The Mistake of Choosing a Major Over a University

The former Google CEO’s intended major changed while at Princeton (photo credit: Guillaume Paumier).

If a student is interested in studying computer science, he or she should apply to the school that ranks highest in computer science, right? Wrong. And it’s not just wrong for computer science. It’s wrong for every single major. Yet just about every day during a free consultation with a prospective client, a parent asks us, “I want my son to attend the best university for chemical engineering.” Or maybe it’s math or astrophysics. But you get the idea. And how do we respond after an initial eye roll or two? Ok, sometimes three.

Typically, we say something along the lines of, “Your son should be seeking to attend the best university possible — irrespective of major. Every Ivy League school has a great computer science department. In fact, just about every highly selective university — Ivy League or not — has a great computer science department. But your obsession with the prestige of the computer science department isn’t in your son’s interest. As an example, the University of Washington is a nice school. Heck, it’s ranked in a tie for #5 in undergraduate computer science in US News & World Report. But does that mean one should go to Washington over, say, Dartmouth College? That would be very silly! You should encourage your son to attend the most prestigious university possible — not the best-ranked school in computer science. After all, his intended major may change when he gets to college. And let us not forget that the language of BASIC was invented not at the University of Washington but at Dartmouth College.”

But don’t just take our word for it. Take the word of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In an interview with David Rubenstein published in Rubenstein’s newly published How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, Schmidt essentially puts the kibosh on choosing a school based on major alone since one’s intended major can change every Tuesday. After all, that’s part of the point of college in the first place! In any case, here is Schmidt in conversation with Rubenstein:

DR: You went to high school in Virginia. You must have done pretty well to get into Princeton. 

ES: Yes, although it was easier back then.

DR: You knew you wanted to be an engineer?

ES: I actually applied to Princeton as an architect. When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t a very good architect, but I was a much better programmer. Princeton, again, was kind in that I was advanced enough that I was able to skip the introductory courses and go straight into the advanced courses and then the graduate courses.

Yes, Eric Schmidt chose Princeton University. So while he may have changed his intended major, he had that opportunity because he attended an elite university that excels in virtually all academic disciplines. And you can imagine the job market was kind to a graduate of Princeton. Things indeed worked out for Eric Schmidt — even though he never did become an architect.


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