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How Students Pick Their College Major

How do college students choose their majors? I’ve personally helped students to explore possible colleges and majors for nearly two decades now, and I can say that there is no single way that students decide. In fact, they can often pick a major for reasons that don’t align with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. Having the right major is relevant for college success, since if it doesn’t suit them, it can lead to bad grades later on. A recent poll by Gallup and Strada Education Network of over 20,000 college students shed some light on the issue of how students choose a major, and it reflects many trends that I have seen in my work. This survey also differentiated between formal sources such as college Advisors, and informal sources such as family and friends, both of which students can consult when picking a major. I’ve added some of my own observations from directly working with students to give a fuller picture.

Ways that students choose their college major:

They Ask Their Friends And Family

Among the informal sources that students ask, family and friends are an important one to them. They may go a bit further and talk with community leaders, aunts and uncles, plus others that are easy to access. While these individuals can give feedback to the student and the student trusts them, they are not specialized to give higher education guidance or advice. Many times I’ve seen a teacher, mother, father, or other person say to the student “you’re good at building things, you should pick engineering at school.” But they don’t realize that the programs they are recommending can be very difficult and hold multiple years of challenging classes. Some students have told me that their aunt or uncle recommended STEM majors because they were good at math and science, but this is very different from actually liking a actual major field.

Based On Family Traditions

Related to the family aspect is one that I’ve seen repeatedly: When a student is unsure of what they want to pick as a major in college, they “default” to what others in their family did for a major program. For example, if one or both parents are a physician, they pick biology, pre-med, chemistry, or another track that can lead them to medical school. The same is true if one or both parents are engineers, computer scientists, business people, or have similar professions. But this choice isn’t because the student is completely sure of that path, they are simply unsure of what to pick for a major, so they choose what seems familiar. Problems can arise later when the student doesn’t have enough interest in the classes, the major requires courses the student can’t handle, or the student just realizes the major simply is not right for them.

Based On What Teachers Chose

Students choosing a major in college also ask their high school and college teachers about what they think, or even what they majored in. The problem I’ve seen directly with asking such informal sources is that people tend to be subject to what I call the “my college experience” phenomenon which I’ve seen for years. It goes like this:  A person went to college, so they feel that they “know about college,” but what they only know is about their college and specific program, not others. This is a bias created in the mind of a person who graduated from college, they generalize that all college experiences everywhere will be exactly like theirs, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. So students get biased or incomplete advice when they ask an individual that isn’t geared toward helping students professionally to make college choices. Again, this can lead to bad decisions that can lead to poor outcomes later on.

Based On The Job Market

Perhaps one of the most problematic ways that students pick their college major is based on how much it will pay later on, or their chances of consistent employment. The number one major that students who have problems come to me with is engineering, and many of them chose that major because of the starting salaries. Engineering of any kind carries with it a brutal curriculum, yet when I ask them if they every looked at the classes they would have to take invariably they say “no.” Even though the starting salaries and levels of employment may be good for a given field, that doesn’t mean it will suit the student, both in terms of interests and academic capabilities. This is true of other majors like actuarial science, aerospace studies, and even business depending on the required classes. So choosing a major based just on the job market is a way to decide, but the academic pathway may hold big surprises that students do not see.

Based On Their Dreams

Students often choose a major, or college for that matter, based on what they dream of doing in the future. While chasing your dreams is never a bad thing, it can be when it comes to college majors. Similar to choosing based on the job market, choosing based on their dreams can lead to ineffective decision making. For example, many young women I’ve worked with wanted to be a veterinarian because they loved animals. But these programs are incredibly tough at the undergraduate level, and even worse at the graduate level. They rely on abilities that aren’t simply “you must love animals.” I’ve also seen the students pick a college based on their dream of following in the footsteps of others. For example, they may say “in my family, we’re all Aggies,” or Spartans, or fighting Irish, meaning they want to go to one school because attendance runs in the family. But that doesn’t mean the college even offers a major or curriculum that will be a good match for them.

By Using Formal College Advisors

Some students will use more formal college advice routes, such as college Advisors, career counselors, or may even have career or personality testing done to help guide them. But the Gallup/Strada survey found that only about half of students will do this, compared to two-thirds using the informal routes. College guidance professionals are best equipped to help students look at many of the above aspects mentioned, such as the labor market and academic curricula, then match that to what might fit a student best. Unfortunately, as the poll pointed out, students are less likely to use these formal sources. As they put it in their report, “ the most valued sources of advice are the least used,” meaning that many students are off-track when it comes to making effective decisions for college majors.

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