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Choosing a Major, Choosing Career–Taking the Stress Out

Today a client and I had a long conversation about how to report her intended college  major on her applications.  She has been stressing out about it.  She has many,  many interests and an equal number of talents.  And she just can’t decide what to be when she grows up.

I told her to join the club.

First, let’s take a look at the philosophical implications of choosing a major.  In the grand scheme of things, a major isn’t all that important.  Even career advisers say so.  For example, the Tufts Daily ran an article last week attesting to the fact that the choice of major does not greatly affect career options for students as they graduate from college.  The fact is that beyond your first job out of college, your major won’t matter.  You’ll learn new skills on the  job, and your career will mutate and morph as the economy evolves, and (more important) as your own understanding of where your interests and talents lie.

To give you more insight, you might want to take a look at a recent guest post in which a recent college grad recounts his own experience in choosing a major and making career choices right out of college. His conclusion is that what’s important is that  you love what you are learning and that you build experiences, contacts, and skills that will help  you pursue the jobs that most interest you.

The fact is, your job–and your career–will likely change many times before you retire.  An article from the New York Times last week admonishes parents (and college counselors) that it’s sort of unrealistic to expect that an 18 or 22 year-old can or should make career decisions as if they are making a decision that  is lifelong and permanent.  We all have the option of changing our priorities, of chasing new careers, of refashioning our professional selves at many different points throughout our lives.

So from a counseling point of view, I tell most of my students not to stress out about college majors and career choices.  If a student has interests in engineering or business or other specialized fields, it does make sense to understand the requirements necessary to enter those fields.  For example, if there is a possibility that a student wants to go to medical school, then she should know what the prerequisites are and thus be careful to complete them.  Or an prospective engineer may have to major in engineering from the get-go (but he may change his mind down the road as he learns more about engineering and about himself).  Undecided does not mean “without decisions.”  It’s smart to know what the options are and how to keep options open for as long as possible.

However, with regard to completing college applications, there are times when it makes sense to declare a major.  Why?  Because admissions officer are also social engineers. They are looking for people to populate certain departments.  Especially those hard-to-fill ones like art history, anthropology, music (at some schools) and the arts, and others.  So if you  have a passion or skill that you plan to share on campus, it certainly doesn’t hurt to express that focus by announcing your intention to major in that subject.  Similarly, if a college has a particular strength or reputation in a certain issue, it makes sense to tell the admissions folks that one of the reasons that you are applying to that school is the excellence of that department–you are showing that you have thought about what makes that school a good fit for you.

Still the majority of students heading to college are undecided.  It’s okay in America to be undecided.  Most of us are still undecided.  We’re exploring, discovering, and learning.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

Mark Montgomery
Educational Planner



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