Credit: Seyoung An

Although I like that Penn doesn’t require me to choose a major until the end of sophomore year, it’s hard not to worry about the consequences of course selection — deciding what to study can sometimes feel like deciding what to give up.

While common advice for undecided majors includes choosing something you are interested in or good at, I find the advice to major in something that we’re willing to get good at more helpful. It’s not bad to want to contribute to the world what we’re best at, but what we enjoy and what we’re good at don’t always match up. Moreover, our abilities and interests as perceived by ourselves or others shouldn’t limit us, because we can grow them with help and a strategic approach to effort.

Others’ ideas of strengths haven’t always aligned with what I wanted to learn. So, we shouldn’t feel restricted to the subjects for which we already have apparent aptitude or devotion. Skill and passion are things we allow to develop from initial curiosity with time and by trying, and we shouldn’t need to study or avoid subjects based on the limits of our experience. Instead, it matters whether we would freely choose to do the work with its difficulties and pleasures, now and in the future.

Deciding to study what we enjoy can be intellectually freeing, but enjoyment doesn't always help us decide what to study. We may enjoy a lot of subjects, we won’t enjoy every moment of any subject, and often our enjoyment of a subject grows with an investment of time and effort. It can sometimes discourage us from new interests and limit us to what we’re already experienced in. My interest in math and science grew in the second half of high school. At least one person has suggested that based on my art and literature related interests I didn’t seem like a good fit for the scientific fields that I wanted to learn about. However, we should be able to gain and grow new interests.  

On the other hand, some have assumed, usually based on my performance and effort in high school, that I will major in a STEM subject. Although I eventually learned to enjoy writing, I found math and science problems relatively straightforward – if sometimes time-consuming – in high school. By the time I got to college, I knew that I wouldn’t necessarily be good at the quantitative courses of my choice. Sticking with what I’m good at could mean giving up on the subjects, whether humanistic or scientific, that I would otherwise prefer.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s irresponsible – to my future self or to others – to choose a major that I may not be good enough at to use to help people or to build a career that I’ll enjoy. However, whatever I’m good at now I may not stay good at. On the other hand, in any pursuit, I can allow myself to improve if I’m willing to overcome challenges regardless of my current skill level. Regardless of how good I am or will be at whatever I end up studying, I would rather be motivated by a desire for growth than a fear of failure.

Although investing time and effort into a pursuit implies not investing that time and effort into other pursuits, if we understand that we can grow beyond our current limits, it can be freeing, rather than restricting, to embrace a process we find worthwhile towards a goal we find worthwhile. I hope that deciding what to study based on how I want to grow means I’ll find a path so satisfying that I won’t care about what I didn’t do. 

College and life are both too expensive and difficult for us to not engage in work that’s meaningful to us while preparing for future work. Whatever we study, we shouldn’t let self-doubt or others’ opinions limit us. Majoring in something that we’re willing to work to improve at might mean choosing a subject that we would rather study more than anything else, or it might mean just having some curiosity and a willingness to push up our sleeves and dig a little deeper.

PEARL LIU is a College freshman from Farmington, Conn. Her email address is pearlliu@sas.upenn.edu.

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