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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Alex R. from Lakewood, NJ asks:

I don't know what I want to major in yet, can that hurt my application? When do I need to pick a major by and how important is choosing the right major for my career?

75% of students change their major in their first semester!

Francine Block | President
A,B,C,or D? What do I want to be when I grow up ? A good time to begin your exploration is the summer between 11th and 12th grade. Try and find a short, relatively inexpensive summer program where you can explore engineering options, what is the difference with business majors, or a communications program that explores all of the opportunities hidden within that broad major. Colleges say that 3/4 of students change their major first semester and 1/2 will do so at least once more before they graduate. College is the time to explore, try subject areas you may never experienced before, most schools will not make you declare your major until spring of your second year, exceptions to this often are engineering, architecture,and for some schools business.

Arts and science majors have careers, too

Nola Lynch | Owner
Major in what interests you, but make contacts and gain experience through internships and summer jobs. Most jobs (except in professions like accounting, nursing, or engineering, for example) can be handled by people with many different majors, and after you gain experience on your first job, your college major may not matter at all. Who you are and how well you perform on the job usually mean more than what you studied. An articulate, broadly educated person may outperform the narrowly focused. I know people whose majors/job fields are classics/e-marketing, music/publishing, history/health administration, philosophy/medical assisting, art/film production, education/sales, and more.

Be open to new possibilities and be ready to change

Ralph Figueroa | Director of College Guidance
Some colleges admit by major, others allow you to be undecided or change later. Most estimates say 80% of college students will change majors at least once. That flexibility is one of the best features about our education system. I had a college friend who was in the hospital for long time. Bored, he read the course catalog from cover to cover. When he got out, he changed his major from computer science to sociology, because those courses sounded most interesting. So having a major in mind is fine, but be open to new possibilities and be ready to change.

Being Undecided is a Great Way to Apply!

Anne Richardson | Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
Being undecided is great – it gives you an opportunity to try different subjects and disciplines in college and discover what you love to do. Liberal arts colleges and programs are perfect for those who are undecided, and it does not hurt you in the admissions process at these schools. However, if you decide you want a pre-professional program like engineering or nursing after your first year, you might have to add a year of school or transfer. All in all, look at this as an opportunity to try new things, listen to different ideas and find something that you love to do.

Change is the name of the game

Mary Ann Willis | College Counselor
Your parents never dreamed of studying nanotechnology or microcomputers. Your career path might not exist yet. Communicating effectively, thinking logically, and questioning critically are career essentials. While you build those skills, consider your other strengths. What do you like? Working with things, people, information? Inside or outside? With great structure or great freedom? From the moment you step on campus, locate and use the career planning office. Take interest inventories; practice interviewing; craft your resume; check out internships, and schedule interviews. Graduation arrives in a blink. Learning on the job is a lifetime endeavor. Do what you love and you’ll love what you do.

Choice of majors is integral to college selection

Charles Moore | Director, Enrollment, IT & Student Services
The adage that “schools work best for those who have chosen career paths or professional goals” still holds true for entering college students as well. All new students meet with academic advisors. Those with clear paths get assigned advisors or faculty with related experiences to share and personal knowledge of their desired goals. Undeclared students are assigned to ‘academic generalists’ who may be able to give students advice about choosing appropriate majors but may lack information about the application or transferability of academic coursework into specific career or professional arenas.

College majors rarely connect precisely to a career

Ralph Becker | Owner & Director
College majors don’t constrict career possibilities. Don’t be swayed by this myth. I had a friend who majored in English at Tufts. After she graduated, she went to a gynecologist, whom she disliked to such a degree that she decided to become one. She went back to Tufts, took all the science courses she had avoided like the plague as an undergraduate, took the MCAT, went through Tufts Medical School, and now is the head of the gynecology department at Massachusetts General Hospital. Majors, careers, and life rarely line up perfectly. Yours won’t either: don’t fear creating your own path.

Don’t Panic, You Don’t Need to Pick a Major Yet!

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
Applying undecided will not hurt your chances for admission. College is different than high school. There are many more areas to explore. So, if you don’t know what you want to study, don’t panic. I am reminded of a young woman who wasn't sure what she wanted to major in. As a freshman she opted for an economics course, a subject she knew little about, because she was tired of hearing her father say “take something useful!” She graduated majoring in economics. My advice – don’t rule anything out and don’t rush into a decision. Enjoy the journey!

