“I don’t know what to major in when I go to college” is often mistaken for “I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life.” The vast majority of high school students have not made a career choice before they graduate from high school, and that is completely understandable. Unfortunately, the vast majority also panic because they haven’t made this decision by the time they’re applying to college.
There is all too frequently a feeling – a belief – that if they have not chosen a major, they are leaving their life to chance, and are therefore not worthy of a college education. Many parents, too, believe that their son or daughter must have a specific career goal before going off to college…otherwise they’ll be wasting both their time and a lot of money.
All of this is simply not true. While there is no question that it is reassuring to both students and their parents when a young adult has a specific career goal, such students are in the minority and tend to be headed towards specific professions such as nursing, engineering, or a career in the arts. Or, they are interested in a specific career training program such as veterinary assistant or graphic design. Often, admission to these career programs requires that students have advanced preparation in specific high school coursework (e.g. chemistry and math for nursing), submit portfolios of their artwork, or appear for performing arts auditions.
The idea of leaving for college “undecided” on a major can feel a lot like a ship leaving port without a specific destination – it can just seem uncomfortable and pointless. What I try to convey to my students is that it is entirely OK to apply to college without a specific major – as an “undecided” student. By doing this, they are allowing themselves the opportunity to really shop around for the best fit for them (kind of like cruising to the Caribbean and then deciding which islands to visit).
After all, in high school students are limited by the variety of courses their particular high school offers… usually the traditional core curriculum of math, English, science, social studies, foreign language, and sometimes, if they are lucky enough these days, a few fine arts offerings. With the exception of online courses, many students have nowhere to explore subjects such as psychology, criminal justice, accounting, finance, management, philosophy, animal physiology, sociology, anthropology, and an enormous array of STEM majors, to name just a few.
In addition to traditional coursework, colleges and universities offer internships in which students can actually experience a career field. The variety of potential career directions open to students is spectacular. According to careerplanner.com there are in excess of 12,000 different careers. To expect teenagers to choose “the one” direction by the time they exit high school is not only unrealistic, but serves to deny them the often once-in a-lifetime exciting opportunity to actually explore for themselves what resonates with them.
What I suggest to my students if they feel compelled to select a major is to choose something they like, or have some interest in. Whatever major they end up graduating from college with will, it is hoped, will lead them into a field in which they find both satisfaction and interest. Choosing a major is not something you can or should force on someone before they are ready to make a well informed choice. Similarly, a student should not be asked to select a career from a limited list; it is necessary to understand that we all gravitate towards those things that we like. Students change majors frequently after they enter college as they try out different subject areas.
They’re often surprised to find themselves loving an area they hadn’t ever considered. By following instincts, paying attention to our likes and dislikes, we give ourselves the lasting gift of finding a career path that meets our individual needs. Careers, a.k.a. jobs, are not static… they are roles we assume throughout life that are continually evolving and developing. And, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that graduates entering the labor market this year will have three distinct careers prior to retirement.
A “path” is what a student is actually looking for – a way to search, a place to begin. What they find along the way will be the beginnings of their life after college, when they continue, throughout their lives, to choose options that resonate uniquely for them. I have a favorite saying I share with my students: Life isn’t about finding yourself… life is about creating yourself!
My best advice…put aside the needless stress of choosing a major while you are in high school and enjoy the ride. There is no deadline, so choose the back roads, and put the windows down.
The author, Peggy Lamb, has been a college advisor at Fontbonne Academy in Milton, MA for 22 years. She is also a private college consultant.