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How important is it to know your major before you enter college?NOT!

February 21, 2024

Choosing a College by Major?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

On the face of it, it seems like a simple enough question—what will you major in when you go to college? Most colleges use majors as the building blocks for departments, degrees, and even housing, so they must be pretty important. 

But there’s a dark side to all this majoring business. Ask the average 17-year-old what they’d like to do with their life, and the honest answer would likely have something to do with eating cereal for dinner, and staying in their pajamas til noon. Yet, these same juniors and seniors step through the counseling office door, and feel compelled to offer some kind of answer to “Any idea what you want to major in?” with deep conviction—even if they’re making the answer up. 

Many, many, many colleges are designed for students to spend nearly all of their first two years trying things out, making a decision about major at the end of this incredible journey, while still graduating on time. Some majors require earlier commitment, but if their heart really doesn’t know where to turn, turning to one of these colleges is the best thing they can possibly do. Well-meaning parents may not agree, making it all the more important for counselors to make it very clear that Undecided is a viable, necessary, and ultimately successful, choice for many. 

In addition—and this is important—the reason many kids don’t bother with college at all, especially students who would be the first in their family to go to college, is because they don’t know what they want to major in. While many of these families claim cost keeps them from sending a child to college, what they—including the student—mean is that they can’t see any point on spending the money they have if the student doesn’t know what they want to do once college is over. So why bother?

The end result is that many students simply make up a major, either to keep Mom and Dad happy or impress their friends. They may even convince themselves this is the right answer, until they have to actually take a class in what they’ve claimed is their life’s calling. 

What can counselors do to eliminate the Myth of Major? Easy:

Promote the fact that Undecided is a very popular major—sometimes as many as two-thirds of all students are undecided at the start of the school year.

Point out that an incredible number of students change their major several times once they actually get to college.

Show them—through programs like Big Future—that it’s possible to build a strong college list without choosing a major.

Ask college reps who visit your school to talk about how flexible their institution is in switching majors. Some may not be, but many are. Either way, the student knows what they’re getting into.

Use articles like this one to show that successful business people rarely major in business, and talk about why that matters. 

Have events like Alumni Day to bring graduates back to talk about the college experience, making sure you include several speakers who started out as Undecideds. 

The student who knew their major in the womb is terrific to work with—but so is the student who needs, or wants, to look around for a while. The first group doesn’t need to be assured their convictions are OK; the second group does. Time to counsel.


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