Exploration leads to a solid college major

Lisa Bain-Carlton | Educational Consultant
Students tend to find their majors in a couple of ways. The most common is that they take a course that really sparks their interest in a subject. I encourage students to get to know the professors in these courses. Ask the professor about the field and the emerging trends within it. It is also a good idea to talk with other students in the major. Another path for finding a major is volunteer work or an internship. Real world experience brings the field alive in a way that course work alone cannot.

Explore Various Subjects Before Selecting Your Major

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
Up to 50% of entering freshmen begin college as undeclared. Many colleges have core requirements that provide opportunities for students to take courses in a variety of fields before deciding on one. Students can gain acceptance without necessarily knowing their major. Students must generally select a major by the end of their sophomore year. Students do change majors and even art students can become lawyers. It is a good idea though to major in an area that you intend on pursuing. If a student is having difficulty deciding, excellent interest inventories like Strongs and/or Myers Briggs can help reveal interests and possible directions a student may take.

Explore Your Major Possibilities

Michael Goran | Director & Educational Consultant
A student was absolutely certain that he wanted to major in biology and be pre-med. His extracurricular activities included working with autistic children, hospital volunteerism and genetic research in a clinic. I spoke with him just weeks after college began and he was in the business school! He found the program and students much more to his liking. Students change majors frequently in college. Yet, you can “test drive” a major now through job shadowing and internships. Also, go to web sites like http://uncw.edu/STUAFF/CAREER/Majors/index.htm, to learn about majors of interest and the potential careers that may emanate from those majors.

Follow your passion and a rewarding career will follow

Gail Grand | President
When you do what you love, work feels like fun! The same advice applies to picking a major. Don’t major in a subject simply because it fits an imagined career path; choose the major that truly interests you and you’ll enjoy your studies and find success. Although a small number of careers do require specific undergraduate majors (think architecture or accounting), you can gain entry into most careers through a variety of majors. English or history majors develop the strong verbal skills and research abilities that lead to successful business careers, while psychology students may pursue careers as varied as advertising, business, and education. If you follow your passion when picking a major, a successful career will follow!

Follow your passions..and then your new passions

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
After building a music business in high school, Adam applied to colleges with strong music business programs. He got into some, not all, and chose one with a strong music business program. Then freshman year, he changed his mind, and the school didn’t have many other majors he wanted. Now he is a happy history major at another college. Colleges love kids with passions. But if you’re undecided, then view that as your passion. That is your right. College is the time to explore and give yourself the change your mind, your passions, and major. And then sometimes the college.

If you're ready to choose a major, choose one; if not, don't!

Mary Beth Fry | Director of College Counseling
My favorite college-major story goes like this: a student I'll call Nick was convinced he wanted to be a psychology major in college. But after two semesters of Introduction to Psychology, his professor asked him, "What have you learned this year?" Nick's sheepish, but honest, reply was that he DIDN'T want to be a psych major. And his psych prof said, "That's a great thing to learn!" If you want to be an engineer or an architect, it's probably important to know that earlier, and to apply directly to programs that support those goals. If, otherwise, you have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life, a liberal arts education--taking classes liberally across the curriculum, in as many departments as possible--is the best way to find the major for you.

It’s okay not to know what you want to study in college but…

Don Fraser, Jr. | Director of Education and Training
You should be aware that when you commit to a major on your application, colleges will pay particular attention to your grades in the academic areas most associated with that major. You want to major in architecture, but you’re a consistent “C” student in standard level math courses and you haven’t taken any drafting or CAD courses even though you could have. This is a problem. If your transcript does not demonstrate that you are adept in these areas, then your candidacy may be seriously questioned. If you’re not sure, don’t force it. It’s still okay to apply as “undecided.”

Know who you are and what makes you happy! Use that to find a career

Deborah Shames | Independent College Search Consultant & Transfer Admissions Advisor
I strongly recommend students do some career exploration and a personality profile prior to college. It’s not critical that you map out your whole future at 18, but knowing the what you’re good at and enjoy doing will help you narrow the playing field and provide direction. A huge part of figuring out what you want to do is discovering what you don’t want to do, and that can often only come from experience. Take advantage of internships or job shadowing, even in high school. But be open-minded…take advantage of new opportunities and you just might discover new passions you never knew you had!

Liberal arts colleges and programs LOVE the undecided!

Nancy Meislahn | Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
PLEASE resist the pressure to pick a major to make the college process easier. Relatives and counselors will all ask: what do you want to study? Tell admission officers and write in your applications about ALL the things that interest you. We seek curious and creative students, well-prepared to explore across the curriculum. Ask the adults you respect what they studied in college… and you’ll find there are many pathways and routes to law school, teaching, business, etc. etc. Choice is the hallmark of US Higher Education—don’t limit your horizons!

