The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Seven Major Ways to Choose a College Minor

How to select college courses mindfully.

How do, or should, students go about selecting a minor—those five or six courses in a discipline other than their major? 

Colleges vary in their requirements: At my university minors are optional, but most schools seem to require students to have a minor. The most extreme requirement I’ve seen is at the College of Idaho—they have an intriguing new system of general education in which students complete three minors in addition to their major. Whatever the requirements, a wise choice of minor can significantly improve the college experience.

Exploring minors from a variety of perspectives can help students make their most informed choices. Let’s look at seven principles that I discuss with students as I help them explore not only minors, but other elective courses as well. Which of these principles are best? Of course, that depends on such factors as student backgrounds, goals, motivations, and preferences.  See what you think:

The Convenience Principle: "I've already taken a few courses in one department and just realized that I only need two more for the minor.” Students employ this principle surprisingly frequently in my experience. Sometimes it’s the only factor they think of. Or course, I don’t recommend this strategy unless the remaining courses really add value or interest.   

The Similarity Principle: Students often choose minors that are very close to their major. For psychology majors, these might include communication or sociology. On the positive side, students can benefit from some related perspectives on issues they really care about—such as family dynamics or interdisciplinary social-science research. On the negative side, this strategy might appear to graduate programs and others that students are not broadening their horizons, are scared of the “hard” sciences, or just want to take more psychology in disguise. (For related arguments, see the wonderful blog post by Dana Dunn on advising.)

The Difference Principle: For psychology majors, minors that are significantly different could include theater, astronomy, or medieval French literature. I like this principle. Graduate programs, professional schools, eHarmony.com contacts, and employers might appreciate students who pursue broad-based studies. One belief I share with students who may not see the wisdom of this principle is that true creativity—and sometimes income—often come from combining information and processes from two disparate disciplines.

The Exploration Principle: I often encourage students to choose a minor to explore something that really motivates them, no matter how related or unrelated to their major. These minors might reflect interests related to jobs, careers, graduate programs, and/or more personal interests. A related principle is: 

The "Coulda Woulda Shoulda" Principle: When students are exploring electives and minors, I might ask something like this: “Picture yourself five or 10 years from now, sitting in your living room, a little bored. You say to yourself, ‘Man, I wish I would have taken ______ in college when I had the chance (and it would have been cheaper).’ What might be in that black space for you?” 

The Skills Principle: Students can choose minors that explicitly involve skills, such as writing, Spanish, math, and marketing. Of course, all college courses give you the chance to practice skills, which can include working in teams to solve complex problems, communicating orally and in writing, critical thinking, taking notes, sitting quietly, and/or sleeping with their eyes open. Some of these general skills are more relevant to students’ futures than:

The Principle that Doesn’t Exist: You’ll notice that there’s no specific “What Employers Want” Principle. That’s because it appears that most employers don’t care about students’ minors (or even majors, in a lot of cases). What matters are the skills you learn in college in addition to the “material.” More on that in another post!

My last principle should be invoked no matter which of the others students use:

The Fun Principle: Students can choose courses and minors that are fun (broadly defined to include engaging, useful, stimulating, etc.), and/or find ways to have fun with their choices.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012). 

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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