One of the first questions that arise when high school juniors start thinking about selecting colleges for application is, “What’s my academic major?” However, choosing a major can seem risky, like locking oneself into an academic concentration with no chance to change, as well as declaring career for the rest of one’s life–all at age sixteen or seventeen. Compounding the pressure can be the impression that colleges choose applicants based on major, so in order to not only find the “right” colleges for application, a student’s acceptance hangs on their choice. Yet, at sixteen, most teenagers (and parents acknowledge this youthful ignorance) aren’t sure what academic subject interests them most. Under these assumptions and concerns, I am often asked about how teenagers can choose a college major in order to choose colleges for application.
Choosing a major is a process, that requires time. Starting with what the student knows about himself/herself–favorite subjects in school, disliked subjects in school, how s/he chooses to spend their free time–can be a first step to identifying potential majors. Also, teens aren’t always aware of the range of majors available, so a quick glance at a potential college’s major listing can be helpful. Randomly clicking on subjects that catch the student’s attention can be an introduction. As much as parents encourage teens to talk with Uncle So-and-So or family friend Mrs. So-and-So about their job to help identify a major, that may not happen. Teens can be shy to ask questions, feeling like they’re exposed or imposing on others. Any research a teen can do on his/her own can be more productive. Summer programs and camps can be another avenue for teens to learn about his/her interests, plus gain greater experience about college life and living away from home, as many programs are housed on college campuses. Naturally, as teenagers mature, they’ll learn more about their interests and narrow their major choices. And, if teens don’t know a specific, single choice for a major by the time s/he applies to college, all chances of acceptance are not lost.
The idea that all colleges choose applicants based on major is a myth. Applicants should ask questions about how major is regarded by admissions officers when evaluating a student’s application. Some colleges consider major as more information about the applicant’s current interests, while other universities do admit students based on their major. The admissions policies concerning majors can vary by campus, so asking questions of each college where the student is applying can help Juniors plan ahead appropriately. Also, in asking questions, potential applicants can understand the benefits of declaring a major from the first day of enrollment, like access to class registration in an impacted (i.e. crowded) major. For more popular, impacted majors, registration in classes can be restricted to declared majors, and if students can gain access to required major classes from the first day of college, then s/he has less chance of delaying graduation–which can help pocketbooks. Knowing the admissions policies and benefits of declaring a major can simultaneously reduce the pressures about choosing a major and colleges for application.
There’s no one process for individuals to choose a major. Colleges understand that students tastes and interests evolve with experience; some campuses, like Stanford, don’t require students to declare a major until the end of their sophomore year. Students will have time and advisors once getting to college to fully consider the range of options–not to mention internships, field studies, professors, career services–to help expose themselves to previously unknown areas of study. And, knowing the admissions policies regarding major choice at each campus where the student may apply will give the student (and their parents) the space to examine other aspects of a college experience the student prefers (like location, weather, social activities), so s/he can select the most fitting set of campuses for application.
Photo Credit: Creative Marbles Consultancy, 2013