List a Probable Major if You Have One

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
There is an old joke that the most popular freshman major is "undecided" and the second most popular is "I changed my mind." Admissions officers are usually interested in whether you have determined that their institution offers majors in which you will be interested, not that you have to know precisely which one (unless a major requires auditions or other prerequisite evidence of skill or preparation.) It does make sense to list your most probable major on your application, not only to help the admission staff determine the fit between you and their program, but just in case there are any departmental scholarships available to entering freshmen.

Majors and careers are often unrelated

Patti Demoff | Co-Founder
Honestly, I find that more people have careers unrelated to their majors than ones who do. My own history major son runs a sports team. I know a rhetoric major who is an architect, an international relations superstar who owns a Pilates studio, an art history major with a PhD in social science, an English professor with an undergraduate major in foreign service, an Asian studies major chef and an unusual number of classics majors who work with the military. And those are just the ones that immediately came to mind!

Mixed message on choosing a major

Estelle Meskin | Certified Educational Planner
Few 17 or 18 year olds have any idea what their major in college should be.  For them college becomes a time to assess their options and figure out the major that has the most appeal and will be beneficial when choosing a career. Fortunately most schools don't require that commitment until end of sophomore year in college.  However, if a student knows what excites them and can verbalize it in their college applications they will have an advantage in their college admissions, i.e. women in engineering, a field where women are outnumbered significantly. Females with outstanding math and science grades and similar interests in high school are frequently sought after by colleges and universities. Also a significant number of parents would like their children to identify a major prior to entering college believing it's more cost effective than having their son or daughter drift aimlessly through college. For these students career assessments and exploration can be beneficial. Even entering college with a chosen major it is well known that many students frequently change their majors. 

Most college students change majors, one, two, or three times!

Marjorie Shaevitz | Author & Founder
Don’t worry; many, if not most, high school seniors don’t know in what they want to major. Truth is, except for a few fields such as Architecture and Engineering, colleges don’t usually ask students to declare a major until their junior year. Use your four years in college to explore what content, activities, and possible careers really “grab” you, taking advantage of counseling and career centers on campus to help. If you want to identify a major, base it on what high school courses and topics interest you the most, but try to stay away from oversubscribed, very popular majors.

Passion, Not Profit, Should Drive Your Choice of College Major

Yolanda Watson Spiva | Executive Director
Your college major doesn’t necessarily determine how you’ll spend the rest of your life. While there is often pressure from parents and society for you to choose a college major based on prestige and earning potential, it is actually more important that you select a major that correlates with your interests and your passions. Solid academic preparation, along with a becoming personality, can actually get you a job anywhere. I know a political science major who went on to become a successful record company executive—not your typical path, but skills, passion, and opportunity trump the specific major, every time!

Students change majors all the time!

Hamilton Gregg | Educational Consultant
In a world where end results (career) take priority over indecision (multitalented student) this is a typical question; one that I hear more specifically from parents. They get frantic that their child does not know what they want to “do” rather than embracing the values of learning the diversity of topics found at Liberal Arts schools. Furthermore, there is a deep misunderstanding of the advantages of what this education provides. Typically, the most popular major when applying is “undeclared” and many students end up changing their major five or six times before they graduate. In fact, most schools know a student will change their mind even if they do choose a major when applying. On college tours I often hear the tour guide say, “Yeah, I have changed my major, like, three times this year!” Amazed at this proclamation, I then remember that high school course offerings are so limited compared to innumerable possibilities available at university.

Study what you love and you will thrive

Moira O'Riordan | College Counselor
The happiest people I know love their work. The happiest students I know love their classes and their schools. I know an oncologist at Sloan Kettering who majored in dance and still takes sabbaticals to dance with a troupe. I know many students who’ve switched majors because of a dynamic professor and are thriving in their careers: An engineering student who switched to English became a successful technical writer; a business student who loved welding became a successful iron-sculptor, and a Classics major who fell in love with archeology. Skills gained through extra-curricular activities and internships make job applicants stand out.

Take a look, a major might just be required

Ken Huus | Dean of Admissions
If you are applying to larger universities, you may be required to apply to a particular school within the university (School of Business, for example) based on academic interest, or you may have the option of applying to a School of Liberal Arts within the university (requiring no determination of academic major). Generally, you will need to choose a major no later than your second year of college. Depending on career interest, your choice of major may be irrelevant - the thing that is often important is getting the best education you can and doing well in your selected major. Of course, if you are interested in a particular field, it may be advantageous to select a major that leads into that career field. You can get additional help addressing these questions in your high school guidance office, or in the Career Services Office of colleges of interest (and these can be great connections to make!).

