Three Tips for Choosing a College Major
Today’s students have seemingly unlimited choices after high school, from choosing a major at a college or university, to considering trade schools, to deciding on a satisfying career path. Much of high school, especially in the latter two years, is spent “prepping” to apply and get into a place of higher education, with little formal preparation regarding how to best make effective choices once you get there or for the long term. Students are often told to pursue their “passion,” though they have almost no external experience of knowing what that may be or whether they are suited for it.
Understanding this paradox of choice is the first step to overcoming it. In terms of choosing a college major, it’s important for students to have perspective and understand that this decision is not singularly crucial to future success. The key to making the “right” decision is to consider what you wish to study while at the same time assessing which occupations may be a good fit for you and then getting proper job exposure. The combination of these strategies will lead you to making an informed, comprehensive choice rather than taking a linear path of getting a degree in a certain subject and hoping it’s useful to you in the job market.
Here are three important, practical tips for choosing a college major and thinking beyond that choice.
Tip 1: Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
Deciding on a major can feel like a boulder on your shoulders. However, putting such pressure and stress on yourself is counterproductive. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the major you choose in college isn’t a critical factor in terms of your future success. In fact, experts agree that earning the degree and gaining real-world experience in college is what provides a competitive professional edge—not your specific field of study.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that your major doesn’t matter. However, career paths are remarkably less linear than they used to be and most people make significant career changes within and outside of their professions several times during adulthood. Not only is it possible to change your major and potential career, but it’s more than likely that you will. Therefore, letting the choice of a major be a source of paralyzing anxiety is a sign you are being too hard on yourself.
Tip 2: Take a Career Assessment or two
Most high schoolers have the opportunity to take career assessments. These are designed to gather information such as interests, aptitudes, skills, and motivations, compile the data, and present results that indicate potential occupations that align with the information reported. Unfortunately, there isn’t one career assessment that provides a “perfect match” due to different algorithms and formulas. Therefore, it’s a good idea for students to take as many career assessments as possible to eliminate any outliers and to get an idea of commonalities within the results.
The best strategy for gaining insight from career assessments is to write down each result. Even if your list of potential occupations is long, having it available as a reference is beneficial in helping to make future decisions. In addition, it can be difficult to choose just one of the responses provided for many questions in these assessments. You may feel ambiguous about your true feelings, depending on the question and available answers. In this case, it’s advisable to take the assessment again and make the opposite choice as a response. This may provide career ideas to add to your list that you hadn’t considered.
Tip 3 (the one most people neglect): Get Work Exposure
In general, students choose a major based on what they believe will be an interesting and fulfilling field of study while in college, or based on what they believe will make for a productive and lucrative career. The problem arises when students reach their upper-level courses and realize that their choice may not meet their expectations or interests. At this point, students are faced with changing majors, and perhaps schools, or continuing with a less satisfying educational path. Therefore, it’s important for students to consider earning a degree in tandem with pursuing a career. Many college students focus on graduating with a degree and are then left struggling with how to use it in the workforce.
Studies show that the most helpful advice for deciding on a major and career path is not from college counselors or advisors, but people with actual experience in the targeted job field. This type of experiential advice can empower and motivate students to understand what their actual interests and goals are, thereby enhancing their ability to make successful decisions regarding their major and future work. Job exposure provides realistic and relevant information, which in turn results in informed choices.
So, how can collegiate students gain effective and realistic job exposure, even before committing to a particular major? Here are three strategies:
School resources: Many high schools, colleges, and universities have career centers where students can find internships, co-ops, and job-shadowing opportunities. Of course, resources like this vary among different campuses and there are limitations. In addition, the process can be time-consuming and labor-intensive for students who are balancing classes and other aspects of collegiate life. However, these resources are an opportunity for students to begin narrowing their focus by eliminating jobs and fields of study that they don’t find appealing.
Network resources: Students should also be encouraged to use their personal, professional, and social media networks as resources. Friends, family, and even school officials can put students in contact with people in various career fields for the opportunity to interview individuals that hold different jobs. Once students have a point of contact available, it’s essential to prepare meaningful, direct questions regarding what the occupation actually entails and any recommendations for success. These questions should be specific and open-ended in order to gain a realistic idea of the person’s career or professional industry.
Career Conversations: Some students may not feel comfortable reaching out to people they don’t know about their careers. In this case, Career Conversations is a great option. This unique program allows students to sign up for an account that provides access to various job documentaries featuring practical, in-depth, and detailed portrayals of different careers and job fields. Professionals in these videos answer relevant questions to provide insight for viewers into their jobs. Students can view and study these videos to gain a valuable impression of what they can pursue for their future.