Eight Tips for Selecting a College Major and Career
Advice on college majors, careers, and leading a productive life is everywhere, and we all have our favorite words of wisdom. Recently, I read these by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” These words inspire and provoke; how should students answer the call?
By using the many resources at hand and owning the choice. Few things in life are more momentous than choosing and devoting oneself to an academic or career pursuit. Often we drift into vocations for the most unexamined of reasons: promise of wealth or prestige, obedience, fear, pressure, pleasure, or simply the path of least resistance. While the choice might work out fine regardless, imagine the possibilities for the intrepid soul who musters the courage to explore and venture informed by, but not beholden to, others. For students who have planted their feet and declared, “This choice is mine!” there remains the question “Now what?”
Have a high school “emphasis” or “passion project.” Think about it: Much of grades 9 and 10 are taken up with general diploma requirements. But by grade 11, students usually have a sense of whether they prefer STEM, humanities/social sciences, or fine arts. Junior and senior years can be a time to dive deeper or double up in what is most appealing. Besides the boost this could give to college admission, the deep diver learns whether the chosen subject is ripe for further exploration: a college major preview. High school and college are not silos of learning; they are rivers that flow together. It’s intentional that these tips blend high school, college, and career. Over the long haul, one’s career continually evolves in light of personal and ambient circumstances. Expect surprises, good and bad, and use both to learn and propel into new opportunities.
Choosing a college major is not a lifetime commitment to one thing; in fact, students never have to commit to only one academic field of study (how boring that would be). At least one-third of college coursework will be elective, meaning freedom to study whatever the student wants. Start early by building strength in more than one area, strength that could evolve into an academic minor or a double-major. Colleges aid this approach by planning foundational coursework first; these courses lead to any degree conferred. When a change of direction occurs, which it usually does, there is less inconvenience or none at all. There are exceptions: Students choosing to major in, for example, fine arts or architecture, should expect to make an earlier and deeper commitment. Likewise, engineering and health-related students should pay special attention to math and science in high school and college.
Know that meaningful, prosperous careers can be found in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Practitioners of these disciplines cultivate the ability to speak and write well, understand human nature and diversity, lead and collaborate, and think nimbly and creatively—all vital qualities in current job markets. If you need more evidence, refer to the job prospects and salaries found at WorldWideLearn. Still wavering? Check out the online resources offered by Savannah College of Art and Design, which has declared “there will be no starving artists.” Or read about career options at dynamic Emerson College. Wherever the college search leads, always take time to scout the college’s career services options. George Washington University’s Center for Career Services, for example, sets a high standard to explore and compare.
Finding the right books or directories is key. Here are some gems, each focusing on a vital aspect of college major, career, or meaningful life: “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” by Frank Bruni (abundant higher education options in accessible destinations that might surprise); “There Is Life After College” by Jeffrey Selingo (roadmap for an undergraduate life that propels a young adult into meeting current employer expectations); “The College Finder” by Steven Antonoff (varied and detailed lists of just about every college criterion imaginable); and “Wait, What?: And Life’s Other Essential Questions” by James E. Ryan (larger questions that we all need to address to live meaningful lives). These books are illuminating and have the added bonus of being great reads. Selingo identifies the following mature and winning qualities that students of all ages should bring to career and life: “curiosity, creativity, grit, digital awareness, contextual thinking, and humility.”
Nothing replaces first-hand college visits and conversations with experts closest to the action. During college visits, high school students should try to arrange a conversation with a professor in their area of interest, and, if possible, talk with a college junior or senior majoring in that interest. Admission offices are often able to arrange such conversations. Similarly, make use of existing networks of family, friends, teachers, counselors, and others who can be advisors and sounding boards. Here’s a tip: Instead of asking others where to go to college or what to major in, students could consider saying to trusted others: “Please describe my personal strengths and challenges, what seems to motivate me or bring joy. I can take it from there.” Students “take it there” by arranging to shadow a professional or finding a paying job to learn about their area of interest as well as independence, the value of a dollar, the business world, teamwork, and punctuality!
Make use of interest and personality inventories and online search engines. For example, the Naviance online college search and selection program has options for Strengths Explorer, Do What You Are, Learning Style Inventory, and Multiple Intelligence Advantage. These inventories can be illuminating, even if they do not reveal exactly which college major one should choose. A popular online college criterion search engine is the College Board’s Big Future. The University of Georgia offers a terrific search engine that enables students to select a major, read a keen summary of that major and profession, and then select related majors and continue the search. Using this site, students can navigate the braided nexus of academic disciplines and careers.
Above all, keep in mind that a vocation is part of life, not life itself. The poet Robert Frost invited readers and himself to “unite vocation and avocation” (what we do and what we love) so that we might be spiritual as well as practical. Another poet, Raymond Carver, invited us to wonder what each of us would want when all the working and living are done. His answer: “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” Surely there are many paths to this worthy goal.