughout the rest of your application. As long as it's clear that "Undecided" means "too many interests" and not "no interests," it's fine to choose it, even when applying to highly selective schools.




Since I mostly ended up applying to smaller liberal arts schools, the question of which program within the school to apply to didn't come up much, but when it did, I went broad.

For Oberlin, I applied to the College of Arts and Sciences, not the Conservatory of Music (after ascertaining through talking to the college that I could still do music things even if I wasn't at the conservatory).

For NYU, I applied to the College of Arts and Sciences as my primary choice and the Gallatin School of Individual Studies as my secondary choice—I knew that those were the two programs at NYU that would allow me to take the greatest variety of classes.

So how did this all turn out for me? I ended up attending Wellesley College (a small liberal arts school), where I managed to pursue all of the interests I'd had in mind (along with many more). Specifically, I...

  • Got 80% of the way to an English minor (including two creative writing classes)
  • Took five semesters of Chinese and studied abroad in Shanghai
  • Majored in music and got to play in various ensembles, learn the viola da gamba, and write lots of music
  • Majored in psychology and got to do two different research projects
  • Took two Math classes: one in multivariable calculus (meh) and number theory (so much fun!!)


body_fannedtheflamesThe Number Theory class I took fanned the flames of my enthusiasm for math (see image).


How Can You Figure Out What to Go to College For?

At this point, you've read through my journey from a well-rounded high school student with no idea how to narrow down her interests to a college applicant with clear criteria. How can my experiences help you, a well-rounded high school student with no idea of where to apply to, narrow down your areas of interest into criteria for schools?

One thing you may have noticed I mentioned a couple of times was that I was primarily looking at (private) liberal arts colleges.

Good liberal arts schools like Wellesley are strong in many different fields. They may not be as renowned for research in said field as Harvard or MIT, but they will expose you to a variety of different subjects through core requirements at a high level. Liberal arts schools, in fact, are the well-rounded students of colleges (if that makes sense).

A definite drawback to liberal arts schools is their size—most liberal arts colleges fall along the small-to-medium end of college size. If you're looking for a larger school, then liberal arts colleges might not be for you.

Similarly, most liberal arts colleges are private, so if you want to attend a public school, then this might not be a good option for you (although keep in mind that many top-tier liberal arts schools offer no-loan or low-loan financial aid).

If for whatever reason a liberal arts school doesn't sound like the right fit for you for college, don't worry—there are other options out there for well-rounded students.

Larger universities may have a wider variance in quality between different majors, but they also have way more majors than most liberal arts schools.

The best national universities are not just strong in one area, but also have multiple well-regarded departments. For instance, when I was applying to Yale, the East Asian Languages, English, and Music departments were all well-regarded in comparison to similar programs at other similar schools.

Make it your business to find out how a university stacks up in the areas you're interested in, not just overall reputation. And if they don't have a good program in the areas you're interested in, think hard before applying.

Finally, well-rounded students who want to attend large universities or schools with more than one undergraduate college should consider applying to schools that allow cross-registration between undergraduate colleges. That way, you'll have options even if you end up in a specialized program.

As an example of this, a friend of mine went to UMich for undergrad, intending to be a computer engineer. While he was there, however, he was able to cross-register in the music school and take music classes as well. He ultimately ended up switching over to become a music major and pursuing a career in that field.

As a well-rounded student with diverse interests, if you're looking at schools with many different undergraduate programs and don't like the idea of being bound to a narrow academic path, make sure you only look at schools that allow cross-registration across different programs.




In Conclusion

Being a well-rounded student applying to colleges can be stressful, not only because it makes it harder for you to get into highly selective national universities but because it's hard to answer for yourself, "what should I go to college for?"

My journey from a well-rounded high school student, interested in lots of different things, to a well-rounded college student, still interested in lots of different things, involved thinking deeply about what about my potential college majors interested me.

I ultimately ended up attending a liberal arts college because that seemed like the best fit for someone with such omnivorous interests. If you're more interested in applying to large universities, make sure you research before applying to find out what schools are strong in your areas of interest. You should also keep an eye out for schools that let you cross-register between specialized undergraduate programs.

There may still be some weeping along the way as you figure out what schools to apply to and what major(s) you want to look at schools for, but at least the tears won't be from frustration at not knowing where to start when it comes to narrowing down your options.


What's Next?

Want to learn more about the process of choosing a college major? We look at it both from the perspective of students choosing what major to put on their college applications and how to choose a college major more generally.

Knowing what you want to study is only one piece of the deciding-where-to-apply puzzle. Learn more about how to make a college list in this article.

How many schools should you plan on applying to? We help you figure out the right number of colleges for you to apply to in this guide.



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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.

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