Your College Major: What to Choose?

I was watching a women’s gymnastic meet on the Big 10 Network the other day. They always do a decent job of providing background information about the athletes. One thing that really surprised me, though, was the number of of gymnasts who had no specifically declared major in their profile. The phrases “Undeclared Major” and “Major Pending” appeared more than several times on the screen as the participants from the three Big 10 schools prepared to execute their routines. This got me to thinking.

I recalled my own transition from high school to college. In high school, I fancied myself as a reasonably decent writer but back in those dim days of higher education, there were no fancy majors that focused on developing specialized kinds of writing skills, like there are today. I could have studied journalism but that was a bit “dry,” as I explained it to anyone who was inquiring about what I wanted to study in college. There were so-called “creative writing” courses, but nothing more elaborate than that. Thus, any creative writing inspiration I sought was available only as a mere elective. Consequently, I made a “default” decision about choosing a major and chose Business Administration, which, back in those plain-vanilla practical days got approving nods from my friends’ parents and my older relatives.

“Solid choice, Dave! You’ll always be able to find a job with a degree in business.” I heard a number of variations on that theme during Thanksgiving break. One problem, though: I hated my introductory business courses, especially accounting. Even now, I cringe at the memory of my first ever all-nighter, trying to get my balance sheets to balance as I raced to complete that particularly nasty end-of-semester project. Clearly, I wasn’t a numbers guy. I was a word guy trapped by my circumstances and forced into a bad-fit major.

So, for those of you high school seniors who will be soon receiving your college admission decisions, both good and not so good, a quick but important question: How do you know that the major you have chosen is the right one for you? Oh, and a follow-up question: If you haven’t yet selected a major, how should you go about choosing one? That’s what I’ll try to help you with in this article.

puzzled teen

Some students are certain about what they want to be after earning their degree. Others have no idea what they want to study or what kind of job they might want after graduating. The majority of students, however, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The uncertainty that so many college students possess is often a barrier that makes it difficult for them to declare a college major — one of the more crucial decisions a person makes in his or her lifetime. If you’re a high school senior or college freshman who is lost inside this black hole of indecision, what can you do to help right your educational path?

In doing some research about selecting college majors, I came across an interesting book that could be a significant help to you. College Major Quizzes, by John Liptak, encourages students to overcome this indecision through a variety of research techniques that help students pinpoint their options, evaluate the pros and cons of various majors and occupations, and develop a big-picture understanding of what’s ahead in their future, based on the various paths they may choose to pursue.

Liptak offers suggestions about which research strategies are particularly helpful when choosing a college major:

– Search the Web.

Search Internet sources for information about majors of interest to you. There are many popular Web sites specifically designed to provide you with information about majors and occupations that are related to various majors. For example, check CollegeConfidential.com, CollegeMajors101.com, and MyMajors.com.

– Check college course catalogs.

These can be an excellent resource for helping you find college major descriptions and a list of required courses. Most schools publish their catalogs online for easy access. This way you can explore the college catalogs of various schools with programs of interest to you.

– Gather occupational information.

Gathering specific occupational information about work environments and industries in which you might like to work is important. This research will be full of surprise, so keep an open mind. The more you gather occupational information, the more you might discover occupations that interest you. You can learn a lot about occupations by reading books and career pamphlets. You can also use online resources, such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). If I had spent more time doing background investigation about future business occupations, I might not have been so quick to default into Business Administration and its dreaded accounting requirement.

– Conduct informational interviews.

Although this approach requires some upfront effort and an extroverted approach, a good place to start researching majors and occupations is by talking to people you know and asking for suggestions and advice about the best fit of a major for you. These should be people who know you and know about various majors on a college campus. You may also want to conduct informational interviews to learn about various majors and the occupations tied to those majors. You probably will have to go beyond your immediate circle of family and friends to connect with students in your classes, professors, administrators and people who are working in fields that interest you. That’s where the effort and extroversion come in.

– Chat with current students.

A good way to get a realistic picture of what a certain college major is like is to talk with students who are already enrolled in degree programs in that major. Ask questions such as:

· Why did you choose this major?

· What types of classes have you completed?

· What do you like about the major?

· What do you dislike about the major?

· What types of jobs are you interested in when you graduate?

You have probably seen me use the phrase “You’ve got to trod the sod!” when I’ve discussed the critical need to visit schools before making your college enrollment decision. Obviously, while you’re making your college visits is the absolute best time to make your inquiries about possible majors by asking students who are actually experiencing those majors at the schools you’re visiting.

– Talk to professors and administrators.

Contact professors in various academic departments, college admissions officers, academic advisors, and career services center staff. Ask questions such as:

· What is unique about this major program?

· What are the primary skills needed to succeed in this major?

· What occupations do most students in this major go into after graduation?

· How much demand will there be for people graduating with this major?

· What is the starting pay for someone graduating in this major?

All this can also be accomplished during your campus visits. It’s a cool one-stop-shopping opportunity. Don’t pass it up!

– Interview working professionals.

Contact people who are successfully employed in fields of interest to you. You can gather information about the person’s job duties, working conditions and much more. Ask questions such as:

· What characteristics do the people in your occupation have in common?

· What did the majority of the people whom you know with this job major in?

· How did you prepare for your career?

· If you had to go through college again, what would you do differently?

· What is the future of your occupation?

Liptak also notes, “Some of these methods may be easier for you than others. The secret is to use as many of them as you possibly can so that you can make a more informed decision about your major.” If I had taken the time to do even some of these investigative steps before I made my initial –and erroneous — college major choice, I could have saved myself a lot of angst and frustration, especially trying to balance that (for me) unbalanced balance sheet!

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Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

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