Stocker: Why Northwestern students should pick a major early


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

“It’s OK to be undecided!” I heard that line over and over again during Wildcat Welcome and then throughout my freshman year. I was told repeatedly that it was OK to be uncertain and encouraged to explore a wide variety of different disciplines before deciding on my major. The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences website cheerily informs students, “In spite of how things may appear, the majority of students arrive at Northwestern uncertain about their major.” Weinberg students are not required to declare a major until the end of sophomore year, and changing majors is described as easy.

In June I will be graduating from NU with a bachelor’s degree in history and economics. I came to NU knowing I wanted to study history and economics. Rather than encountering encouragement and guidance in diving directly into my desired fields of study, I ran up against a wall of discouragement. Numerous voices told me to “take my time,” to “explore” and to hold off before delving directly into upper-level courses and major requirements.

After almost four years at NU, I can say without hesitation that NU students should pick their majors as early as possible or, if not, take courses that either satisfy distribution requirements or leave options open. Declaring a major early is both practical and efficient, enabling long-term planning for fulfilling major and distribution requirements in a timely fashion. Moreover, it creates flexibility by allowing students to front-load requirements to freshman and sophomore year, granting them the ability to drop classes during stressful periods later in their NU careers — such as during an internship or job hunt — and opening up options for early graduation, part-time enrollment, study abroad, participation in Chicago Field Studies or other alternatives.

Waiting to declare a major, on the other hand, is both reckless and costly. Waiting to declare increases the stakes of each course and each quarter. The history department, for example, requires a total of 12 courses within the department for successful completion of the major. Declaring a history major at the end of one’s sophomore year after taking, say, two history courses leaves a total of 10 courses needed for completion and only six quarters (assuming four-year graduation) to complete them. Similarly, declaring an economics major at the end of one’s sophomore year after taking, say, Introduction to Macroeconomics and Introduction to Microeconomics leaves 10 economics courses for completion in six quarters, including the often stressful 300-level core courses. The stakes mount with each passing quarter; opportunities to drop classes that are too difficult or just uninteresting vanish as the need to complete major requirements becomes more pressing. Study abroad becomes less and less feasible; locations where credits will not transfer are ruled out. Chicago Field Studies or enrolling part-time to work become near impossibilities.

Additionally, waiting to declare a major can be costly. Completing major and distribution requirements early allows for early graduation or part-time enrollment, reducing the cost of attending NU.

I am a strong believer in declaring majors early in one’s academic career. I also believe in front-loading coursework for both major and distribution requirements. Weinberg allows students to take up to five and a half credits before paying additional tuition. Taking five classes as a freshman or sophomore is efficient, pragmatic and cost-effective. Courses generally become more difficult and extracurricular involvements proliferate in later years at NU. The stakes and stress of internship and job hunts rise. Moreover, evenings out in Chicago, or even Evanston, are much more enjoyable after turning 21. Let me be clear: I am advocating for studying more, and partying, hanging out or whatever less as a freshman and sophomore. Front-loading coursework not only frees up time in later quarters for leadership positions, internships, on- or off-campus jobs and other such activities; it frees up time for enjoying the latter part of one’s undergraduate life.

Selecting a major early and front-loading major and distribution requirements should be encouraged by NU. If Weinberg continues to encourage students to be undecided, then NU sophomores, freshmen and newly admitted students should take it upon themselves to pick a major early and to front-load their requirements. Studying more and partying less earlier in one’s NU career will pay off later down the line, opening up opportunities for study abroad, part-time enrollment, early graduation and an overall less stressful conclusion to one’s time at NU.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.