Launch Global Education
Sparks blog: The pressure of choosing a major

by Mr. Michael Wagner

When I think back to when I was 17 or 18 years old, I had no idea what I wanted to study in college, much less what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. For that matter, I had no clear idea even about attending a university. To be honest, there wasn’t much counseling available to me when I was in school.  After graduating high school, most of the people I knew either went to work at the local plant or worked in their parents’ business, yet there were many universities I could have attended if I had only known how to go about it.

I was lucky though.  As a good athlete, I ended up going to a university on an American football scholarship.  However, even with that good luck and hard work, I still didn’t have the guidance to make the best choices with my course of study and my career.

Choosing a major

When you begin to research colleges and universities to determine a course of study, you will see that many have well over 100 undergraduate majors to choose from. Then when you look at a major it can even be broken down into areas of emphasis, which can add additional stress and anxiety to making a choice.  Sometimes an overabundance of information turns into stress and anxiety, which turns into confusion, which turns into paralysis. How can anyone be expected to make such a final decision at 17 or 18 years old?

The reality

In reality, it is more likely than not that over time you will work in a field outside your major.  This has been true for both me and Dr. Ann, and many others we know.  In fact, according to a New York Federal Reserve Bank study (2014) only 27% of college graduates in the U.S. work in their field of study throughout their careers.  And here is another interesting statistic, in 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published a study that looked at the number of jobs a person held between the ages of 18 and 50. It turns out that the average person has 12 jobs!  And this is only during a span of 32 years, which means the number is probably higher for a person’s entire lifetime.

Choose based on your interests and your strengths

So now that you know that the pressure is off to choose a career path for the rest of your life, how should you go about making a choice?  Consider these questions to narrow your choices.

1.  What are your interests?  What are you enthusiastic about?  Putting the idea of a job aside for a moment, what do you want to learn more about?  Another way of looking at it is if you would do a job for free, what would it be?

2.  What are your strengths as a learner?  You want to make sure you choose something that will be challenging for you but will also allow you to expand on the things you know you do well.

3.  What careers are interesting to you?  Sometimes we have an interest in a career but don’t yet know what kind of education is required to have that career, nor an understanding of what kind of entry-level positions will be available to us as we begin our careers.

4.  Is making a lot of money important to you?  Why or why not?  Consider the future earnings of your career interests.  Look at your feelings around money now as an indication of what you would like your future earnings to be.

5.  Who are your influencers and how strongly are they impacting your decision?  Choosing and/or a university-based on what your friends are doing, for example, is rarely a successful path.  Your parents may also have strong opinions about your major.  Yes, they may know you the best and their opinions are important, but you need to do your own research and have a well-informed conversation with them.  You need to begin taking responsibility for your decisions. Quite often, an agreement can be reached that satisfies everyone.

6.  What do you hope to gain from your education?  This may be the most important question of all.  Knowing that you are likely to change your career in time and also understanding that you will be a life-long learner, what skills and experiences are you hoping to take away from your time at a university?  Part of this will be the academic experience, but other parts will include the people you will meet, the place you will live, and the future opportunities that will come from the environment.

But what if I still can’t decide?

Ultimately, you don’t have to have a definite major identified to complete a college application.  Many universities will allow you to enroll with an undeclared major.  Others will allow you to change majors if you find after you have started that the one you selected isn’t a good fit for you. If you are truly undecided, you should compare universities that require definitive major intentions vs. those with more flexibility, such as liberal arts colleges that offer the academic environment to explore a variety of courses of study before discovering the right fit for you.

But do your research.  Beyond internet searches, you can speak with people in the field, find an internship opportunity, and volunteer to get some firsthand knowledge. The more you know, the better you will feel about the decision you make.

You will find your way

When students have their hearts set on a specific university or a specific course of study without having researched to understand what the work entails, they usually end up having to do the research they should have done beforehand anyway.  Know that the emphasis and pressure on the need to quickly choose a major is largely unnecessary. Approach your university education for what it is, one part of your lifelong journey.  Understanding who you are, what you would like to get out of your university experience, and what things will be important to you moving forward are ultimately what will matter the most.

Michael Wagner, MAED is a founder and the Knowledge Pilot for Launch Education.  Mr. Mike has assisted hundreds of students around the world on their college pathways.