Choosing a Major

Last week I met a Dad at a social event whose daughter went to Northwestern University. Through the course of my conversation with him, I stumbled upon the details regarding his son’s education and learnt that he is in a community college in the US. Not that this boy is any less bright but his reason for choosing a community college was that he wanted to be clearer about what he wants to major in. While this is an extreme case, the fact is that choosing what you want to do for the rest of your life is fraught with anxiety for many students and their parents, so you’re not alone if you have no idea of what to choose.

I just wish there were an exact formula to determine what your skills are best suited for but trust me, you and only you can figure this out over time. Of course, a bit of guidance and career assessment help along the way would never hurt.  Even for kids who seem quite sure of what they want to major in, mostly end up switching their choices once they are exposed to lots and lots of courses in college.

Did you just scoff at this idea? Read this…. Most estimates say 80% of college students will change majors at least once and about 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided” (US data).

Cornell specifically mentions on their website “It is not uncommon for students to have an initial interest in one area and then, as they discover the many options that Cornell has to offer, decide to change their plan (major).

Claire Porter realised her mistake as soon as she began her degree in politics at Bristol. Two terms into her studies she wanted to switch her single honours degree to a joint honours in politics and social policy. “The focus of the course was on international politics and my interest lay more in single-policy issues,” says Porter. “Often you’re not sure what your specific areas of interest are before you start.

In college, students have the intellectual freedom to learn essentially anything that they want to and sure it’s quite a tricky business whittling down the choices. But does that mean that you lay back presuming that one fine day the wisdom will dawn upon you to know which option is the best?
Of course not…..you must at least start exploring options. It’s not critical that you map out your whole future at 17, but knowing what you’re good at and enjoy doing will help you narrow the playing field and provide direction. Guneet Dhillon from Sanskriti Schoolmentions how he narrowed his choice to computer engineering and robotics engineering because he loves programming; “In high school, I enjoyed programming and was fascinated by how complex task could be solved using computers. I was intrigued by the vast potential of computer science to solve real world problems. I am now looking forward to attend the Turing Scholar program at Computer Science department at UT Austin.

Here are FIVE effective ways to narrow down your choices:

  1. Do your research: To begin with, go through the College Board webpage to get a fair idea of all majors options and the potential careers that may emanate from those majors.
  2. Know yourself: Be proactive and if you feel that you enjoy one subject the most, then participate in some meaningful extracurricular activities pertaining to the field or do an internship/job shadowing and push yourself to learn more about this field than what is just taught at school. Real world experience brings the field alive in a way that course work alone cannot. Seek experiences!!
  3. Cast a wide net: Some kids have multiple interests so they choose a versatile major so that they can transition to other disciplines with relative ease. For example, a student who enjoys physics and is confused about what form of engineering he wants to study may choose to major in a broad discipline like mechanical engineering so that he can have a lot more options moving forward. The idea is to gradually find your comfort zone and then gain depth in a particular field.
  4. Talk to school alumni about areas that you are potentially interested in:Connect with your school alumni and chat with them to understand their experience of studying subjects that you might be broadly interested in. This will give you a nuanced understanding of the field.
  5. Pay attention to course details and requirements:If there is any particular university or two you are interested in, it would be a very good idea to browse through the course outline of a few areas that interest you. You will know what to expect academically if you pursue these majors. The biggest mistake students make is failing to research what’s required of the major, and the profession.

So, college is all about finding what courses or majors interest you the most and using that knowledge to make the most of your higher education experience. Questions like do I major in something that I think will get me a good job or do I major in something that I am passionate about often cross one’s mind. But, please don’t suffer through a major because you think it will lead to employment. Find a major that makes you intellectually engaged. Most jobs (except in professions like accounting, nursing, or engineering or architecture, for example) can be handled by people with many different majors. Writing and communicating effectively, thinking logically, working in teams and questioning critically are career essentials and these are the transferable skills that most employers look for. For example, psychology students may pursue careers as varied as advertising, business, and education. So, go for it and use college to gain all these valuable skills!

Before signing off, I want to thank all the kids who came to us recently confused about their choices. Hope this write-up will shed some light for a lot of you and at least help you get the ball rolling!

All the Best!