Here’s a question for you: Which comes first—the college or the major? And the answer, of course, is that it depends..
The cost of college and the increasing competition for career-worthy jobs have increased families’ concern that college be “worth it,” both in terms of dollars spent and the likelihood of employment. The concern for the vocational value of college has brought with it high school curricula that charts students’ coursework along specific career paths.
However, selecting a major based solely on economic and employment factors seldom results in a career that is successful or satisfying. The major has to suit the student’s interests, skills, and personal strengths.
Deciding on a major too early–before a student really understands what the major requires and what jobs are associated with it–can result in complicated transfers and career dissatisfaction. Deciding on a major too late often provokes an extended undergraduate stay and, yes, more tuition dollars.
Admission practices of colleges and universities may also determine when the major is first declared. Some universities will admit to a specific college depending on the major. For example, a student interested in marketing may be required to apply directly to the school of business. A student’s chances for admission at these institutions often vary by college, and transferring from one major to another may be complicated or unlikely.
However, many other colleges admit students with the expectation that the first year or two will be exploratory. Early undergraduates at these colleges may choose to take a more diverse curriculum before declaring a major, usually sometime in the sophomore year. These colleges do not discourage and may even welcome “undeclared” or “exploratory” majors.
Additionally, some majors allow for little “wiggle room.” Programs in engineering and many health-related majors, for example, require that the student take a very prescribed curriculum, leaving little time to sample the smorgasbord of classes the college has to offer. Students in these fields often have to declare early.
All of these factors influence how much weight a student gives to his or her intended major when selecting colleges.
How can we help students think about potential majors?
Courses and Activities—The most obvious predictors of major are the classes and activities that interest the student and where he or she finds success. Students are encouraged to strike a balance between taking rigorous core classes and classes that provide insights into potential careers. Taking too many specialized courses may limit college opportunities, but cramming a schedule with nothing but “should takes” may put a damper on the student’s enthusiasm for school.
Self-Reflection—We often ask students “How are you doing in….?” instead of “What do you like about….?” The first question is all about performance, but the second question gets to the student’s interests, values, and skills–the three qualities that drive the selection of major.
Assessments and Inventories—Inventories are easily administered in group settings or as part of standardized tests like the ACT. Results are sorted by computer and reported as “matches.” Unfortunately, an important component is often overlooked: the face-to-face conversation with a trained interpreter. Assessments can be valuable if the interpretation focuses on the student’s preferences and not just on the list of matching careers.
Internships, Volunteering and Work—Because they provide opportunities for students to experience work settings and communicate with adults about their work, these activities have a valuable place in a student’s calendar. There’s nothing like a “day in the life” to realize if something fits or doesn’t.
College Course Offerings—Department pages usually aren’t the snazziest stops on the college web site, but they do offer a wealth of information about the courses that are offered within a particular department and the requirements to graduate with such a major. How does the student react to the courses listed on the department page? With a grin or a groan? This reaction says a lot!
Our students will live in a world full of majors that are unimaginable to us with career possibilities that don’t yet exist. Their professional paths won’t have the prescribed, graded steps of K-12 education. Some students will be ready to declare a major as they search for colleges, and some will want to do more exploration. There are colleges that fit both outlooks, and that’s what’s important in the college selection process.