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The Grade Whisperer: Karen’s Overbearing Parents

December 17th, 2009 · 19 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

The Parent TrapAdvice

I recently received an e-mail from a student whom I’ll call Karen. She is a sophomore at a top-20 university and is struggling with her parents’ ambitious plans for her college career.

As Karen explained: “Deep down my parents just want to make sure I have a better life than they do.”

But their relentless pressure for Karen to become a doctor (“they argue that doctors have stable jobs”) eventually became too much to handle.

“Second semester of my freshman year I put my foot down,” Karen recalls. “After a tearful and hurtful argument they finally relented and said I should try economics instead.”

But this compromise hasn’t gone well.

“I’m struggling…because I’m simply not interested in my economics courses,” Karen told me.  “My history of human rights course, however, is absolutely fascinating and actually made me seriously consider going to law school and maybe getting an MPA in Public Affairs, or even going to business school.”

Karen reduced her woes to three questions:

  1. “Should I stay at my school? And if so, should I change my major?
  2. “Should I transfer?”
  3. “Should I take a gap semester or year off?”

“I’m just sick of trying to be someone I’m not, but I have this deep-seated fear of being a starving person on the street if I follow my passions.”

Sounds like a job for the Grade Whisperer…

Major Nonsense

I receive a lot of e-mail from students wondering whether they should change their major.

I almost always give the same answer: “no.”

For one thing, I find that undergraduates overestimate the importance of their major for finding a job. As I’ve argued before, unless you want to be an engineer or go to graduate school, it’s often more important to demonstrate the capability to do superstar-caliber work than it is to build specific knowledge.

Furthermore, I also tend to dismiss the complaint that a major isn’t your “passion.” As I recently explained, I think passions are constructed through the process of mastery, not discovered. Few 19-year-olds actually have a real passion for an academic subject.

As I often tell worried students to soothe their anxiety: “There’s no such thing as the right major for you. So chill out.”

Karen’s issue, however, was something different…

Though it’s true that there’s no right major for most students, there are, as I’ve argued before, wrong reasons.

Specifically, we know from decades of research on motivation that if you feel extrinsic pressure to do something, you’re more likely to develop mental barriers. In college students this often manifests itself as deep procrastination.

It was this factor that made Karen one of the few students to hear me say “changing your major might not be such a bad idea…”

My Advice

Here’s what I told Karen:

  1. Stay at your university.
  2. Don’t take a gap year.
  3. Do switch your major. It doesn’t matter what you switch to, so long as it’s your choice. Sell this switch to your practical-minded parents by emphasizing your potential interest in law or business school, and noting that the admissions staffs of these programs are tired of the same old political science and business majors. Studying something like history, English, or philosophy can actually improve your chances of getting into a prestigious school.
  4. Keep a light schedule and focus your energy on becoming an A* student, as this is what will open the most doors to you after graduation (and end up making your parents proud in the long run).

To summarize, I supported Karen’s belief that her force-fed major was an issue. But I thought the bulk of her remedies — taking a gap year, switching universities — were too drastic. By simply taking back control of what she’s studying, then turning her focus to the more important question of how she’s studying it, the stresses and anxieties that vexed her will hopefully start to slip away.

19 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: Karen’s Overbearing Parents

  1. Eugene K says:

    I’m a political science major, and I’m not old!!

  2. Seungjin says:

    Interesting. I also have parents who’ve pushed me into medical route since high school. I fought long and hard to go into computer engineering major, and got a programming job right after graduation without even telling them. All through college I’ve lost track of bitter shouts and broken compromises between me and my parents.

    However, I hated the job. I loved the art/freedom of programming, but the bureaucratic hell just cut me out of any fun I had in programming. As a hobby I still love it, but as job I realized, not so much. THEN I pondered about medical school and researched about it.

    Now I’m back in school trying to prepare for applying to medical schools. I love being back at school, and the fact that I have what I loved as my bachelor major always makes me confident. Yes, undergraduate major means zilch. It’s about finding how efficient you can be at achieving greatness.

