Q&A With Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church — The Major Declaration Journey

Spring each year at Stanford shines a spotlight on Major Declaration Season, as undergraduates are required to select a major no later than the spring of their sophomore year. Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church offers insights into the major declaration process and some guidance for parents and families who may be navigating this process with their students.

How does Stanford help students choose a major?

Every incoming student is matched with Undergraduate Advising Directors (UADs) who play a very important role in helping students understand the major declaration process and the many resources that help students reach a decision they’re excited about. More holistically, we encourage all students to use the first two years to take a variety of courses—many of which meet their general education requirements—to enable them to explore different disciplines and perhaps discover a curricular interest that really excites them. 

My student is a sophomore and still is unsure of a major. How can I be helpful as they narrow down their options?

Stanford data tells us that students choose and declare their major across the full expanse of their first two years. Many sophomores are still deciding up until spring of their sophomore year because they’ve embraced the opportunity to explore all their interests and passions. If they haven’t reached out to their academic advisor, my first advice would be to encourage them to do so, as our advisors are in the best position to help students think through all their academic options and what that might mean in terms of future course loads, how their considerations relate to potential future plans, and also what they may be realizing they truly are passionate about! I’d also encourage you to ask questions about what really interests them and encourage them to be honest and forthright without being overly prescriptive about what you think they should major in. We regularly hear that students are thinking of a major that they believe will make their parents happy even though it’s not an area that truly interests or excites them. Having genuine, open dialogue with your student is the kind of support I imagine your student would most welcome.

How important is a major, really, when it comes to one’s career after Stanford?

Much has been written by CEOs of companies and graduate schools as well that they’re looking less at specific majors and more about the broad knowledge that our undergraduates are bringing with them. Most appealing to them are Stanford graduates who can demonstrate they think critically, write well and speak thoughtfully, and who best characterize the ideals of a broad-based liberal education that Stanford offers, well beyond any area of disciplinary specialization. For instance, English or Public Policy majors can go on to medical school as long as they have some applicable courses that might be required or highly recommended.  And students don’t have to be computer science or engineering majors to pursue a career in tech. 

My student is considering a double major. How feasible is that given all the requirements for just one major?

It’s feasible, especially if your student plans thoughtfully and in close coordination with their academic advisor who can help them map out how to pursue both major pathways. That said, it may be just as fruitful to pursue a minor or consider a notation program—such as the Notation in Science Communication or Notation in Cultural Rhetorics—to pair with a previously chosen major. As we think more broadly about issues of academic well-being, we want to ensure that students are making decisions that best support their goals without leaving them feeling overloaded and exhausted. Fortunately we have a great team of advisors and a supportive campus community in place to help students consider their options and potential consequences.

What’s the last possible quarter in which my student can declare a major? And what if they want to change their major during their junior year—is that possible?

We ask students to declare by spring of their sophomore year, although transfers coming into Stanford as juniors have until the end of their junior year. Students can pivot to another major at any time leading up to their graduation, if they’re able to fulfill the requirements. This might mean expanding a minor into a major, assuming they’ve taken a good number of courses already in that area. 

My student wants to major in a subject I’m not sure sets them up for success down the road. Should I try to persuade them to change course?

Ideally we want students to make choices about a major and future career pathways that reflect their greatest disciplinary interests and passions. When we hear students convey that they feel pressured by their families to step away from a particular major which the family doesn’t view as useful or applicable to a prospective career, we are often seeing that it’s these conflicted students who often struggle to flourish. It’s been our experience that students who are chasing their passions and feel supported by their families in those decisions do best academically and that translates into great stories of success after Stanford.

I heard that capstones are going to be required for all majors. Why is this, what does it entail, and how might this relate to my student’s choice of major?

Starting with the Class of 2025, all Stanford students must complete as part of their major a robust capstone requirement that will help them integrate learning from different aspects of their major or undergraduate education, extend their learning and develop their expertise, and develop skills in managing a complex and extended project. Capstones may take the form of an honors thesis; senior paper or project; capstone seminar with group or individual projects; a substantial, scaffolded individual project, or other options acceptable to the major department or program which ultimately determines what counts for a capstone for students majoring in their field and determines procedures for certifying that students have completed this requirement. This would be a useful area of exploration for students to have with their academic advisor in advance of choosing a major or with their major advisor in their affiliated department if they’ve already chosen a major and will graduate in 2025 or later.

Read about the unique journeys four Stanford undergraduates have taken in their selection of major.