Take New Classes and Explore New Options

Eric Furda | Dean of Admissions
High school students should not feel compelled to have their intended major selected for their college applications. Most college students declare their major towards the end of their sophomore year of college. This sense of ‘un-decidedness’ or ‘undeclared’ can come from a strong interest in multiple fields, so you may want to speak to those interests or check multiple boxes on the application. Most faculty and departments in the liberal arts and sciences will encourage you to explore your interests by taking courses not even offered at most high schools and you may discover new fields of interest, even if you “know what you want to study”. So feel free to keep your mind open and work with advisors once you are in college to explore the curriculum.

The major of the applicant is minor to the college admissions process.

Dorothy Styles | Director for College Readiness Programs & Initiatives
College admissions personnel do not focus on the major of the applicant when making the decision to accept, reject, or wait list an applicant. The focus in on the applicant’s SAT or ACT scores, academic record, extra-curricular activities, community service, and the college essay. Undecided students should list the major as undeclared because college admissions personnel understand that for many applicants it takes time to declare a major. Most students take required courses during the freshman year, therefore the first year of college is an excellent time to further explore one’s interests and strengths prior to deciding a major.

There’s no rush to declare, but start researching early

Craig Meister | President
Most students can’t confidently pick a major when they are eighteen years old; therefore, most colleges won’t penalize you for applying as “undecided.” Far more important to most admissions officers is a student’s ability to communicate clearly about his or her current passions. Figuring out your college major takes time, that’s why most colleges give students four semesters to pick a major. Start conducting online research during your freshman year in high school. The Internet is full of information describing the diversity of college majors. Less time spent on Facebook now can help you pick the right college major later.

This is not Europe, you don’t have to know what you plan to study

Danny Reynolds | Director of College Counseling
Fortunately, at most good liberal arts colleges you do not have at choose a major until second semester of your sophomore year. Take classes and explore your passions. It is fine if you are undecided and you are not disadvantaged in the admission process. Even after you declare a major, it is likely you will not work in that field. My Georgetown roommate was a Spanish major with an interest in biology. He was accepted and graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School without being a pre-med or science major.

You're not alone, or at a disadvantage

Susan Smith | Educational Consultant
Most seventeen-year-olds don’t have a clue about majors, thinking instead about the subject in which they received the best grade. People find jobs by being in the right place at the right time or knowing someone. A student who graduated with a degree in Philosophy and now works at a radio station; another graduated from a highly acclaimed business program and is building houses. Engineering students move into computer science, art students to web design, and Hydrology majors become math teachers. In the end, your education is about giving you the ability to think critically and make intelligent decisions with the resources your undergraduate education has provided.

Your choice of major should align with your application

Leigh Anne Spraetz | President
If you have toured colleges, you’ve already heard that the most popular major for freshmen is “Undecided.” Colleges understand that most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to major in or what career they will pursue. However, if you do choose a major, it should align with your application. For instance, for engineering, your transcript should show high grades and strong rigor in math and science classes. Identify potential careers by thinking about your favorite and least favorite classes, and by taking career assessments. Use opportunities to intern or job shadow to help you learn more about your interests.

Your eventual career might not yet exist!

Jeffrey Makris | Director of College Counseling
Applying to a specialized institution or program certainly requires you to have a good understanding of your intended major. However, being undecided is not a detriment when applying to the majority of colleges in the U.S. You have time to explore during your first two years of college. Most majors can lead to a variety of career options; I know doctors who majored in psychology and lawyers who majored in philosophy. Remember that the workforce is constantly changing. Your college experience must provide you with a skill set which will enable you to adapt throughout the various stages of your career regardless of your initial choice of major.

Your major will likely have limited impact on your career!

Susan Reznick | Independent Educational Consultant
How can a teenager truly know what career path(s) he will eventually follow? Only one in ten adults ultimately pursue a career that is directly related to what his major was in college. Most schools require that a major be declared by junior year. Try to choose a major that you will enjoy. Keep in mind that Medical schools often prefer English majors to Biology majors, and Law schools are known to favor Philosophy majors, as these disciplines teach effective writing and analytical skills. A solid liberal arts education will provide you with a foundation of critical knowledge and skills. Don?t be surprised if your career path is chosen by luck and happenstance.


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