In Part One, we defined what a college major is and identified some steps a student can take to narrow down a list of potential fields of study. In this Part 2 we will learn about some common pitfalls on the road to choosing a major.
DON’T let your parents, friends, or professors dictate your choice of major or place constraints on your choice of major.
Parents, friends, and professors almost always have useful thoughts and input that can be part of the student’s decision process about major. These people may be more objective about your aptitudes and skills than you are. Some have had ample opportunity to observe you over a long period of time. However, sometimes this input becomes too directive. In a worst case scenario, a parent makes financial support for college depend on following the parent’s choice of major.
The most common form that this parental interference takes is pushing the student toward a pre-professional major that leads directly to a respected and lucrative job-engineer, physician, attorney. Parents naturally want their children to have financial security and independence. However, parents often are less well informed about the careers that are open to students who major in Geography, Music, English, or Russian Studies. A student with an intellectual passion for History who is forced into Biochemistry by a parent is unlikely to be successful in the major. When I see a transcript that has “A” grades in History and English and “D” grades in Chemistry and Biology, I immediately suspect that a parent has pushed this student into an inappropriate major.
DON’T assume that your college major must lead directly to a specific type of job.
A university education prepares the student to be a literate, well-rounded, thoughtful, analytical participant in society. Many of the skills acquired in college are of a general nature and can be applied in many different professional settings. The workforce is full of people whose undergraduate majors bear only an indirect relationship to the positions they hold.
Further, students with a variety of undergraduate majors achieve that professional focus later in graduate or professional school. Philosophy is one of the best majors for pre-law students. An English major may decide to pursue a graduate degree in communications or technical writing.
Even students who pursue the most pre-professional majors, such as Accounting or Engineering, may find that they work in the field for a while but then move into a new field. The accountant may want to become a financial planner; the engineer may move into project management. They may need to come back to college for a second bachelor’s degree or a postgraduate certificate in order to make the shift. Therefore, the choice of undergraduate major is only one of the building blocks in a long career.
DON’T stay with a major when there is clear handwriting on the wall that you are not performing well in the required courses.
Even if your parents are optometrists and you have always wanted to follow in their footsteps, if you are repeatedly failing all the prerequisite courses for admission to optometry school, that profession is not a realistic option for you. An academic advisor (like me) or a career counselor can help you step back and analyze where your interests and skills can take you. Many, many students come into college wanting to major in computer science because they love computers (especially the game development aspects) and yet the coursework proves to be very complex, demanding, and difficult. This is when they conclude that they prefer to be computer hobbyists but major in a non-technical field. Similarly, a student who fails the audition for the music major or the portfolio review for the art major twice needs to move in a different direction.
Sticking with your original plan when it obviously is not viable is irrational and it fills up your transcript with poor grades that will drag down your grade point average and prevent you from getting into graduate programs, internships, etc.
DON’T feel that there is something wrong with you because your choice of major is not obvious or if you change your major one or more times during your college years.
Some of the most talented and intelligent college students who are very successful after college struggle with the choice of major. In fact, my university offers a major in “Interdisciplinary Studies” that is an opportunity for a creative student to design their own unique major. This is an excellent option for students whose interests straddle multiple traditional fields. Having a difficult time choosing a major can also indicate that you are good at many things-both science and arts, for example.
Occasionally, but only occasionally, a student’s inability to choose a major is a reflection of his or her lack of commitment to pursuing a college degree. Students who report to college because they are “supposed to” and not because they choose to may meander through some general education courses, but be unable to identify a field for in depth study. Such students may need some time out from college to work and to develop a more focused plan for the future.
There is a lot of pressure from parents, peers, and professors to declare a major and stick with it. Many scholarships hinge on commitment to a certain academic path. Nonetheless, students need time to explore the possibilities and to test themselves against the rigors of potential majors.
Choosing a college major that is suitable for you is part of planning your academic program thoughtfully and getting the most from the college experience. Sometimes students fall readily into a major that fits them well. Often, however, it takes some research, exploration, and experimentation to settle into that major that feels right. I hope that following the suggested “Do’s” and “Don’ts” of this two-part article will be helpful for students grappling with this important decision right now.
Personal and professional experience