Strangely enough, if you were to ask me right now what the most difficult part of Princeton has been for me thus far, my answer would not include workload, grade deflation or organic chemistry. Granted, these aspects have not been easy for me in any stretch of the imagination. I struggle with time management, grades and amine functional groups just as much as the next guy. But on a day-to-day basis, these are not the things I worry about most as a Princeton student. What I struggle with most is simply deciding what to study and where to focus my future after Princeton.
College is arguably the most important time in our adult lives. It’s a sort of crossroads, an intersection that can take you anywhere in life you want to go. And when one considers an Ivy League institution like Princeton, that crossroads becomes much, much larger. From the first week on campus, one thing is pounded into our heads again and again —entering Princeton as a freshman means that your options in life are limitless. From medical school to law school, nonprofits in Africa to Wall Street investment companies, electrical engineering to classics, anything you can imagine doing is possible, and that is simply terrifying.
This phenomenon has been noted in psychological studies before, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as choice overload. Simply put, past a certain point, an increasing number of options presented to a person can result in less satisfaction with the outcome. Having more options results in greater anxiety about missing the optimal choice. There will always be the leftover “what if” feeling, especially after decisions as important as what college to attend or what career path to follow. With this in mind, it is essential to ask, “What is the optimal amount of freedom to allow students?” More importantly, when does the amount of freedom cease being beneficial for the student?
As a liberal arts institution, Princeton encourages you to explore many different fields of academics over your first two years. As I see it, the combination of distribution requirements paired with the mandatory two years before declaring a major has two main purposes. First, it is to promote interdisciplinary thought and well-rounded students through an exploration of many different subjects. I admire this goal and fully support it. The second is to allow students to discover new subjects that they could pursue academically, ones that they may not have otherwise focused on. But is this really conducive to a richer and more fulfilling major choice? Initially, that was one of the most appealing aspects of Princeton to me, that I could delay the inevitable choice of a career another two years, and that the answer wouldeventually just come to me after getting a bite-sized portion of an assortment of classes and subjects. In retrospect, I don’t see any benefit from delaying a major choice for two full years.
It’s because of this that I question whether the academic freedom of Princeton has really been beneficial to me. The liberal arts aspect of Princeton is, in many ways, effective. While many students attempt to circumvent the requirements with easy classes, many students do genuinely explore areas that they never would have before. This is great for producing well-rounded students; however, this does not necessarily facilitate better major choices. Often, this does not make choosing a major easier but, in fact, more difficult. Perhaps intentionally delaying major choices until the end of sophomore year offers an unnecessarily excessive amount of choice. Entering Princeton as a freshman already comes with a huge amount of options. Do I really need another two years to add to the long list of choices I have? If I had declared a major during freshman year, I would have saved myself two more years of stressful decisions that, in the end, would not make me any happier.
Christian Wawrzonek is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.