Finding Your Fit: Advice from the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences

To the newly accepted Arts & Sciences class of 2022: congratulations, and welcome!

Dean Jen Smith speaks to students
Dean Jen Smith speaks to students

The term “good fit” has probably permeated your vocabulary throughout the application process as you’ve evaluated how each school you’ve considered meets your academic and social interests. This stage requires narrowing down your remaining “good fits” in pursuit of a single “best fit.” Yet this process can be challenging because “fit” is highly idiosyncratic–it cannot be quantified with a checklist or definition.

“We hope you’ll change over four years, so you want a place that isn’t just a good fit for who you are today but will be an equally good–if not better–fit for who you’re going to be in three to three-and-a-half-years,” says Jennifer Smith, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Many students at WashU find themselves revising their original academic pursuits when they encounter the vast range of available disciplines. Arts & Sciences alone offers over 70 major programs to choose from, with almost as many possible minors. Yet the breadth of these options is exciting rather than daunting, thanks to the strong support systems that exist even before you begin your first semester. This summer, your four-year advisor will help you personalize your class schedule, and when you declare your major by the end of your sophomore year, you will also receive a major advisor. “In Arts & Sciences, the sense of uncertainty is not scary–it’s an infinite potential,” says Smith. “We’re not preparing you for a specific future; we’re preparing you to discover your own future and yourself.”

At the same time as you have support from deans, advisors, and professors, it is important in Arts & Sciences that you take the reins in carving out your path. “We want students to feel secure and supported, but to take that and go further,” says Smith. “That’s the point of comfort: to enable the discomfort that allows you to take risks, to choose discomfort without feeling threatened.”

“In Arts & Sciences, the sense of uncertainty is not scary–it’s an infinite potential,” says Smith. “We’re not preparing you for a specific future; we’re preparing you to discover your own future and yourself.”

She adds, “You don’t have to sacrifice having a concrete skill set that is more forward-looking with the kind of exploration that we allow for in Arts & Sciences. Not only do you have the opportunity to take classes in all these different schools at WashU, but also to live among people who are immersed in such different endeavors. It’s so valuable to have the opportunity to really engage with people who are committing themselves to something very different from what you are committing yourself to.”

Smith herself credits the entire WashU community to making her job exciting. “The opportunity to be every day around such smart and caring people is astonishing,” she says. “I’m excited to come here every day to be surrounded by such fascinating and eternally fascinated people.”

And she doesn’t just mean the talented faculty–she’s also referring to students. “You will learn as much from your peers as you will from your faculty, and your faculty are really impressive. That tells you something about your peers,” she says.

For Smith, “fit” is contingent on the people at a school. “What you decide to study might change,” she says, “but you’ll be part of this community for four years regardless.” However, if you’re down to two schools that both seem equally suitable, she suggests flipping a coin. The point of the coin is not to decide for you; it is to provide insight into how you really feel. “Cognitive science suggests that we’re much better at making complex decisions with our guts,” Smith says. “If you can evoke an emotional response, that’s likely telling you what you really want.”

“What you decide to study might change, but you’ll be part of this community for four years regardless.”

If a coin flip feels too detached, Smith recommends pretending you’ve committed to one of the final two schools. “Put the sweatshirt on and tell yourself you’ve made the decision,” she advises. “Go to school and see how you feel. At the end of the day, if you’re psyched up, then that’s the one. If you’re apprehensive, if you’re wondering, ‘What have I done?’, then it’s not right for you.”

Smith and all of us here in Arts & Sciences at WashU hope we’ll have the chance to welcome you to our campus soon…and you can be sure that when we do, you will also have the chance to meet Jen Smith’s beautiful dogs, Aspen and Juneau. “They will love you, and you will love them,” she says.

Jen Smith with Aspen and Juneau
Jen Smith with Aspen and Juneau (Photo by Allison Hamburg)

 

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