If you teach or work with college-bound high school students, you’re in a unique position to help them with the college admissions process. This includes supporting them in choosing a college major.
To be clear, choosing a major isn’t usually necessary for admission to most programs, and students can certainly change their minds down the line. Some advisors even suggest that students shouldn’t choose a major because so many change their minds down the line and this can run up the cost of curriculum.
All that said, having some idea about their future college and career plans can help students choose the right college for them and secure more financial aid (since many scholarships and grants are related to particular majors).
And whether or not they definitively choose a major during the application process, a discussion of the topic is definitely worthwhile. Below are our recommended talking points about choosing a college based on major.
Talk candidly about choosing a college based on major
Choosing a major is a huge decision that impacts the rest of a student’s life, so the pressure can be overwhelming. It’s helpful to communicate to them the following points:
- They don’t have to choose a major during their application process
- Likewise, they don’t usually have to declare a major in their first (or sometimes even second) year of their undergraduate education
- Ultimately, their major is their choice—not their parents’, teachers’, friends’, or so on
- It’s okay if they change their mind about what they want to study or major in
It also helps to ask them questions and really listen to their feelings and concerns about what they may want to major in. You can be a powerful sounding board to them without pushing them in a particular direction.
Help them identify their strengths
Some students are super aware of their strengths—that they’re strong writers or natural mathletes, for example. But many students don’t necessarily see their strengths as clearly as you might, and a little encouragement can go a long way.
If you see that a student has a natural aptitude for a particular subject or skill, it’s definitely worth pointing this out to them and discussing their interest level in it.
You can also help them identify and reflect on strengths that go beyond the classroom and academics: their communication skills, empathy, critical thinking, leadership, diplomacy, and so on. You might be really surprised how much motivation and direction a student feels after hearing your affirm these qualities!
Talk to them about their passions
What do your students LOVE doing? What drives them? In a dream world, where do they seem themselves? Who do they want to be and how do they want to impact or change the world? Conversations about your students’ hopes, dreams, desires, and passions are just as important as the ones about their skills.
Yes, it’s certainly true that not all of our interests make for career paths, but your students should ideally find joy and purpose in what they study.
Direct them to the best colleges and programs
Some students know exactly what they want to study, or have a very good idea, but don’t know where to start searching for the right college based on their goals.
We encourage you to direct your students to the U.S News Best Colleges database, which ranks colleges and universities across the nation in various categories, including majors and programs. This is also a useful list that ranks the best colleges for 44 different majors.
Discuss the long-haul and big picture with them
Many careers necessitate education beyond the 4-year undergraduate degree, and students should be aware of this when choosing a major.
For example, many students who major in psychology during their undergraduate programs intend to be therapists down the line. Doing so, however, requires an advanced Master’s degree, and knowing this may sway a student’s decision about what to study.
Likewise, certain majors, and in turn certain careers, require additional commitments like student teaching, internship, creative projects, and so on, and it’s helpful to have discussions about this with your students.
Encourage career counseling
It can be incredibly helpful for students to gain an understanding about different job markets and the fastest growing (and declining) professions. These trends can change, of course, and should never be the singular factor in deciding a major, but they provide helpful context.
There are also many lists circulating (like this one) that rank the top college majors for the future, and while the change a bit by list and year, the trends are fairly consistent across them.
Of course, these aren’t the only majors worth considering by any means, but it certainly can’t hurt for students to have this information.
Students can usually get some degree of career counseling through your school’s college counselor or other administrators, or they can try to schedule visits or calls with the career centers at their colleges of interest.
Discuss the the other factors involved in choosing a college
Choosing a college is a complex decision that involves weighing out quite a few factors, not just intended major.
This guide on how to choose a college covers a number of considerations such as college size, location, cost, and so on. Ideally, your students will apply to schools that speak to their academic interests as well as their values, interests, and the overall college experience they’re looking for.
You can also direct them to resources like this “What should you major in” quiz, which starts by funneling students through 4 tracks: social sciences, arts, humanities, and sciences.
Put them in touch with current college students
To get a sense of what studying within a given major is actually like, it's helpful for your students to talk to current college students or recent graduates in that major. Are there alums from your school that you or your administration can put them in touch with?
Visiting colleges, shadowing current students, and sitting in on classes can also help give your students a sense of the rigor, expectations, workload, etc. in a given major.
Stress flexibility and open-mindedness
Overall, reassure your students that they don't have to have all the answers now, and encourage them to reflect on and entertain various academic avenues before committing to any one route.
Please also be encouraged to share this guide to college admissions season with your students and their families!