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On Choosing Majors

Rupa Subramaniam, UC Berkeley


Even before I set foot at UC Berkeley (or “Cal” for short), I became familiar with the most common question I would face as an undergraduate: What do you plan to study? As a high-school student, I was focused on three things – 1) mastering my subjects, 2) managing my social service projects, and 3) leading my tennis team to the Northern California championships. My life was a well-oiled machine.


But as a freshman in college, I found myself in a totally new environment. On the first day, I looked at the course catalog, which had 500 courses in 50 departments. Their diversity was mindboggling. To name a few:


  • Effective Personal Ethics for the 21st Century
  • Human Happiness
  • Physics and Music
  • Global Warming
  • Language and Power
  • Wealth and Poverty


I wanted to take them all! If only I attended Hogwarts instead of UC Berkeley, I could use Hermione’s time-turner and be in multiple classes at once. However, being a Muggle, I had to resort to other means.

In my quest to choose my first-semester classes, I sought the advice of upperclassmen that I respected. Essentially, I was looking for mentors, someone who shared my ideals and could guide me through the turbulent waters. After a good deal of looking, I found Vanessa.

When I first met Vanessa, I thought that she had everything together. As I got to know her better, I realized that SHE DID in fact have everything together. She got an A in every class she took, from multi-variable calculus to English literature (I heard this from her friends; she was too humble to mention it herself). On top of that, she was the leader of one of UC Berkeley’s most reputed professional fraternities. I wanted to be just like her.

Vanessa encouraged me to first understand my strengths and weaknesses. I spent a couple afternoons in Cafe Milano (my favorite hangout spot) with a journal, thinking about my talents, my passions, and my job prospects. Through the process, I grew increasingly interested in international affairs.

The second step was to take classes related to this interest. I took introductory classes in international business and politics. To my delight, I envisioned myself spending my life thinking about the relationships between business, law and politics. Therefore, during my sophomore year, I decided to apply to the Haas School of Business and was accepted, which allowed me to learn the fundamentals of all aspects of business, from accounting to marketing to leadership.


I chose Haas because 1) I enjoyed it, and 2) It gave me practical skills that I could apply from day one. Leadership and business ethics are important, but so are accounting and Java programming. Haas allowed me to do both.

However, I gained one more important insight from Vanessa and other mentors. They told me that while I should develop expertise in one subject (business), I should not limit myself entirely to classes within my major. Why? Because universities like Cal attract famous faculty, and some of their classes are legendary. They said bluntly, “Rupa, if you have an opportunity to take a class taught by a leader in the field of X, you should take that class, regardless of what X is”. Taking this advice, I enrolled for an introductory astronomy course taught by world-renowned astrophysicist — and frequent PBS NOVA contributor — Alex Filippenko. In addition to holding frequent office hours, Professor Filippenko organized trips to research labs in the area and his famous “star parties” — during which students assembled every few weeks in an open field to observe and discuss the composition of the night sky.

Taking classes under such acclaimed faculty is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The most valuable part of Professor Filippenko’s class was his immense love for astronomy, a love that infected every one of his students. While I don’t want to be an astrophysicist, Professor Filippenko inspired me embrace the opportunity to learn and grow, and always be open to discovering new things. This is a great attitude to have, whatever your major may be.

The last thing I learned from my mentors was to choose my extracurricular activities wisely. They warned me against choosing six different activities and dabbling in them all. I wanted at least one extracurricular activity that would give me hard practical skills. Therefore, during the first week of my freshman year, I joined The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s award-winning student publication, where I met fellow students who later became some of my closest friends. As a team, we worked late into each night to ensure that each paper was ready for publication. Through working as a Daily Cal night editor, I discovered that my love of journalism mainly lay in practicing it rather than in studying it formally.


So what does this mean for you as a high-school student?

It is never too early to start thinking about your talents and passions and cultivating them systematically. What I did in college, you can begin to do in high school.


  1. Start by thinking about your strengths and weaknesses, your talents and passions. There are two ways to do this:
    1. Take a quantitative assessment like StrengthsFinder or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
    2. Have discussions on the topic with your parents, teachers, and older students.
  2. Do not stop at identifying talents and passions. You have to explore them. Here is how:
    1. Take online courses on Coursera, MIT Open Courseware, or Khan Academy.
    2. Also think about extracurricular activities that will allow you to develop your strengths and overcome your weaknesses. For example, if you love painting, you could take an online course about the history or art, or create a portfolio and see if a local cafe is willing to put your work on its walls!
    3. If you are not sure what skill in particular to develop, it may be helpful to explore ten or twelve different activities FOR A SHORT TIME. Give yourself a deadline to narrow down your commitments to one to three.
  3. Also be curious about learning about totally different subjects! In my case that was astronomy. Learning about something totally different once in a while expands your mind. And who knows, you might discover a talent or passion that you never considered before!


Best wishes on your journey.


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