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Words of Wisdom: Academic Planning and Intellectual Development

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On Planning

Plans are highly overrated.  I know that will sound odd, maybe even heretical.  After all, how did you get into Stanford but by planning carefully—your courses, extra-curriculars, and the application process itself.  Sometimes students come to Stanford with a 4-year plan in hand, already having “decided” what courses they will take, what they’ll major in, maybe even what career they will pursue.  All this, before they’ve ever stepped foot into a Stanford classroom!

Having goals, even very lofty and “stretch” goals is laudable.  But we do well to hold those goals lightly, as a vision of where we think we want to end up, rather than a set destination that we program into our academic GPS system.  Why?  Because, if a college education is valuable, it is because it invites us to think about new ideas and expands our horizons.  In the process, it changes us and we discover we have different goals.  As a result, all the effort that went into that carefully crafted 4-year plan now has to be jettisoned.  When this happens, students often have a sense that somehow they have failed because they didn’t remain true to their initial plan.  But, in fact, they have succeeded—succeeded in giving themselves over to the educational process, succeeded in growing into the person they now know they are, succeeded in opening up to the world and its myriad possibilities in ways that weren’t possible before they embarked on this academic adventure that we call a college education.

That’s why I always encourage students to approach college with an open mind and with a large dose of humility.  Lots of people here—professors, coaches, advisors and peers—have much to teach you.  That’s why you came, after all!  Allow them to work their magic on you.  So, come with your goals, but remain open to the possibility that they could change.  Make deliberate, planful choices, but don’t get so invested in a specific plan that you miss the serendipitous encounter that opens the door to a different future than you ever imagined.  In a word, approach your college education in a spirit of adventure! 

Louis Newman, Dean of Academic Advising


On Declaring a Major

Declaring a major is more like henna than a tattoo. If you change your mind, it washes off easily. There are advantages to declaring a major early. It connects you with an intellectual community of like-minded people and gives you access to special events and perks that go with it. If you change your mind, you are doing so with experiential evidence. Just be sure that you have enough time (and if necessary financial aid eligibility) to make the switch.

Laura Selznick, Undergraduate Advising Director


Passion, your calling, your intellectual home--whatever you want to call it--isn't usually something you discover. Often, it's something you build over time. It's okay to not feel like you have a strong calling, and it can be especially difficult if you feel the pull of multiple interests and talents. Be patient. Like a lifelong friendship, it may start with a spark of affinity that grows as you choose to invest your time and energy.

Alice Petty, Undergraduate Advising Director


In my role as a Stanford career coach, I often hear concerns from students about choosing the right major for the right career path. That’s a lot of pressure! This is the time to try new things, explore new interests, and be open to new experiences. And despite it being a common myth that “major = career,” it’s just not the case anymore. In fact, research shows that three quarters of college graduates don’t end up working in a career directly related to their major. Every major has transferable skills and knowledge that will be marketable to employers and there are always ways to gain additional industry skills and knowledge outside of your major (campus organizations, elective and online courses, summer opportunities, etc.) during your undergraduate years. So worry less about what you “should” major in, and instead focus on which courses and content energize and engage you. And if you need help articulating the skills you’re gaining in the classroom to your resume, connect with us at BEAM, Stanford Career Education - we’re here to help! 

Colleen, BEAM


On Exploration

I felt a strong internal pull and family pressure to major in something "practical" and get started on it with laser focus from day one of college. However, I was lucky to have advisors that shed light on the larger purpose of my education and taking steps to ensure that I would be happy with my choice later on. As a melding of perceived practicality and nascent interest in many disciplines, I took at least one or two classes each term in my first two years that were "exploration." I wound up pursuing my initial planned major, but felt much more secure in the decision and really hadn't "lost" any time. My advice: undertake curricular exploration early to avoid waking up in junior or senior year with haunting doubt about the academic path you've chosen. 

Academic Advisor


Take a course that helps you better understand yourself in the world. As a STEM double major in college, I didn't often encounter course dialogues about identity. Occasionally, 'ethics in science' was a pertinent discussion, but not the focus of any assessments I received from faculty. A friend asked me to take an American studies class with them so we could spend more time together. I apprehensively obliged. The course focused a ton on queer and ethnic identities in American media. I have never seen any of my identities be the focus of a course, and it changed my life! All of a sudden I became aware that there was so much to learn in classes that would give me time, space, and verbiage to explore my own personhood in the world. So, regardless of the focus of your studies, take some classes that train you to see yourself and others in the world in new ways—you're worth it! 

Joey Nelson, Undergraduate Advising Director


Many of the connections that I made and classes that I took in college became super relevant years later in unexpected ways. Had I not done lots of different activities and taken a wide range of classes in college, I would not have been equipped for the unforeseen nature of the future. Life is just unpredictable; so, an agile mind is a boon. Unfortunately for me at the time, I regularly worried that I wasn’t taking the right classes while I was an undergraduate. I now feel that it was unfair (and a bit egocentric) to expect my 18 year old self to have known precisely what classes would be helpful in life. The gentler, and more sound, expectation would be for my younger self to just be a voracious reader and learner. 

Academic Advisor


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