How to help your college student choose a major

My son at college isn’t sure what he wants to major in. He has some thoughts, but he could go in a few directions. As a parent, it is difficult to guide him because I am not sure what the jobs of the future will be. Also, a teen doesn’t always want his parents’ advice as a college student choosing a major.

Fortunately, our guest blogger today offers some help. Heather McCutchen is an InGenius Prep Counselor, Former Admissions Reader from Dartmouth College, Mother of Two Ivy League Graduates. She also is an internationally produced playwright and works with students to navigate the college admissions process.

A lot of parents have strong opinions about what their kids should major in, but many high school seniors I know lean toward checking the Undecided box. There’s more than one family conflict ready to erupt in this contrast! I’ve worked in higher education for more than 30 years, and as a mom of three, I can share some quick tips about what works and doesn’t work as you try to help your child figure out what to study in college.

Does work:

Have your kid literally read a course catalog from a college that appeals to them. Here’s a good one from Dartmouth. Ask them to write down every course that sounds exciting to them. Don’t worry if a course is practical or has prerequisites—just have them amass a list of classes that sound interesting enough to get them out of bed. Now together, you can look for trends in the list. Are there absolutely no STEM courses? Maybe a surprising number of Philosophy listings? Most of the time, this one exercise can help your child zoom in on a handful of interests. At a minimum, it may help eliminate a few swaths of the college curriculum.

Doesn’t work:

Selecting a major for your kid is a recipe for future unhappiness, even if you are right. Yes, I agree, we know best most of the time. But how often does pointing that out really work? If it makes you feel better, you can write all of your brilliant guidance down on paper and pull it out again for a big reveal when they graduate from medical school like you said all along. But for now, put that away.

Does work:

Suggest that they be practical. If your child is applying to college, I can tell you as a Former Admissions Reader at an Ivy League school, that selecting Undecided as a major is a wasted opportunity. It doesn’t hurt an applicant, but it is passing up an opportunity to tell admissions officers something about themselves. Assure your child that they aren’t committing to future career path with their choice here—students change their mind all of the time about their course of study once they get to campus. But picking a certain academic field on an application helps shed light on what the student cares about.

The subject that they indicate they want to study should make sense with the rest of their application. If they have been a science star throughout high school and never taken an art class, then choosing studio art as their intended major is going to give their application an identity crisis. Suggest that they choose something that makes sense alongside the courses they have taken and done well in during high school. 

Doesn’t work:

Raising the stakes is a losing proposition. Don’t tell them this is the most important decision they will ever make; you know that isn’t true! According to Inside Higher Ed, more than 30% of college students change their major at least once. It is completely normal and ordinary to not be sure what you want to do when you are a teenager. Or twentysomething. Or fiftysomething (hello midlife crisis).

So to summarize, have them explore actual college course options to see what sounds fascinating to them. Let them know it’s a practical, not super-important or set-in-stone decision, a decision that is up to them. Then be supportive out loud, and whisper your opinions to your spouse when no one else can hear.

Heather McCutchen

Related Posts:

What to do when your teenager doesn’t want to go to college

How to make the college application process less

Lessons of a college student: Things don’t always go as planned

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