Choosing a College Major

Choosing a College Major
Choosing a college major represents one of the first important life decisions you will make as a young adult. Don't let this scare you, though; think of it as the beginning of a new phase in your life. This new phase will be full of self-discovery and personal exploration. Determining the right college major is a journey. Along the way you will learn more about who you are and who you want to be. Few people know exactly what they want to major in when they begin college. Those who claim to know usually discover new interests in college that cause them to rethink their options. You'll find that those options seem endless.

In Choosing Your College Major: How to Chart Your Ideal Path, Dr. Randall S. Hansen states that the most important piece of advice he gives to students who are choosing a major is this: Don't panic. After all, choosing your college major represents a big step in your life, but you always have options, and you can always expand upon what you learn as you go along. It is a fact that college life will help you discover your true interests. And more than half of all students will change their majors at least once, according to the National Research Center for College and University Admissions.

So What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?
Chances are you have been facing this question, in one form or another, ever since you were little. And your response has likely changed since your kindergarten days. Your interests have grown with you, and now it is time to think about those interests and how they will influence your job prospects. If you are still in high school, a good place to start is with your guidance counselor. He or she should have materials to help you take inventory of your interests. While some experts caution that traditional "interest inventory" activities are not reliable enough to base "major" decisions on, they do serve at least one good purpose—they make you start thinking about what you really like and don't like to do. So while you should never let any test dictate your future, take it for what it is—a good place to start the self-analysis process.

Students who are already in college will find that their college career centers offer interest inventory assessments as well. You can also find online assessments—most of which charge a fee. Careerkey.com offers one such personality test that you can complete online for a modest price. A more expensive assessment is available at DiscoverYourPersonality.com. Many more can be found by doing a simple online search. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide if you think such an assessment is worth taking. Just be sure to keep in mind that if you do pay for such an assessment, the results should be only a guiding factor in your search for a major.

Your values, goals, and your motivations for what you want out of a job and career also play a large role in choosing a college major. In other words, what are you looking for in a career? Do you view your future career as a means of achieving status? Is money a motivator? Or are you seeking something that contributes to the well-being of society, but will probably never make you rich?

Develop a Strategy
Choosing a college major involves strategizing. Your motivations and goals play a big role in this process. Will your major be a stepping stone towards a graduate degree? If so, you may want to think about the undergraduate options for entrance into medical school, law school, or a graduate program in another area. According to Choosing and Using Your Major, published by University Career Service at the University of Virginia, this is an important consideration. Will your college career end in four years, or are you preparing for an advanced education? The other two strategies this publication emphasizes are choosing a major that helps you develop as a human being and devising a marketable combination of majors and minors that will be most beneficial to you in the current marketplace. A combination of these two strategies should contribute to your marketability as a well-rounded applicant.
Finally, you should closely examine your abilities when you are in this initial stage of research. If you hated math in high school and struggled to get a passing grade, majoring in a math-intensive field like engineering might not be a good match for you. On the other hand, if you excelled in English classes and found your classes to be both stimulating and rewarding, you might choose to look into careers that involve communication. Whatever your academic strengths and weaknesses, you should have a basic idea as to your learning capabilities and your aptitudes for different subject matter. Your high school counselors or your college adviser are good sources of help in this area as well. Since they will have knowledge of your scholastic aptitude, make an effort to discuss any questions or concerns you have about your strengths or weaknesses in a subject area. They can help you understand the types of courses that will be best suited for you.

Once you've narrowed your options to a few majors that you would like to explore in depth, there is still a lot of research to be done. You have a list of possible majors at this point, so it's time to find out more about them. There are many, many publications available that offer a wealth of information on choosing college majors. First, take a look at your college's course catalog and the individual curriculums for the majors you are interested in. If the courses look intriguing, that's a good sign. Even if some of them look a little scary, don't despair—you should expect to be challenged in your courses. After all, the goal is to strive to enrich your experience in a subject matter. You aren't expected to be an expert when you are just beginning.

At this stage you should also visit your library or bookstore. The number of publications out there describing college majors is enormous. Books such as The Princeton Review's Guide to College Majors provide additional information about college majors that you won't find in your college's course catalog. You'll discover fun facts about the major and potential careers and salary ranges. Of added value are related majors that you might want to explore. This can really prove valuable if you are still contemplating the pros and cons of a major because you might find that you've overlooked a related major that better suits your interests. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook (available online at http://www.bls.gov/oco) is also a good resource. Here you will find out about current salary ranges and projected job opportunities in all fields. For example, if you are thinking of going into teaching and you want to make sure that there is going to be a need for teachers in four or five years, this is the resource to consult.

Talk to Your Friends, Family, Teachers, and Other Professionals
The human factor also plays a critical role in this big decision, so be sure to connect with peers, professors, family, and professionals. This is extremely important. You really should strive to base this first big decision about a college major on a well-rounded and thoroughly researched process. However, you don't want to base your decision on what looks good on paper, or solely on what you think.

