What To Take

Thoughts on majors and classes for people who are me at Stanford.

I have been asked for class recommendations and 4 year plans a few times, and compiled the below for anyone else curious. Picking classes seem like a fairly small matter to be concerned with in hindsight, but I took it quite seriously (and perhaps people reading this share this interest) earlier on at Stanford.

The below probably only is useful for people earlier on at Stanford - by the time you hit midway, you probably already know the academic system well enough without these heuristics.

As a general rule of thumb, I tried to take interesting classes with content hard to master on my own. Sounds like an intuitive thing, but hard to follow since everyone feels a bit pressured to lay out a 4 year plan in sequence the day before Freshman year even started, and sometimes these don’t map to the same criteria. (This also goes for interesting topics or people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.) After selecting classes, I chose the major based on the classes I took the most, and then filled in the gaps with the major requirements.

This meant that most of the time, I took electives before the core and sometimes self-studied prerequisites to skip to the stuff I find interesting or to be able to take classes with professors I want to learn from. Execution of a class is sometimes just (if not more) important than the content it contained. This can be especially advantageous if your major offers classes with professors you want to learn from, once a year or once every 2 years. I didn’t want to wait 2 years for all the stars to align.

This approach may not be advisable depending on how you learn. Sometimes there will be prerequisite cycles. E.g. I took CS103, CS109, and CS229 in the same quarter. As you may know, 103 is technically a prerequisite for 109, and 109 is a prerequisite for 229. Other times you might end up taking twice as many classes to avoid repeating content. E.g. I took electives (3 units) instead of finishing the math intro. series (e.g. 51s, DMs, CMs, 5 units each).

This approach also won’t be advisable if you’re interested in majors such as Chemical Engineering or considering applying to Med. School or other graduate schools with a lot of requirements. If this is you, you probably don’t face as much uncertainty in course selection since a lot of the sequences are decided (which is a double edged sword).

This approach worked ok at Stanford where you don’t have to declare a major until Junior year (or Senior year if you’re ok with a couple of angry sounding emails). It also worked ok because sometimes you can petition out of requirements if you took something more advanced, if you happened to choose a major that is a bit more flexible. In retrospect, a lot of the moving pieces fit together by luck. I chose to do the above because I find it much easier to work with time-consuming / more advanced classes that are more interesting than less difficult ones that are less interesting. Of course, if there are interesting classes that aren’t as time-consuming, then great!

The approach in the other direction which work well for most people is to take intro. classes that count for a lot of majors and then pick electives accordingly. This is probably the most commonly advised approach. One thing to note here is that advanced classes dive deeper and more intimately, and sometimes the support system for learning is a bit better than large intro. classes that can feel impersonal. Many times by the time you go back and take intro. classes for one reason or the other you will have already learned the same topics in advanced classes in detail so everything comes more naturally, AND you have managed to make sure you take classes you’re interested in by taking them first.

If you care about how this approach impacted my grades, I graduated with a Math major GPA of 4.07/4.0 and Masters CS GPA of 4.0/4.0 in ~4 years. Certainly I’m not the most academic of my peers, and this isn’t the best you can do or something to be necessarily proud of, but it goes to show that perhaps it’s possible to do alright even if you deviate from the advised sequencing. It also turns out that because classes are self-selecting and curved differently, doing well in an undergrad. class sometimes could end up equivalent grades wise to doing poorly in a graduate class. This isn’t always the case. I was fine in advance with the idea of doing worse in a harder class than choosing a less advanced one if it gave me what I needed to learn.

You should also consider majors factoring other things you might want to do with your time on campus (e.g. research, athletics, internships, going abroad, general well-being). Math + CS happened to work well for me despite a late start in the major, as Math was a small undergrad major in units. and I still had time to go abroad for a quarter. I wanted to do some work in CS research while I was on campus, and taking Master’s classes out of sequence also gave me some time to pick up what I might have needed for research. For CS, you can count graduate classes towards your Master’s as early as Sophomore fall. For my undergrad., I didn’t come in with many math credits, which would have helped the decision along, but Math is flexible enough you can probably fit it into a condensed timeline if needed.

Finally, a lot of this probably won’t matter (caveat: over a short period of time), just like most other things in life. Taking the “wrong” classes that weren’t interesting AND don’t count for a major for a quarter or 2 doesn’t impact things much. I’ve seen lots of friends change majors drastically very late in their time at Stanford and ended up working things out in time. Obviously compounding focus is very important, but if you find out you dislike a focus (which usually leads to doing poorly or being mediocre in the long run), try to leave it as early as you can. If your general focus is where you want it to be, it’s usually fine.

I was sweating profusely the day before starting Freshman year with no idea what I wanted to major in or what to take. I ended up taking Chemistry, Philosophy, and Energy Policy, one of which replaced an AP credit I already have, and 2 of which didn’t end up being used in anything. I ended up switching majors and focuses multiple times Freshman year, but then once I locked down my interests began doubling down on classes (e.g. 2-3 CS+Math classes per quarter). There really isn’t any particular learning here except perhaps your Freshman year at Stanford academically probably won’t break anything.

Chances are, you’re probably fine academically regardless of whether you take Course A before Course B, and vice versa. It certainly feels comforting to know there’s some sort of a system to things, and this is what I ended up with.

One final thing: if you can, going general could be best, especially if you see yourself applying knowledge on your own time. Obviously this statement would be stronger coming from someone who went to a truly liberal arts college. The classes where I learned theoretical frameworks or concepts were better for my mental development that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own.

Choosing “general” curricula doesn’t necessitate a particular discipline, but rather how classes are taught. Math happened to be one of the disciplines where this is more often the case. I liked a lot of the general or theoretical abstractions in math despite being bad with them, and lots of people better-versed than I have spoken at length about the values of learning math in college, even if you don’t stay in the discipline. Another post I liked a lot about college is PG’s essay and advice here.