By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD
Thousands of high school seniors cruise through college applications, completing basic contact information, high school coursework and grades, test scores and activities without a hitch. But these same students often cringe when asked “Indicate Your Major.” Although some students know exactly what they want to study in college, many, even most, 17 year olds are uncertain. For the adults reading this article, I ask you, “Did you know exactly what you wanted to do when you were 17?”
For many students, the easiest and often the first choice that appeals to them on the list of college major options is ‘undeclared.’ There are at least two major reasons why that is often not the best selection to make.
Limited Availability. Students may not realize that ‘undeclared’ is considered a major, and as such there is a limited number of seats to offer an incoming class. In addition, if a student weighs in as ‘undecided’ some colleges may use one of their most rigorous majors to assess the strength of a student’s application.
College Essays. For many students the question of what major to select arises when they are writing essays for colleges. Many colleges ask students questions like “Why did you select the major you did and why do you want to study that subject at our college?” One of the most selective (and popular) east coast college asks applicants the following questions: “What academic areas seem to fit your interests or goals most comfortably? Why do these areas appeal to you?” You can list up to 3 subjects and you have 100 words to respond. One trap students fall into is thinking with only 100 words to write, it is a cinch, right? It’s not—unless you have a well-thought, concise and compelling response.
Many of my clients are uncertain about what major they wish to pursue in college. Since I know these types of essay questions come up when students apply to colleges, we prepare students well before the application cycle begins by exploring areas of interest. But what should the many seniors do right now who are grappling with these kinds of questions? For them, I recommend two fairly straight-forward strategies:
- Take a different approach to thinking about a major. Is there a class you would really like to take as you explore the freshman curriculum at a college? There are many introductory courses to choose from –Romantic Poetry through the Ages (English Department); Exploring Your Inner Picasso! (Art Department), Making Important Business Decisions (Business Department) and The Physics of Rollercoaster Rides (Physics Department). Read the course descriptions and choose one that really appeals to you. Then consider choosing that department as your major. This approach allows you to test an academic direction early enough in your college career to change course, and also gives you some foundation upon which to answer those pesky essay questions. At the overwhelming majority of colleges, changing your major is as easy as completing a simple form and 80% of students change their major at least once in their college careers.
- Explore the many resources available to think about what major you would like to pursue in college. For example, The Book of Majors, published by CollegeBoard, can help you answer questions like: What’s the major for me? Where can I study it? What can I do with it after graduation?
The Book of Majors is revised every year, and is the most comprehensive guide to college majors that I have found on the market. It is also available online. It offers in-depth descriptions of 200 of the most popular majors, and the 2017 edition covers every college major identified by the U.S. Department of Education – over 1,200 majors in all. The Book of Majors also shows what degree levels each college offers in a major. It also features insights from the professors themselves on how each major is taught, what preparation students will need for a particular major, and other majors to consider that share some important commonalities. There is also updated information on career options and employment prospects. It is a veritable goldmine of information and it is bookmarked for frequent use in my office!
Applying to college includes careful planning, organization, research and lots of self-assessment. The process from start to finish involves many challenges that can and should be viewed as opportunities to mature, thus laying the foundation for success in college and beyond.