Choosing a Major

It's rare for incoming college freshmen to know what field they want to major in. However, many feel they should have at least some idea about what they'd like to do with their lives. Though in most cases, they're worrying too much, too soon.

"There's so much anxiety these days about getting jobs and what the real world is like that students come in as first year students thinking they have to already know what they're studying," says Carol Cohen, assistant dean of the college and associate counselor for the alumni college advising program at Brown University.

It's true that some careers do require related preparatory studies right from the beginning of a postsecondary education. "If you know you want to be an engineer you have to start right off at the beginning," says Cohen. "If you know you want to go on in medicine you have to at least have an inkling of an idea about that. So there are appropriate places for that kind of mentality. And certainly in some families there's a strong push to be preparing immediately for a job or some future prospect right upon graduation. And I understand that. There are often good reasons for that."

By and large, most students don't even need to select a major until well into their sophomore year. They should keep their focus on investigating their options well before committing to a choice of major.

Jack Trammell, a professor who teaches in the honors program and sociology department at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia agrees with this view. "I firmly believe that students should be encouraged to explore before locking into a major, unless they come in with a very specific expectation."

As a parent, Trammell doesn't want to have much say in what his own children study. "I believe it is so important for [young people] to find [their] own way -- with support and guidance -- into a field or area of interest," he says. As an advisor, he suggests that the students he counsels commit to a major at the end of their sophomore year.

"At most schools, the end of the second year is when students are asked to choose a concentration and put it on paper," Cohen says. "And the third and fourth years are for developing and completing their major. So they have some time to go about [selecting a major] in a fairly exploratory spirit."

For Danielle Hendrickson, a senior at Carroll College in Wisconsin, deciding which major to select was not a simple process. "It was rather overwhelming, and at times I felt pressured to finally choose a major."

She says that the decision is even more difficult for students who aren't aware of all their options -- or who may be confused by the sheer number of opportunities available to them.

"To help decide what best suited me, I took introductory classes in just about every field to help narrow my choices down," she says. "It can be a stressful time, especially if you're entering your junior year with no plans of what you'd like to pursue."

Callie Runestad is a senior at Winona State University in Minnesota. Like Hendrickson, when thinking about which major to select, Runestad took some introductory courses. She says that this helped her understand what subjects she was most interested in.

Runestad also spoke to an advisor. She recommends this course of action to others too. Cohen points out that every college and university in the nation has people who can help students through big decisions.

"Whether it's a faculty member, or an academic advisor, or a chaplain, or an administrator -- all you need to do is be attuned to who are the good listeners on campus. They can be a good sounding board and help you figure out [how to get] from A to B to Z," she says. "Just go to them and say, 'What was your process? How did you end up choosing this? What was your major in college? What did you think about doing before you joined faculty?'" Most will be happy to share their experiences.

Hendrickson found job shadowing to be a great way to see what's really involved in various professions, giving her a feel for what daily life might be like in different fields. "While job shadowing individuals, I realized what I was looking for, as well as what I'd like to stay away from," she says.

Runestad ultimately chose a combined major in English literature and communication studies. While she admits it wasn't easy to select her majors, she says it was worth all the time it took to make the decision. As for Hendrickson, she's now majoring in graphic communications and public relations.

Cohen says students need to take the pressure off themselves when it comes to choosing a major.

"The thing I end up saying to pre-college and college students is: You don't need to know where you're headed. You don't know what it is you're going to study or do after school. It's really good and OK to let that develop organically, because it will. So it's really OK to allow a process to take place by which you mature intellectually and personally. And little by little you discover what it is that you're wanting out of your education and your career, your life."

Runestad says that was definitely her experience. She advises future students: "Dabble in different academic fields and find out which classes you not only enjoy but that also give you a feeling of being alive. Regardless of what others tell you, follow this feeling and your career will come out of it in some way."