Picking a major can be a stressful task. I remember scrolling down an endless list of majors and getting the urge to just enter them all into a random result generator. However, sadly, that method almost always leads to reckless decisions. It took a while for me to figure out that I wanted to read English at the University of Cambridge, and I went through a long process of self-doubt before I got to that conclusion.
Initially, I had no idea what I wanted to go for. I decided to use a process of elimination, narrowing down my possibilities by thinking about what I would not be majoring in. Not being very proficient or interested in STEM subjects, I ruled out those options right at the beginning. That still left me with a wide range of alternatives. At this stage, it’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying about the future – essentially, what industries I could potentially work in with a particular degree. However, I believe that there’s a more important consideration – my passion. I was aware of the fact that I’d be researching extensively within my major for three years, and I wanted to make sure that it would be a rewarding process. This would only be possible if I chose my major based off of what I knew and loved doing.
As a creative writer who also likes wartime literature, I wavered between the choices of English and History. However, I realised that I had a niche interest in war history, but not other parts that I wasn’t well-versed in, like royal successions and ruling policies. I wasn’t extremely familiar with British history, as I did Asian and European History when I was studying the IB, and that would mean learning a large portion of the subject from scratch if I truly became a History major. Bits and pieces of scattered historical knowledge could only get me so far, and I was not too confident that I’d keep enjoying my studies for long. In contrast, my love for English had been ingrained inside me ever since I was young, from writing short stories at 11 to reading dystopian fiction, then Romantic poetry, then moving on to Shakespearean plays. My lukewarm curiosity for History was acquired pretty late into the game, but I would not grow tired of English, since I’ve been consistently honing my skills in this area.
After identifying my passion, I moved on to considering specific universities. I searched up course outlines, entry requirements, and skimmed through reading lists for English. Courses vary a lot from university to university, so I wanted to ensure the content would cover what I liked. For example, I had to compare between the Oxford and Cambridge English Faculty websites, and I found out that the scope of the Oxford English curriculum was more focused on old literature, while the Cambridge English curriculum had more modern aspects, like the recently formed discipline of Practical Criticism (the close reading of texts isolated from their socio-historical contexts). As I was more eager to explore recent developments in literature, I decided that Cambridge would be my best fit.
Once I’d made a preliminary choice, I talked to people for second and third opinions. Discussing my thoughts with my university admissions consultant and my college counsellor at school helped me get a sense of what suited me most. Talking to a current Cambridge third-year English student who I connected with online also gave me a deeper perspective on how Cambridge life would possibly be like.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you’re feeling the same frantic indecision as I did when I applied to the UK. However, know that if you put careful thought into it, you will end up with a major that challenges and inspires you. Use the process of elimination to work out the general direction of your path. Then think about what your passions are, and what makes you the person you are today. Finally, move on to practicality, by honing in on your favourite topics within your major, and picking universities that fulfil those academic needs. Above all, know that there is no right or wrong answer, and sometimes the conclusion you come to may be one that is entirely unexpected.
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By Bernice Chan