How to Choose a College Major

Choosing a college major can be a big, anxious deal. It's your college kid's job to choose that major. Yours is to encourage and support him through that process - not foist your dreams on him, but when your kid calls in a 2 a.m. panic because he can't decide, or he's just not sure or doesn't know where to start, it can be helpful to ask a few questions or murmur knowledgeable reassurances.

How to Choose a College Major: Tips for Parents

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Some kids hit campus knowing exactly what they want to do; others aren't so sure. So what follows are tips for every family, no matter what the circumstance:

  • My kid picked his major - I'm not so sure.
  • My kid is clueless about college majors.
  • My kid needs help narrowing the list to just one major - or two.
  • Plus, a few caveats and resources.

My Kid Picked His Major, I'm Not So Sure

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It's not unusual for a parent to fret about his college kid's choice. You always dreamed he'd be a lawyer; he wants to go into art history instead, or you know his heart lies in creative writing, what's he doing in nuclear science? This is his decision to make, ultimately; it's far more helpful for both of you if you ask non-judgmental questions and encourages him to talk about his decision. Talking brings clarity to those dreams and ambitions - for both of you.

You may discover that the major he's proposing isn't what you thought it was. From astronautics to viticulture, there are​ so many intriguing majors now that didn't exist back when we were in school. You may also discover that one or both of you have bumbled into a classic misconception about a college major - the kind about starving artists and useless majors.

You should be happy that your child knows exactly what he wants to do! Just make sure your college student understands the how-tos involved in declaring a major at his school, including deadlines, requirements, paperwork, and the pros and cons of waiting until the last minute.

When Your Kid is Clueless About College Majors

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The vast majority of college kids arrive on campus as undeclared majors. But at some point in the first two years, a college major decision must be made and if your child has done nothing but knock out general ed requirements - and take a slew of introductory classes, like Anthro 101 and PoliSci 101 - panic may set in. That's because introductory classes are not the best way to make a decision like that. But these methods are:

Choose an Academic Area First

A list of 200 possibilities doesn't feel like an embarrassment of riches. It feels like an embarrassment of overwhelming-ness. And you may not be much help. Many of today's majors didn't exist in the 1970s and '80s. Whether your child ultimately ends up in Astronautics (the design of spacecraft), informatics (the study of computer systems and how they're used by groups) or viticulture (winemaking and vineyard management), it helps to start out by looking at broad areas of interest. Is he an art guy or a science student? Choose a broad category first, then delve into the specifics and narrow the list.

Take a Quiz

Taking a pop quiz to figure out something as important as a college major seems silly at first glance. You might as well take one of those "How good a kisser are you?" quizzes in a teen magazine, right? But a quiz can be an incredibly useful tool, especially when it's done as well as Marquette University's fun, quirky, and eerily accurate choose-your-major quiz. Among other things, Marquette's version asks about weekend plans, your Netflix queue and which celebrity - Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Hawking or Chris Nolan - you'd like to treat to some of Wisconsin's famous frozen custard. Funny, right? But when I did it, its list of five possible majors included my actual major and minor, the major closest to my current profession and the one closest to my previous profession. Who knew frozen custard with the director of "Inception" could yield such results?

Every college career center offers career interest and aptitude quizzes, as well. The University of Minnesota offers an online, psychological assessment known as the RIASEC model, designed by Dr. John Holland. It asks you to imagine going to a party at a house with six rooms, each filled with different types of people. You pick the three rooms you'd most like to spend time in and then use those letter codes to find majors that fit.

Choosing Just One Major (Or Maybe Two)

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If your college kid has winnowed his college major choices down from the vast array of possibilities to a handful, that's fantastic. Now all he has to do is pick one - or two:

Choosing a Major

Encourage your college kid to think beyond Intro 101, and take a good, hard look at the department, the major and all its major-required courses online. Stroll the campus bookstore and look at the textbooks professors are choosing for those classes. Then take the intro class. Sit in on others. Talk to students who chose that major, as well as an academic adviser to map out what that major path would look like. And if it's still looking good, take more classes to help him decide.

Make sure your college kid understands the how-tos involved in declaring a major, including deadlines and paperwork, for his specific school and major.

Choosing More Than One

Some college students are so passionate about their field(s), they may not want to limit themselves to just one major, but a double major is an enormous undertaking and one that, depending on the college, may translate into the fifth year of study (and tuition). So it's also worth investigating the differences between a major and a minor.

Caveats, Warnings & Resources

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Astronomy 101 Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

Introductory courses are not necessarily good indicators of the intensity and intrigue of a field, nor the kind of coursework majors can expect. Astronomy and astrophysics are math and physics-centric majors, but you'd never know it from some Astronomy 101 classes. Make sure your college kid has fully explored the coursework required for the major - with special attention paid to science, math and writing requirements - before he takes the plunge.

Lawyers Starve Too

Everyone makes assumptions about certain career paths. Whether it concerns starving artists or wealthy lawyers, make sure you and your child aren't falling prey to common misconceptions about college majors. And, as Stanford University’s advisers put it, “Have you investigated your assumptions about the major career connection?” Majors that you may think are useless are actually very marketable. And those you thought were slam-dunks - psychology, for example - don't yield a license to actually practice without a graduate degree.

And Help Exists Everywhere

Remind your college kid that help can be found in many places. In addition to his university's undergraduate and academic advisers, each department has academic advisers. Professors are great resources, of course, but upperclassmen and grad students will give your child the real story on the unexpected challenges of that major. And don't forget the college career center. Career center counselors are a wealth of information on the types of jobs available to students in specific majors.