Best Ways to Choose a College Major
by Howard Freedman
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Deciding on a college major is like trying to predict what a student will do for the rest of his or her life. It is difficult to make a decision that is based on their credentials influenced by the economy and technological changes. Unless they have a clear and unwavering passion, drive and intellect to make that decision student, students should be open-minded and practical about choosing a major.
Although many colleges do not allow a student to declare their major until after their first or second year, they should focus on those majors that provide the foundation to pursue worthwhile opportunities, especially to pay off student loans in as short a time as possible.
Even if a student has no idea of their major, they should consider colleges that offer many majors rather than those that focus on a select few. They could also start off at a two-year college, transfer from their state or low-cost college, take a gap year off, join the military or work for a year. One way or the other, the experience is also a great teacher for helping students select the major for which they are the most comfortable.
In order to facilitate this process, I have built the following MAJORS model to provide students with another tool for deciding on a major.
Meeting with others. Meet with your guidance counselors to ask for a list of recent student graduates with the colleges they are attending. These are the students that have already decided on a college and major and can provide useful insight. Students may feel more comfortable networking with other students with whom they have something in common rather than with adults. If and when they are ready to network with adults about majors and careers, they should prepare a list of questions including what they do, educational requirements and recommended colleges. They should be sensitive to their time and insight they can provide.
Aptitude: Liking a particular major does not necessarily mean that the students have the aptitude or ability to pursue it. If, for example, the student decides to become a doctor but does not have the grades or test scores to get into medical school, they can pursue a related career in health sciences, occupational or physical therapy, etc. to remain in the same field but in a different capacity. There are also personality and aptitude tests and teacher recommendations that can open a student’s mind to related majors.
Judgment: This is where counseling and coaching are so important. I have met with many students that chose the same majors and colleges as their friends without further thought. They did not know what else to take or felt more secure with their friends and avoid more stressful decisions. These are the wrong and expensive reasons to select a major or a college, especially when a less costly degree may be earned at a community or state college.
Opportunities: The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department Labor provides a wealth of information regarding projected job growth, earnings, skills required and related jobs from 2008 to 2018. These projections can also be used to focus on which majors will provide the greatest opportunities after four years of college.
One interesting statistic is that that the highest job growth for those with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree are: registered nurses, accountants and auditors, elementary school teachers, management analysts; and computer software engineers. These translate into health science, education, business management, accounting, computer science and engineering majors. Loan forgiveness programs for education majors and other careers may also be available to lessen overall education costs after graduation.
There are also many gifted and talented creative students with artistic and writing talents that cannot get jobs after graduation. In their case, the best win-win situation is to pursue dual majors in which they can gain employment after graduation while pursuing their artistic and creative talents.
Research: During the college selection process, students should research the graduate placement rate, starting salaries and positions graduates have accepted. They can also check with professional organizations to learn which colleges provide the talent pool from where the industry is drawing and any scholarships they may offer. Job search sites also identify those jobs that are in demand and the required qualifications.
Scholarships: Many colleges go through a process called “enrollment management” or in other words, they are scouting for students. Find out how they are awarding merit aid and the types of students they are pursuing. Find if there are any colleges offering new majors to attract incoming students. Identify colleges that offer co-operative education programs where a student can get hands-on experience and be paid for it too.
Always remember that a college major does not lock you into a lifetime of doing one thing. As long as you have gotten a college degree and capable of learning, there will be many opportunities that may not even exist today. Once you are out of college, the choice is yours as long as you give it your best.