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Choosing a College Major

What Questions Should You be Asking Yourself?

Graduation season is winding down and summer is arriving. Many recent high school graduates will be this fall’s first year college students. As they anticipate college, many or most of them will be entertaining various college majors. Although quite a few of these college-bound students have already chosen a major, it is the case that first and second (and sometimes even third) year college students do change their minds, switching from one major to another to another. That’s OK—college is all about experimentation, so it’s better to explore and to make an informed decision rather than to choose an area of study and to stick with it even if you don’t find it very interesting or challenging or whatever.

So, how should you choose a major? And no, the correct answer is not “pick the one that will lead to the highest salary.” There are lots of people (you may know some) who picked a career based on financial remuneration but are leading (to borrow from Thoreau) lives of quiet desperation. They don’t like what they do, can’t wait to retire, but are stuck in place for decades.

Don’t let that be you. If you find something that pays well and gives meaning to your life, then run, don’t walk. But don’t choose something that doesn’t interest you just because it pays well—ample evidence from positive psychology clearly demonstrates that money does not lead to happiness.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you think about a college major:

What are your strongest academic skills? Do those skills relate well to your intended major?

Do you like working solo or in groups or teams?

Do you see yourself working in an office setting? Could you work for a large corporation or would you prefer to be in a smaller setting?

Are you a “self-starter” or do you need structure to get going on work? If you’ve had jobs in high school, did you have responsibilities that you carried out or was a supervisor always telling you what to do?

What things make you feel stressed? Are any of these stressors at all related to your intended major? For example, if you find solving math problems to be stressful, you may not want to pursue engineering.

Did any of your past jobs create stress for you? In what ways?

If you don’t end up pursuing your intended college major (and remember, it’s ok not to have one yet), do you have a back-up major in mind? If yes, what is it? If no, why not?

In your mind, what qualities make a person successful?

As you think about your answers to these questions, here’s one more to consider: Do you want a job, a career, or a vocation? A job simply pays the bills. Such financial security does not necessarily provide any satisfaction or identity. Individuals with jobs don’t necessarily recommend their line of work to others—it’s just something happened into and can do to support their lives outside work.

A career is a bit more motivating. People who have a career work for the next promotion and then work for the next higher position, and so on. Careerists work hard and in order to advance they must be good at what they do. They must—because they compete with other people in order to move up. Career folks are always on the look out for the next move.

In contrast, having a vocation is like having a “calling” to do something—and the “thing” in question is an important, even essential part of the person’s life. Vocations provide meaning, satisfaction, purpose, and pleasure. People with a vocation love what they do and would find it hard to do anything else. They are excited to get to work each day, and many don’t ever think about retirement.

Now, you may not yet know enough about your intended major to say whether it will lead you to a job, a career, or to a vocation. But you can think about whether you would prefer one of these three options to the other two. I encourage you to spend some time this summer thinking about your major and your future. What do you really want? How will you know you are making (have made) the right choice?

More from Dana S Dunn Ph.D.
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