Helping your student pick a college major

Picking a college major

Choosing a college major might be one of the biggest commitments a high school student has ever been asked to make. 

A lot of students worry that once they choose a major, that’s it. That’s what they’re going to be when they grow up. Daunting, right? And while you might know that career paths don’t always follow straight lines, your student might feel pressure to nail down their professional goals now to ensure they are on the right path.

The reality is, almost a third of students change their major at least once before graduation. Is it because they lack direction? Couldn’t hack it in their original program? Wanted something easier? 

Probably not. 

University life gives students opportunities to learn about themselves, discover new interests and meet the mentors that shape how they think about their chosen profession. As a result, their goals are likely to shift. That’s why most colleges allow students the flexibility to change majors, so that if their enthusiasm wanes or over time they learn a program isn’t the right fit, they have the freedom to explore other options.

All this to say, if your student doesn’t know exactly what they want to study, it’s okay. They just need to know how to explore the possibilities. 

Here’s how you can help your student research and discover a major that excites them.

Understand the difference between a major and minor

Major

Your student’s major will be the area they specialize in, and between one-third and one-half of their college courses will be related to that subject.

Minor

A minor requires fewer courses but still adds a specialization to your student’s degree. A minor isn’t required of all majors but is a really good way for your student to explore interests outside of their major — and it looks great on a resume.

Double Major

If your student can’t decide between two majors, they can consider declaring a double major, which could be a bit more work but would allow them to develop expertise — and get degrees — in multiple areas. If they’re interested in a double major, they’ll need to talk with an advisor. Also, be aware that a double major could cost more, though it’s likely to pay off in the long run.  

Ask your student to list what they love

Your student will do best if they’re interested in what they’re studying. Sure, they have to get through required courses and they won’t love them all, but eventually, they’ll spend a lot of time and energy working toward becoming an expert in their field. So one of the best ways to help them begin to think about what to major in is simply to encourage them to make a list of the things they love and can see themselves doing. A lot. 

Drawing? Playing video games? Hiking? Traveling? Writing? Building? Investigating? Analyzing? All of those interests can coincide with at least one major, and likely more. And if they’re not really sure what they’re interested in, here’s a way to begin that conversation too. 

Introduce them to career quizzes

Career Finder, Me3® and The Princeton Review Career Quiz are starting points that help students hone in on their interests and personality types enough to think broadly about the kinds of careers they’d be most interested in. Most of these tools will offer suggestions for possible careers, then give your student an opportunity to dive deeper into information like salary, employment rates and the type of education necessary for each job. 

Help them identify strengths and weaknesses

If your student is a natural extrovert and loves being around people, they might not thrive working solo doing research in a lab or as a computer programmer. If they’re great at math and don’t enjoy reading, they’d want to steer clear of an English degree. This strategy may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how quickly your student can narrow their focus once they exclude the things they neither enjoy nor excel in. 

Talk with them about long term career goals

It’s true that your student knows themselves and their interests better than anyone else does, so in some ways, all you can do to help them decide on a major is guide them toward the resources that will help them to help themselves. But your life experience and practical knowledge of the working world are immeasurably useful as they explore some of the more pragmatic (possibly less fun) aspects of career navigation. Ask them questions like:

  • How much time are they willing to spend in school? 
  • What kind of hours are they willing to work? 
  • Would they be open to relocating for a job? 
  • How easy will it be for them to find a job in their field? 

By thinking through the day-to-day realities of professional life with your student, you can give them the tools they need to decide on a major. 

Finally, the best help you can give your student is to remind them that the skills they acquire in college will always serve them, whether they find their dream job right after graduation or end up trying multiple careers on for size. The important thing is for them to know how to customize an academic experience that enriches their lives and allows them to contribute in ways that are meaningful to them. 

 

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