How to Choose a College Major

Published by Wendy Nelson on

ChoiceHow to choose a college major – this topic is aimed more at students than parents, so please share the concepts with your child. I will start by giving you, as the parent, some things to keep in mind. Then I will share the stories of how my 3 girls decided what to study, because all kids go about this a little differently and mine are certainly good examples of this. Finally, I will provide some free resources to help your student think through this question.

Key Concepts Parents Need to Know About Choosing a College Major

  1. Every kid is different. What worked for one student to choose a college major may not work for the next student.
  2. Everyone has different motivations on how they chose what they did. Some look for their passion, some are more concerned with money or job prospects, some are good at many different things and struggle to pick one.
  3. It’s ok for your student not to know what they want to study before they get to college.
  4. To go along with #3, some colleges have good programs aimed at helping your student figure out what to study.
  5. Some universities require a student to apply to a specific school within the university (business, arts and design, engineering, education, sciences, etc.) while others just have the student apply for general admission without needing to narrow down what they want to study.
  6. Experiential learning definitely helps for choosing a college major- college summer programs for high schoolers, internships, job shadowing, summer jobs, etc.
  7. Once they get to college, the general education and elective classes and the professors they have will help your student narrow down potential fields of study.

3 Stories on Choosing a College Major

My three girls have all gone about the process of determining what to major in differently. I will share each of their stories.

My Oldest Daughter

She had no idea what she wanted to study. She knew she liked some general content areas, but nothing was jumping out. I tried to help her think through her interests as well as what she was good at, but there was nothing she felt strongly enough about to say she was going to major in it. We started looking into the “undecided” programs at the schools she was interested in. The college she chose had a very defined program for undecided students, called the Exploratory Program, that included a specific class designed to help with the decision process, along with individual counseling, self-assessments and research.

It all sounded perfect. Once my daughter was on campus and enrolled in the exploratory class, she found it to be too “touchy feely” for her taste. It was focused a lot on getting in touch with your “inner self”. She didn’t find this helpful. Additionally, the other aspects of the exploratory program required the student to take the initiative to set up advising and do their own research. So the exploratory program really didn’t help her like we thought it would. Luckily, something else did work in helping her decide on a major. She was a member of the Honors College, which was very focused on writing, thinking and working together. It also had some of the best professors on campus. She was able to further develop the love of writing she had developed in high school as well as her love for art, and more specifically art history. She was able to take several art history classes with a really good professor who praised and encouraged her research and writing efforts.

She decided she wanted to be an art history professor. And although a part of me was worried that she would have a long and hard road ahead, I knew this was the right field for her. She has an incredible aptitude for remembering the style and significance of works of art and is excited about writing 20+ page papers related to one work of art. How many people can say that?

She is currently in the second year of her masters program in art history and will go on to work on her PhD. Although sometimes she questions the practicality of her chosen field, she has continued to find great mentors and is truly passionate about the work she does.

My Middle Daughter

When my middle daughter was in high school, she was more concerned about careers that paid a lot, but engineering, computers and medicine did not hold any interest for her. She is a tremendous artist, and originally thought about graphic design. Then, her Junior year, she decided she wanted to be an architect, so we started to visit schools that had good architecture programs. One of those was University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. When we went on the visit, the architecture advisor talked up their 2-week summer architecture camp for high school students. We decided that would be important for her to do to get a taste for the field of architecture and whether it really was a good fit for her.

I really didn’t question the fit much at that point, given her artistic tendencies, but did worry about the heavy dependence on math. She did ok in math in high school, but wasn’t really interested in it and didn’t want to try that hard. After architecture camp, she said she really didn’t like a lot of the components of what they did and was sure she didn’t want to major in architecture any more. I think the modeling and precision involved in the process was not interesting to her. I see her as more of a “free form” artist who wants to do things on her terms.

She had worked with kids at the after-school day care program, as well as the park district summer camp, for a couple years. She was very good with kids. Although she had thought about teaching, it had always been a money issue for her. She didn’t think she could make enough money as a teacher to afford the lifestyle she wanted. Given that her dad had started as a teacher and her grandpa was a teacher for over 30 years, I knew that the money aspect really wasn’t the issue she was making it out to be. Yes, teacher starting salaries can’t compete with those in many of the highest paying fields, but in good areas the pay scale rises steadily and continuing education will also help to increase salary. Plus, if you calculate out the hourly rate, given having summers off, it’s really quite high. I decided I needed to help her understand budgeting – what she would need to pay for after college and what she might bring home in each check as a starting teacher in a district like ours. She realized it wasn’t that bad.

She decided she wanted to combine her love of art and her interest in teaching to become an elementary art teacher. We started exploring programs for this. In some states, you need to get a bachelors in art and then go on to get a masters certificate in teaching. As luck would have it, Illinois does not work that way and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has a good art education program within the School of Art where a student can take the test for teacher certification at the end of four years. They take some classes in the school of education and several art classes in the school of art, as well as classes focused specifically on art education. When we visited the program in the Fall of her senior year and sat in on a class, she was very excited about it.

Now, she’s in what would have been her Junior year, but she’s on track to graduate after this year and will be student teaching in the Spring. She can’t wait to get out and get her first teaching job.

My Youngest Daughter

My youngest daughter, now a Senior in high school, also expressed early interest in art and graphic design. My husband and I scratched our heads about this because we couldn’t believe two people without artistic tendencies could have 3 girls so interested in art.

She also talked sometimes about wanting to be a lawyer. She took AP US Government her Junior year and really took a liking to the subject. She decided she wanted to major in political science. A very good passing score on the AP test told me she had good aptitude for the subject, even though she probably won’t want to skip the intro class for her major. She has always displayed good leadership and reasoning skills and is also a great student with terrific time management skills. I could see her wanting to go on to law school.

I guess we’ll see whether her choice sticks after she gets to college. I will update you later.

So 3 students, and 3 different paths to choosing a major. As I said at the beginning, every student goes about this decision differently. There is no right or wrong way. Some people, like me, have a general idea of what they’re good at, but it never all comes together until later in life when they know they’ve fallen into the right field.

Resources for the Student Who is Trying to Figure Out a Major

If your student is struggling to determine a major, here are some resources that may help.

Final Recommendations

Here are my final recommendations on how you, as a parent, can help your student determine what to study.

  • Look for college summer programs for high school students in areas your student thinks they may want to study. (Seriously, the money we spent on architecture camp for my middle daughter was some of the best we have ever spent since it really helped her determine that it wasn’t the right field for her.)
  • Expose your student to different professions. Do you have contacts in any of the fields they may be interested in? If so, arrange for them to talk to these contacts about what they do every day.
  • Find job shadowing opportunities – this could be at your own place of employment, with a friend, something arranged through the high school counseling office, etc.
  • Summer internships – this could be for high school or college students. Help them look for internship opportunities. (I got my oldest daughter an internship in my IT department at work and she vowed to never, ever work in an office environment! She knew quickly that it wasn’t for her.)
  • Reassure your student that it’s ok not to know what you want to study, even if all their friends do know.
  • If your student gets to college and wants to change majors, let them know that’s ok. Help them understand that the earlier they have doubts, the earlier they should act on them because it’s easier to redirect to another course of study and still finish in four years.