Choosing a college major is tough—the options seem endless, and students must navigate the waters of overbearing parents, societal standards and personal uncertainty.
Our role as counselors is to guide students as best we can, prompting them to identify career paths and contemplate different directions on their own. Here are some questions you can ask your students to get them thinking:
- “What are your academic interests?”
If you get a blank stare here, try more specific approaches like: “What classes do you look forward to?” “What homework assignments do you enjoy?”
Identifying interests is a form of self-discovery. If a student finds herself fascinated by the human brain, it might be good for her to start doing some research into the coursework behind neuroscience degrees.
Every field of study is different – one may require creative thinking or a detailed analytical approach, a collaborative mindset or dedicated solitary attention. Finding majors that include many (or even all) of a student’s preferred traits is a good way to start narrowing down options. For example, because Alicia may enjoy team-based problem solving, she might consider engineering or project management rather than computer science due to its solitary nature.
- “What are you curious about?” or, “What do you do in your free time?” “What do you choose to learn more about?”
The answers to these questions are often indicators of what someone enjoys doing. As curiosity typically leads to more enjoyable work, it’s important for students to feel some passion for their major.
Remind students that curiosities aren’t limited to academia. Creative and personal interests are more than valid—in fact, they’re encouraged. If Emily spends her time watching and thinking about her favorite Netflix show, she should start narrowing down what exactly fascinates her. Is it art? Filmmaking? Storytelling? Encourage her to hone in on those subjects.
- “What type of work do you enjoy?” or, “Do you work better in teams or by yourself?” “Do you prefer working on a computer or working with your hands?”
Even the brightest, most successful person can struggle in the wrong work environment. Encourage your students to identify when they are the most (and least) productive.
If Nick finds that he is more effective in an active environment, a sedentary job in accounting or computer programming might not be for him. Instead, he should consider something in healthcare, education, or engineering where he wouldn’t be sitting behind a desk all day. This small exercise could immediately eliminate certain majors and help a student craft their ideal work atmosphere.
- “When do you get excited about your words?” or, “What was a great conversation you had recently?” “What kinds of things do you like to discuss with others?”
When a student’s face lights up, when they become more animated and talk faster, they’re experiencing passion in action. It can be hard to identify exactly what makes someone excited, but these moments are hints. Pay attention and note when they happen, and guide students toward that source of joy and energy.
- “What are you good at?” or, “What work do you get compliments on?” “What subjects do you find yourself teaching to others?”
For example, Isabel may be very talented at math, but detest her algebra homework. However, outside of the classroom, she may love helping others and wishes she could focus on that. In this case, Isabel might consider finding a way to help others using her talent in math. Perhaps she could design the infrastructure for hospitals, schools, or homes. The key here is to find the overlap of what the student is good at and what they love. Ultimately, the goal is to find the intersection of gratification and talent.
- “What have you tried? What haven’t you tried?”
Remind students that realizing a passion is a slow process of trial and error. Trying new things – lots of them – can be a crucial step towards finding what you love.
Here are a few suggestions you might offer to a student looking to expand their experiences:
- Try an extracurricular activity, or just attend a few meetings of a student club to get a feel for it
- Watch TED Talks about various subjects
- Read up on different fields of study
- Find a summer internship, volunteer opportunity or job
Students may be surprised to discover that what they love is something previously outside of their comfort zone.
Through it all, remind students that this process is difficult and lengthy. It can also be comforting to share an often forgotten truth:
“You will not be defined by this decision.”
Too often, high school students feel like they are deciding what they will do for the rest of their lives when they choose a major. This is simply not the case. At many schools, students can wait to declare their major for up to two years, and they can change their major or double-major as needed.
College also teaches universal, transferrable skills. Students will not only absorb specific knowledge in their chosen field, but also learn how to think and approach problems. Earning an ocean engineering degree teaches the skills to be an ocean engineer, it does not require that a graduate become one. Skills and lessons from college will likely overlap with many other career paths. While important, this decision is not a lifelong commitment.
Picking a major is tough. No one can give students the answers, but we can offer them the right questions.
Jessica Velez-Lopez, M.Ed., MBA, Director, Office of Undergraduate Admissions at Florida Atlantic University.