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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

Well, I Do Declare!

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Enrolling in College As An Undecided Freshman

“Great news!  Good for you!”  It's a well-earned moment for high school seniors with college on the horizon to glow in these words of congratulations from well-wishing friends, family, teachers as well as the random casual acquaintance.  So gratifying to receive these words of enthusiasm until the next breath brings the inevitable, “And what are you planning to major in?”

While many students will have a ready response to the question, the majority will hem and haw because, well, they don’t really know how to answer.  Let’s be realistic:  How many 17 or 18-year-olds applying to college truly know what they want to focus on for four years, let along pursue on the road to a lifetime of work?

In today's world, the intent driving pursuit of a college education can be very individual and experienced through many dimensions.  Ask any student about why he or she wants to invest in a college experience.   Is it all about learning -- or vocational support -- or a time and place to learn to be independent and grow up?  Maybe it is a stage in life to construct a broader world perspective?  Maybe it’s all of these?

Another Kind of "Early Decision"

Feeling early pressure to “know” what one wants to study in college puts students in a precarious position of having to laser in on an area from the starting gate that may be a wrong fit later down the road.  Most well-meaning adults (and, admittedly, this mostly includes parents) tend to conflate a college major choice with career path.  It's wishful thinking to equate a decision on a major from the get-go as a sure route to success at the conclusion of four years.  

Honestly, you can hardly blame bursar bill-paying grown-ups for this perspective.  After all, the cost of college today is to be taken seriously and quickly takes on the dimensions of an investment that we all hope supports a good “return."  

But consider how much a first year college student typically evolves once exposed to academic areas or other students who may open their eyes to learning they had never been exposed to before.  And consider that the high school curriculum most teenagers pursue is relatively limited and doesn't offer the breadth of coursework they would see in college.  The very experience of college itself is likely to open any student’s eyes wide to a catalog of areas to pursue. 

Typically, colleges report the most popular choice of major at the time of application is “Undecided.”  My personal spin on this is a more positive one:  Still Exploring.   Extending even further, how about: Potentially Interested in Many Things?  In a perfect world, this is the kind of attitude an eager undergraduate should bring along to college! 

Outcomes 

Broadly, what is the goal that students hope to achieve at the end of their four years?  For some, it's preparation and solid recommendations for graduate or professional school.  For others, it’s graduating with a bachelors degree debt free.   For many, it may be a job offer or a realistic shot at employment in a field of interest that affords a sustainable lifestyle and independence.

Stepping into freshman and sophomore years of college for many teenagers is about finding direction via exposure to a broad curriculum while testing and then embracing (or eliminating) possible directions based on experiences in introductory courses. Then when the time comes at the end of the second year to formally declare a major, truly invested undergrads may look toward a path to double majoring or majoring/minoring.  As any college grad will realize, there had been so much available to explore in college --  and so little time to absorb it all!   

Destination 

Filling in between the lines of what students major in and the requirements of the job market in any field goes beyond solely taking classes.  Today, students set themselves apart in the employment or professional school sandbox via experience gained along the way through internships; campus research and jobs; or volunteerism.  While it may come across as a bit of a paradox, it’s worthwhile to remind students at every bend in their educational path to gain experience outside of the classroom. As a result, they can be more hirable later on and later actually have a greater opportunity to apply what they did in fact learn in school.  

Given that students are bound to change their planned major as a result of potential exposure to areas of interest and fit, why constrain a high school senior with demands to determine a major before setting foot in a campus classroom?  For some students, their natural path has been clear for years, but expect most to explore the bricks in the walkway before branching off on the formal road.

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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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