How can I support my student in choosing a major?

By Diane Schwemm

Did your student embark on her college career with no idea what she wants to major in? Is she a sophomore but still undeclared? Is she unhappy with her current major and thinking about a change?

It’s common for students to take a few semesters to declare a major — and just as common for parents to stress about it. “Without the right major, my student might not be prepared for a career when she graduates!” we worry.

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Choosing a major is a personal decision but students often seek parental guidance. Here are three things to do and consider so you’re prepared to give helpful and appropriate advice.

Learn about advising and career resources at your student’s college.

Know the name of your student’s academic advisor and how often they meet — you can ask how the sessions are going and what they’ve covered. These advisor meetings are key. The advisor will guide your student in creating a balanced, challenging course schedule and completing General Education requirements in a timely fashion and can also help her evaluate her academic experiences as she goes along. One well-chosen class and awesome professor can make all the difference.

If your student has a year under her belt, ask about her relationship with her advisor. Are they a good team? If not, suggest that she consider requesting a different advisor come fall. Remind her to take advantage of professors’ office hours, too.

QuoteEvery major opens lots of doors. It’s the skills students acquire and the ability to appropriately apply them that will make them successful.

Freshman year is not too early to start visiting the university Career Center and sophomore (or junior, or senior) year isn’t too late. At the Career Center, your student can take a skills/interests survey, discover how academic majors intersect with real-life work, and get connected with mentors and internships.

Inspiration can happen anywhere on campus, so encourage your student to make a habit of checking out the Events Calendar for visiting speakers, showcases of student creative work and research, service learning and volunteer opportunities, and job fairs.

Help your student compare and contrast her top options.

If your student has narrowed it down and wants your opinion, don’t hesitate to ask questions that require her to closely consider what she’s committing herself to. Arm yourself with information ahead of time — major requirements are described on the college website and there is a large range in terms of intensity, course selection flexibility, etc. Is it important to your student to make time for a semester of study abroad? Is she considering a double major or a minor? Does a major require a senior thesis/capstone project and does this appeal to her strengths? Is it important to her that a major include research opportunities?

It’s okay to talk about money.

“Thank you!” you may be saying. “I’d like to feel confident that my student will graduate with a major likely to lead to a well-paying job.” Financial literacy is an important part of anyone’s education. Your student will consider money as a factor in a lot of decisions made during the college years and her choice of major isn’t an exception.

“What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors” is an enlightening study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. You won’t be surprised to learn that Petroleum Engineering majors tend to make a lot more money than Counseling Psychology majors. Of course we shouldn’t pressure our performing arts-oriented students into majoring in computer science, but there is useful information here for parents.

The concept of “pathways between education and work” resonated with me. As it turns out, very few majors are perfectly linked to a single profession; most lead to broad sets of occupations. We know this from our own experience, and it’s powerful knowledge to share with our kids. Every major opens lots of doors. It’s the skills students acquire and the ability to appropriately apply them that will make them successful.

So, while it’s valuable to consider the employment forecast and salary potential associated with certain majors and professions, today’s “hot” majors will only suit your student if that’s where her aptitude and passion lie. Choosing a major should spring from the desire to explore and enlarge a deep interest in a subject. This may be a newly discovered interest, and that’s why we send our kids to college in the first place: to be challenged and inspired by new ideas and communities and to begin the process of finding a vocation.

Deciding on a major should be hard work and it’s okay if it takes time. The more our students invest in it, the more they will own their learning and graduate with a sense of purpose.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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