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When to Choose the College Major

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Applying as undecided could be a smart approach

It's something of a paradox, identifying possible colleges while, at the same time, trying to anticipate one's college major. On one hand, it makes sense to start the process by creating a list of colleges that connect to an area of academic or pre-professional interest. On another, since it is so commonplace for students to change direction on majors once they arrive on campus, how specific about major should students be as they develop their college list?

From the beginning, a good list is built on a clear identification of student fit. For most students, good fit spans criteria that includes, at a minimum, academic rigor; social life; general lifestyle; financial factors. So where -- and even when -- does the college major enter into this paradigm?

The Art of Timing

At the start of the college process, a great many high school students begin with an "undecided" approach, that is, planning to initiate a plan of studies by pursuing general areas of strength and interest. Let's be real for a moment: For many high school seniors -- and even college first-years -- a college major is little more than a concept. Students who have never pursued coursework, for example, in engineering or business do not have a grasp of how college majors such as these demand more than a quantitative skill set developed in high school.

Biology and psychology, two of the most common majors identified by high school seniors, could diverge into multiple tracks depending on the college and how departments set up course or program requirements. After a small handful of semesters in, when coursework and requirements come into greater focus, it is not unusual for students to change direction on majors. It is important for parents to recognize that their student may emerge from college having pursued a degree in an area apart from their freshmen plans.

The smorgasbörd of classes available to students and the flexibility to sample them is a hallmark of education in the United States. Unlike in many other parts of the world, including Europe and Asia, U.S colleges encourage exposure across a broad curriculum en route to satisfying the requirements of a major or major/minor.

The Risks of Committing Too Soon

While an early determination of focus can feel re-assuring to both parents and students -- (it's impossible to escape the endless "So what is she majoring in?" from well-meaning friends and family), prematurely pursuing a definite path can end up being costly in time and dollars.

If students jump too early into a specific area and later decide that their initial choice was not meant-to-be, there grows the need to start over again, with many of the early credits potentially not being applied to the final major choice. One example that comes to mind is that of the student pursuing a STEM path and finds his stronger interest in the humanities through later courses in english and philosophy. The result is a student who ultimately devotes more time and finances beyond his planned four years to complete the coursework to graduate with the english major and philosophy minor.

Sometimes "undecided/unsure/still unclear" is the wiser approach. With the help of a good and forward-thinking college advisor, students will begin to hone an area(s) of interest earlier in their college career that will eventually support their choice of a major.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com


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