How I chose my major

Sophomore Lorenzo Prila writes about how he followed his instincts and overcame his fear of the unknown on his academic journey. Students in Arts & Sciences are invited to consider their own path to the major at the fall Major-Minor Fair, to be held Oct. 17.

Lorenzo Prila

On one of my first days at Washington University, I filed into Graham Chapel with my new first-year classmates in Arts & Sciences. Dean Feng Sheng Hu spoke about interdisciplinary study, how easy it is to move between departments in Arts & Sciences, and the popularity of double majoring. Sitting there, I realized just how much Arts & Sciences wanted me to chase my curiosity over my four years at Washington University. By accepting me a few months prior, it was clear that WashU trusted my ideas, and now it was just up to me to trust myself. So what were those passions — those ideas?

While sitting silently in that pew, I pulled out a provided notecard and started to brainstorm. I had applied to WashU intending to be an environmental biology major, so I expected the results of my brainstorming to point to something like “scientist” or “environmentalist,” but to my panicked surprise my notecard read much more akin to “writer.” When had this mental disconnect began, and how little did I know about myself? Why, even after this speech and realization, did I still feel unwilling to change my major? Out of fear and frustration, I buried my doubt and jumped into my original selection of courses.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I had fun in those classes. Passion and personality radiated from my chemistry and calculus professors, and the environment was genuinely compassionate and collaborative. Still, there was a voice in my head reminding me that this wasn’t something I truly wanted to do. My psyche still would not let me simply switch my major, so I tried to come up with literally anything else that could work. Perhaps I could be the first quadruple major. Maybe I just needed to work harder, and then I could live two lives. What if I went the opposite direction, and transferred to the McKelvey School of Engineering instead? I was lost.

Four months later, after reading about the growth of the English major, I found myself in Vincent Sherry’s office to get advice. I was worried about choosing courses for next semester, as I saw it as a crucial turning point in my academic career. He responded that “you don’t have to choose, you just have to try.” At the end of the day, I could only do so much research and planning. Eventually, I had to see what would happen.

The next semester I took a risk, trusted my gut, and tried some classes along the English track. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Every day started to feel more holistic. For so long my life was split in so many different directions, but now it felt like all the distinct interests and passions were starting to converge.

While English courses can be seen purely for improving one’s prose, communication skills, and understanding of literary history, I see it as a space to explore the inherent messiness present in being human. For example, the course “Modern Texts and Contexts” didn’t prescribe the literary canon to us, it invited us to question what and who gets to define a great literary text. In my fiction writing class, we don’t workshop to bully each other on plot holes and grammar errors, we workshop to discuss the ideas presented in each student’s piece and how it imitates, rejects, and mutates the cultural zeitgeist of now and then. The English major seemed to be my way to build an understanding of myself and the world around me. I felt excited for where I was going.

I’m writing this as a mere sophomore, so the truth is my story is still in motion, and I don’t know where I’ll end up. I’m fine with that. There is no ideal strategy for finding your major, you just have to see what works for you. If anyone reading this is experiencing the confusion I felt only a few months ago, I’m sorry that I can’t offer some perfect piece of advice or a clear step-by-step process. I just hope I was able to share some ideas to keep you company.  


At the annual Major-Minor Fair, students are invited to talk to faculty members and get more information on many majors and minors at one time and in one place. This year's fair will take place Monday, Oct. 17.