  3. Karl says:

    Very good insight. This is exactly what young college students need. I can see how applying this knowledge helped me succeed in college, and how I could have succeeded even more if I had known more of this.

    I don’t believe you can dislike what you’re doing if you’re getting awesome grades. I’m a medical student and the students I’ve seen drop out may say they had other reasons to do so, but I believe they just weren’t getting good grades. Success drives passion from just about anything.

  4. Meg says:

    “I don’t believe you can dislike what you’re doing if you’re getting awesome grades.”

    Karl, I beg to differ. I was in a situation similar to Karen’s: my parents pressured me to study engineering at a specific school that had very few majors other than engineering. Even though I did well enough to make it into the top honor society, I still hated engineering after I graduated. I was told that I would like it better after I got some work experience under my belt. Well, years and years later, after achieving some degree of success (because I hate failure even more than I hate engineering), I finally have to admit that if I don’t like it by now, I never will. I wish I had Cal’s advice when I was still in school. It would have saved me a lot of frustration and given me permission to stand up to my overbearing parents.

  5. sanjay says:

    This is a common problem especially among south and east asian communities. I know many friends who felt pushed to study medicine by there parents and buckled under work pressure, procrastinated and dropped out. on some level you have to like what your doing, and stick with it. i was lucky in that my parents although mentioning to me they wouldnt mind me being a doctor, never pushed me in any direction other than the one i wanted to go in. now i am studying physics at a prestigious british university and will eventually go on to become a doctor… in physics : )

  6. Ben says:

    Great post Cal! In undergrad a good friend struggled with the same difficulty in settling on a major. The indecision meant he took a broad mix of classes and it took him an extra year to finish school. He ended up as an English and Religion major and loved the material. I really believe the choice of choosing those majors helped motivate him to achieve. These days he is working with international students and even though it is not directly related to his majors he loves what he does.

  7. Lulu says:

    I’m a political science major. I’m thinking about law/business school.

    Uh oh….

  8. Study Hacks says:

    I’m a political science major. I’m thinking about law/business school.

    You’re doomed! 🙂

  9. Carol says:

    “Keep a light schedule and focus your energy …”

    On that point, I want to say “yes!” but I would just also suggest a discussion with a professor or two at the next college of choice to find out what they are looking for in their applicants or what activities they think add valuable experience. Looks like sound advice for this student’s situation. To other students reading this, I would suggest good grades plus an internship or showing some entrepreneurial spirit or leadership in the field you are going into.

  10. I agree with everything you’ve said here save for one additional suggestion that has helped quite a few of my students.

    If you’re having difficulty with your major and you want to find out if the grass is greener on the other side, audit every and any course that interests you. This will give you the insight you’ll need to find out whether switching to that arts degree is really a good idea.

    Secondly, if you’re an intelligent person who works hard you will never go starving. Anyone who is properly motivated and has the ability to quickly disseminate content can adapt to almost any situation quickly and easily. Many of my buddies thought that leaving academia and trying entrepreneurship was foolish and that I would quickly fail. Now I work far less than then and have a much happier life because of it. Choose what you want to do, do it well and everything else will fall into place…

  11. Dave says:

    If you’re “thinking” about law school don’t go! Only go to law school if you really want to be a lawyer. A lot of people go to law school because they are good at school so they think law school is the next step.

    If I didn’t really want to be a lawyer I would have dropped out by now.

  12. MB says:

    I have switched my major from history to sociology to humanities to Spanish to anthropology. I’m happy where I am, studying what I like. All of these fields are interrelated anyway, so I’m trying not to think too much about the actual major and instead focus on my grades and networks.

  13. Sherelle says:

    I can speak on this from experience, my relatives wanted me to go into Nursing, my parents wanted me to do better than they did, so I started college as a Business Administration major because I enjoyed reading business/entrepreneurship books.

    However, Business as a major ended up being so dry for me I did poorly in many of my classes due to lack of interest. I left school for 6 months to figure out what I was going to do, wasting time and money in the process because I thought I HATED college. I finally figured out that I didn’t hate college, I just hated the classes I was taking.

