I entered college dead set on majoring in Economics. My family did business, and my SAT Math score was higher than my Verbal.
Somehow — four inquiry-filled years later — I graduated with degrees in both English and French.
Half the blame goes to my freshman seminar advisor, John Sweney, a tiny elf of a professor with a fuzzy grey beard and an arm-waving passion for English and Irish literature. The other half of the blame goes to the study abroad office I dropped by — the prospect of a semester in Paris sealed the deal.
What did I know at 18, anyway? And I’m not alone: two out of three college students switch their major more than once. I get to visit dozens of colleges each year for my job as an independent college counselor, and admission officers are constantly pointing out that they prefer freshmen to arrive wide-eyed, open-minded and "undecided."
Expert’s Advice? Pursue Your Passions
I’ve spent the past 30 years guiding high school students through the turbulent and twisting college process. My number one piece of advice: pursue your nascent passions. Teenage years are ripe for tinkering and exploration as kids evolve into young adults, creating their identity along the perilous path we call adolescence. It’s supposed to be an uncertain, bumpy ride.
You love Legos? Try attending a robotics meeting after school. You’re fast but don’t have a sport? Pick up a lacrosse stick this spring. You love helping your grandparents? Volunteer to read at a nursing home on the weekends. Like to advertise and sell things online? Go get a marketing internship. It may spark your love of entrepreneurship — or it might push you away from “greedy capitalism.”
A prime time for this type of exploration is the summer. And I don’t mean you should sequester yourself in a classroom to take an extra math class to skip ahead a level for the fall. Instead, seek out a range of fun experiences that interest you.
For years I’ve sent kids from the Middle East, Europe, South America, and right near my office in Boston to participate in EXPLO — a pre-college and career exploration summer program where students explore their strengths and interests among a community of curious, globally-minded peers.
My students make friends from around the world, and engage in hands-on, collaborative courses and activities that allow them to grow as adolescents and as learners. One parlayed her passion for CSI and joined the forensic crime course. Another channeled her love of Sylvia Plath into the creative writing studio. And one student knew he liked math and science but had never tried this thing called ‘Engineering’ — so he did at EXPLO. And he loved it.
21st Century Skills Based in Liberal Arts
These students essentially became members of a vibrant liberal arts ecosystem that builds the fundamental skills the Harvard School of Education has identified as critical for the 21st century: critical thinking, collaboration, global awareness, communication, technology, and problem solving.
These “soft skills” are becoming more in need as new types of jobs are popping up every year. Now more than ever the Wall Street Journal reports that a liberal arts education is critical.
These are also exactly the skills valued by the superb colleges that host the EXPLO summer programs — schools that desire international-minded applicants who are nimble, curious Renaissance men and women that bring a range of talents to interface with their broad-based curriculum.
Don McMillan’s College Planning Tips for EXPLO Students
As someone who works with kids from around the world hoping to study in the U.S., I know an EXPLO kid comes to the application process — which needs to showcase authentic interests — with a base to build from. When I am invited each summer to give college planning advice to EXPLO students, here are six tips I provide:
- Highlight your EXPLO courses in your Common Application activity list
- Compose the 150-word activity essay on your favorite EXPLO learning experience, even if it’s not related to your intended major (if you even have a clue what that would be!)
- Jumpstart one of the extra, supplemental essays with an EXPLO experience — questions such as “Describe a community you’ve been part of” (Tufts and Brown) or "Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities" (Stanford)
- Leverage EXPLO during a college interview when you’re asked, “What have you done with your summers?”
- Brainstorm your main college essay, perhaps responding to this Common Application prompt: "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time."
- Create a portfolio of your best EXPLO work — whether it’s in the form of photos, sketches, poems, or Rube Goldberg-like inventions. It doesn’t need to be super polished — just authentically you.
Who knows? Your EXPLO writing group and French roommate may lead you to declare yourself an English and French double major when you go off to college — only to have you graduate as an Economics major on the verge of launching a start-up thanks to an awesome Econ professor you met your first week on campus.Don McMillan, President of McMillan Education in Boston, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org