Your peers offer a great source of support. After all, they are going through the same thing that you are. Talk to them about their career goals and how they are approaching the process of deciding on a major. Just knowing that you are not alone in this experience helps ease the stress. Your peers can also motivate you to become involved in more activities as well. In fact, students advise that becoming involved in as many extracurricular activities and student organizations that interest you is one of the best ways to find your true passions. Simply put, if you're interested in something, college is the place to dive in and give it a try. No other place will offer you so many social opportunities pertaining to such a diversified group of topics. Join, join, join. It's the only way to discover things about yourself that you'd never discover without trying.

Additionally, your family provides unique insight into who you are. Nobody knows you like they do. While you want to make sure that you make up your own mind and are not pushed to do something you don't want to do, listening to and considering their opinions is usually a smart move.

College professors and advisers are also important sources of guidance. If you are serious about a major, make an appointment to talk with the department head of the major. It is professors' jobs to teach students about what their field has to offer. Don't be shy or assume someone is too busy to talk to you. To the contrary! Most professors love to tell you all about their field and why it is so exciting to them. They'll also be able to give you good advice as to the opportunities that exist for graduates. They will know what recent graduates are doing and might even be able to put you in contact with some. After all, a recent graduate can tell you the real-world implications of working in an entry-level job in a given field.

This leads us to consider professionals at all levels in a field. If you go about this from a reverse perspective—knowing the jobs or careers in which you are interested, but still unsure about the best major to pursue—make a phone call or send an e-mail to the companies you want to work for or the professionals themselves. Your college should also be able to provide you with alumni contacts who will be happy to discuss their careers with you. They have been in your shoes at one time in their lives, so who better to speak with? Set up a time to visit with them in their place of employment. You might even request to shadow them for a day to learn even more about their jobs. Speaking to professionals in a field can be very helpful, particularly in that it will teach you that there are many paths to a given career. For example, you might assume that the account executive you speak to at an advertising firm has a degree in marketing or business, only to find out he or she majored in education in college.

This point brings up something that should ease your mind. Choosing and Using Your Major puts it this way: The relationship of college majors to career fields varies. It isn't true that you are locking yourself into a career field with any given major. Now, that is not to say that some careers don't require specific majors. Obviously if you want to be a marine biologist, you must study marine biology. Or if you want to become an engineer, you must study engineering. Yet there are many careers that have much less rigid requirements. And many college majors don't lead to any one specific job or career. Often your leadership activities outside of the college classroom or your volunteer and internship experience will make you a strong candidate for a job—no matter your college major. This is all the more reason to make your college experience a well-rounded one.

Your journey begins right now. You are reading and thinking about your college major at this very moment. You have learned, however, that there is no need to panic. Many students start college undecided about a major, and that is perfectly normal. You have plenty of time to explore introductory courses before making that official declaration. Declaring a major sometime around your third or fourth semester of college won't cause you any lost time or money. In fact, you'll probably save some paperwork by not declaring too early—and having to change! As Dr. Hansen points out in Choosing a College Major: How to Chart Your Ideal Path, studies show that most people change careers four or five times during their lifetimes. In other words, you'll face many important decisions in your lifetime. Yes, choosing your college major represents your first big decision as an adult, but it is only the first of many. And you can't go wrong with pursuing something that makes you happy.

Additional Resources
The Career Key
http://www.careerkey.org

This online career assessment is available for a small fee.
The College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com/csearch/majors_careers/profiles
The College Board offers a Major & Career Profiles section on its Web site, which provides a detailed overview of majors and careers, including questions to ask when searching for college programs, recommended high school classes, typical college classes, degree requirements, and career options.

Occupational Outlook Handbook
http://www.bls.gov/oco
The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides comprehensive information on careers, including job duties, educational requirements, earnings, and employment outlook. It is available in print and online.

The Princeton Review
http://www.princetonreview.com/college/default.asp
The Princeton Review provides an overview of hundreds of majors, as well as a Career Quiz, at its Web site.

What Can I Do With a Major in...?
http://www.uncwil.edu/stuaff/career/Majors
http://www3.ashland.edu/services/cardev/cdm-major.html
http://www.utexas.edu/student/careercenter/careers
http://www.asu.edu/studentaffairs/career/Students/ChoosingAMajor/whatcanIdowith.htm
http://career.utk.edu/students/majors.asp

Many colleges and universities provide helpful information to students interested in learning more about educational and career options as they relate to a specific major. The Web sites listed above are good examples of such resources. You can find additional Web sites by performing a Web search using the following phrase: "What Can I Do With a Major in... (add the major of your choice)?" While content differs by Web site, most of these sites offer an overview of the major and a list of necessary personal skills, related careers, typical employers, professional organizations, and Web links for further study.


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