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Some students come to me with a very specific career or major in mind. Others come with questions such as:

How can I decide what to major in?
How can I explore different career options?

In order to really grapple with these questions–since there is no perfect science–lets play out two different scenarios.

The first scenario is with Julie. Julie is a high school junior who is still trying to figure out her interests. She enjoys her AP Literature course and other writing-focused assignments. Besides being active in National Honors Society at her school and in athletics, her family is actively involved in politics so she has developed an interest in politics on a local and national level. All things considered, she is still undecided on what she would like to major in on the collegiate level.

Now, let’s switch to John. John is a high school senior who is headed to UW-Madison upon graduation. He enjoys and excels in his AP Biology and Human Anatomy classes. John is also actively involved in high school extracurriculars and plays baseball, basketball and football in addition to volunteering after school with the athletic trainer. While John enjoys all of his activities, he is having a hard time figuring out what his major should be or what career to choose, since he’s heard that the earlier you know, the better.

So, how can Julie and John figure out what their major or career should be?

Make a list of interests.
More often than not, the things students are good at are the things they would find suitable in a major or career. For instance, with Julie, she excels in her writing-based courses, and should consider majors that allow her to utilize and improve her writing abilities. For John, he seems to be interested in health and science, so choosing to take courses in Biology on a collegiate level to see if he is still interested in it.

Experiment with new courses.
In Julie’s case, she is only a high school junior, so she can continue to explore other classes at her school or maybe even take courses at a local community college while she is a senior. In John’s case, he should try to pick classes that interest him but weren’t covered during his high school career. The breadth of topics offered at any university far outreach what’s offered at high schools, so there is a wealth of opportunity there.

Take a class online.
With the recent popularity of MOOC’s, or “Massive Open Online Courses,” more and more students have access to enrolling in college courses. While most colleges do not offer credit for these courses, MOOCs give high school students an opportunity to explore a potential major or subject area that they are planning to pursue in college. Furthermore, partaking in a MOOC gives high school students a chance to experience a college curriculum and learn from professors at top-notch institutions, including those from international, ivy league, state, and liberal arts colleges.

Get involved.
This can involve becoming an intern, finding a job, or volunteering with an organization that seems interesting or within an industry that intrigues the student. This could also mean joining a club in high school, just as Julie already has with National Honors Society. Since Julie has also been surrounded by politics most of her life, she could also volunteer with a local political campaign and gain valuable experience. When John goes to Madison in fall, he could seek out an internship with the UW Athletic Department as a student athletic trainer, since he is interested in sports and really enjoyed his work with the high school athletic trainer.

Pick a major and career based on the right reasons.
While considering finances is important and unavoidable, at the end of the day the student needs to realize that they need to study something that interests them and excites them. Students should find something they are passionate about and enjoy, because if say John ends up majoring in Biology and going onto medical school, it takes a lot of dedication and it is would be a shame if he discovered too late that he would rather study economics.

Lastly, students need to realize that picking a major does not mean they are picking a career and stuck on that path. This means that picking a humanities or social science major doesn’t mean a student has to become a poet or communications expert, and majoring in biology doesn’t mean a student has to become a doctor or medical professional. In fact, according to the New York Times–based on data from the Association of American Medical Colleges– “50 percent of humanities applicants were admitted to medical school, as opposed 32 percent of biological science applicants.” This means that your major will not necessarily dictate your career path, and there is plenty of time to decide.

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