For many high school students (and their parents), it's that time of year when you gather college applications and tour campuses as you consider the college you might want to attend. You take the admissions tour, look at the college's website, talk to current students and graduates-- all in an attempt to determine the best school and the best major. Particularly now with the economy on such shaky ground, and the cost of higher education rising, your parents want to see that their education dollars are well-spent.   So let's talk about that "major" question. (See my post:"You Majored in What?")

In certain cases, you will need to declare a major early.  Some specialized degrees (such as music, engineering, or pre-professional colleges/schools in universities) require an early declaration due to the number and sequential order of courses you need to take prior to graduation.  In addition, some popular fields of study (such as psychology)  tend to limit many classes to majors only.  For those reasons, if you know the major you plan to pursue, go ahead and declare.

But here are some tips for the 80% of you who don't know what you plan to do after college and don't have a major in mind yet:

1. Try to ignore the pressure to declare your major before you're ready.  It may feel like "everyone" has declared a major and knows what career they want to pursue, but that's really not the case. Surveys show that about 80% of first-year students don't know what they plan to major in-- and that over 50% of college students change their majors at least once before they graduate. Most schools allow you to pursue up to four semesters of study before you are required to declare a major, so if you need that much time, take it.

2. If you think you want to major in one subject, but aren't sure, try to select a college that offers flexibility.  For example, if you are considering a music major but aren't 100% committed to the idea, you might want to attend a college/university that has a strong music program but will also allow you to take other courses your first year, rather than a conservatory which locks you into a heavy music curriculum your first year.

3. The primary goal of higher education is education.  Yes, you want to find employment after you graduate, but you will be investing a lot of money in the classes you will be taking so focus on what you will learn, how you will develop your thinking, and how you will grow as a function of your experience in college.  You want to be inspired by professors and intrigued by new knowledge.  That is the priceless part of the education-- try not to cut it off by focusing exclusively on the job you will get later on. You can supplement your education with internships, leadership in student organizations, on-campus employment, and other activities that will enhance your resume and broaden your job opportunities.

4.Take a look at the range of majors your prospective colleges have to offer.  Find out which schools are the strongest in your areas of interest.  Colleges may look the same on the surface, but dig a little and you'll learn what makes each one unique.  Some have outstanding study abroad programs, some are known for their science curriculum and laboratories, others for their arts programs, etc.  If you have a general idea of your interests, seek out the programs with the best reputation in that area.  In general, your employment prospects will improve if you attend a school known for the major you select, with a sufficient number of majors to justify on-campus recruiting by employers.

5. Read up on majors that are unfamiliar.  Just what does one study in "sociology" or "rhetoric"?  Take a look at the classes offered in each department to see which ones pique your interest.  You can use your high school interests as a starting point, but don't stop there. 

  • If you like science, but aren't sure what to major in, try an introductory science class that intrigues you (geology? astronomy? meteorology? biochemistry?) and see what happens.
  • If you did well in Spanish, for instance, consider a new foreign language when you get to college.  Consider what cultures you'd like to learn more about-- in college you'll experience a broader range of languages to study such as Chinese,Japanese,or Arabic.  And the career opportunities related to language study can be quite interesting--in business, education, government or nonprofit settings. Add courses in business, anthropology, and international studies to round out your language study.

6. While you're touring the campus, check out the bookstore.  Look at the textbooks for various classes-- what looks appealing?  What books might you read even if you weren't required to for a class?  That might provide a clue for a possible major.

7. Be prepared to be surprised (parents, too!).  Most colleges have distribution or core curriculum requirements that require you to take classes in subjects you are currently unfamiliar with-- or maybe even dislike.  Keep an open mind-- one question I ask my seniors who take my career classes is: "How many of you are majoring in the subject you planned to major in when you came to college?"  Out of a class of 40 students I usually see only about 5 raised hands.  I then ask them how they discovered their chosen major--- and for a majority of those students it was because they "had" to take a class in the subject and found it and/or the professor so interesting they decided to learn more.

8. With the exception of a few specific areas (accounting or engineering, for example) your major does not equal your career.  You will use your major as a starting point-- a way of thinking or a perspective-- and you will add internships and other experiences that will help you adapt your major to whatever career field you pursue. As you progress through your freshman and sophomore years, look for departments where you enjoy the professors, the classes, and the knowledge you're acquiring. Appreciating what you're learning makes it more likely you will get good grades-- something employers care about.

9.  Look for courses or experiences which will help you develop skills valued in any work setting: computer skills, writing and communication, analytic thinking, creativity, basic mathematic/accounting skills, etc. Just remember that these skills can be learned in virtually any major.

10. As a career counselor, one of the saddest situations I see are seniors who chose a major because of the money they thought they would earn or the job they thought it would get them-- even though they didn't really enjoy the field of study.  The workplace is too volatile for that kind of predictive behavior. Careers which are "hot" when you enter school can quickly cool off or become glutted. Hot "new" technologies get replaced. And jobs open up in fields that didn't even exist when you first enrolled in college.  Develop skills which will serve you in a variety of settings. Flexibility will be the key to your future- so learn some basic workplace skills while you major in what you want.

Find me on Facebook and Twitter, and to learn more about college majors and careers, check out my book, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career.

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