    My grades zoomed up after I switched my major to Sociology, which in terms of $$ could be considered a useless major, but I was interested, and I expanded my world view. I later taught business-oriented classes in my area, not because of my major but because I audited a graduate-level Internet Marketing class, which led to a blogging job, which led to a public relation internship. All this without having a specific Business degree or a Public Relations degree (my school didn’t offer it).

    Admittedly, I’m young and still don’t know what I want, but all that got me into graduate school in a completely different area, Marriage and Family Therapy. And while I see my friend who went into nursing making money, I know that I’ll be doing what I chose to do.

    Besides, I couldn’t see myself as a nurse anyways.

  14. wendy says:

    I think I’m going to disagree with you, here. I teach at a university and often tell my story to my students:

    I thought I knew what I wanted to be in my first couple years of college, and then I figured out I HATED it and didn’t want that kind of job in the future. I had no idea what I wanted to be. I think a lot of 19-20 year-old kids don’t have any idea. I decided to take a year off and work and live on my own. My parents freaked that I’d never go back to college (my dad does not have a college education, my mom does) and freaked that I wouldn’t finish in 4 years like the rest of my HS friends when/if I did go back. I remember writing them a letter promising I’d go back to school, and explaining that I didn’t want to get a degree that would be worthless to me just for the sake of finishing.

    I did go back after 3 semesters off, and decided to switch majors to something that always sounded interesting to me. The moment I went back new possibilities opened up and I found fantastic mentors– I figured out I could go to grad school and teach in higher ed. I was a MUCH more serious student the second time around and finished with a 4.0 and got into a top PhD program.

    I encourage my students not to feel pressured to just finish and get a degree, but to make sure they get the degree they want and need. There’s a lot of pressure on kids coming out of HS to have a direction and a purpose, and I tell them it’s totally ok if they don’t exactly know what they want to do yet. I was always a “B” student just mildly interested in school, but after taking time off, transferring and changing majors, college and my career “clicked.” I can’t imagine where I’d be if I gave into the pressure of finishing and sticking with my original major. I’d be miserable and not as successful as I am now.

  15. lapostol says:

    Hey, Cal!

    I love your blog (though this is the first time I’m commenting) It really inspires me especially when my parents keep pressuring me to take something “practical” in college, major in something that has a high income or a sustainable job market. I am in my last year of high school and have already been accepted to Engineering (because it has already been expected of me). But for some reason, I have my eyes set on International Studies/Political Science, but when I tell my parents, I know they would always dismiss it. They say it’s not high-paying, because they think that success is measured in $.

    I can totally relate to Karen’s story! I loved Physics and Calculus throughout high school (in my case), but ever since I felt pressured to go into engineering, the luster of those subjects faded for me.

    I was wondering what your tip would be. Should I follow their advice? Is there a way I can do both?

  16. Study Hacks says:

    I was wondering what your tip would be. Should I follow their advice? Is there a way I can do both?

    There’s no such thing as a wrong major, only wrong reasons for choosing a major. Assuming your parents are paying for college, the right compromise is to find a major that: (a) you feel like you autonomously choose; and (b) they are happy with.

    (The feeling of autonomy is what matters in major choice, as it will fuel you through hard stretches, not some magical match to a pre-existing aptitude that probably doesn’t exist at the age of 18.)

  17. Mario says:

    Hey Cal,

    I’m in a similar position as Karen in which my parents forced me to apply to a “prestigious” college which give a full-tuition scholarship and then pressured me to accept their offer. After two years at being in that college, I’m miserable and I don’t know what I should do. I’m considering taking a gap year and even transferring out. I see you told Karen otherwise, but I actually like what I study, Mechanical Engineering, and because of the way the school works, I can’t really switch majors. The reason why I don’t like the college is because I feel like its all work and no play and that there aren’t a lot of recreational and extracurricular activities offered at my school. What do you think I should do? I feel like I’m going to lose my sanity if I continue one more semester at that college :S

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