Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 21, 2008

Stepping into College: Majors and Such

As you get closer to college you will become painfully aware that college is about choices.

Your senior year in high school should be dedicated to learning as much as you can about one particular choice—determining which major field of study you intend to pursue. 


So, what criteria should you use to choose a major?  If you already have a career goal—e.g., to become a physician, lawyer, or accountant—then half the battle is won; you need to choose a major that leads into that career.  However, medical and law schools have a great deal of flexibility in the type of majors they admit, so you still have several majors available to you.  Your best bet is to talk to student counseling at the college you hope to attend (yes, even though you are still in high school) and ask them which majors are most popular at their school for your chosen career path.


Many incoming freshmen do not have a career path chosen; if that describes you then a different strategy is needed. Many decisions will be made for you based on the strengths of your verbal and quantitative skills (e.g., engineers need to have strong quantitative skills so they take a lot of math courses).  That still leaves a lot of decision-making to be done for most students.


The first thing you should consider is the difference between skills and knowledge.  Skills and knowledge are the two things you will get from your coursework.  Having a specific base of knowledge is an important prerequisite for many upper-class and graduate-level courses.  However, employers tend to be more interested in the skills you have. 


You can divide skills into two types: general and specific.  General skills include things like quantitative reasoning, reading and writing; you should work to improve general skills no matter your major.  Specific skills are tied to specific courses or experiences—if you avoid that course, then you don’t develop that skill.


These skills include fluency in a foreign language, the ability to appropriately use statistical techniques (e.g., regression and multivariate analysis); computer programming; and specific laboratory techniques such as organic chemistry syntheses, electrophoresis, and handling laboratory animals.  Whichever major you choose you need to make sure that you acquire the necessary skills to make yourself marketable. 


It is all too easy to choose a major and then avoid taking the courses that will help you develop proficiency in the skills you need.  For example, sometimes students major in biology and then avoid taking many laboratory courses, or they take laboratory coursework from a great diversity of areas but not enough courses in any one area to develop true expertise. These students may have maintained a high GPA, but at the cost of perhaps driving themselves out of the job market.


So, one strategy for picking a major is to first think about careers and then what kind of skills you would like to develop.  Next, look at the courses that will help you develop those skills.  For example, you might have a vague notion you would like to work in management for a large company, but not know much more than that.


First think about which specific skills you would like to develop that might help you toward that goal.  Fluency in a foreign language might be helpful.  Work in management would require that you can handle budgets, so skills in finance and accounting should be considered.  Technical skills in information technology, statistics, and economic analysis also might be useful.


Then, think about the relative strengths of the skills you wish to develop.  Do you want to be able to speak Spanish and French fluently with a basic facility in accounting or finance—or, do you want to be well-versed in accounting with a basic comprehension of Spanish?  If it is the former case, consider a Spanish or French major and focus your elective courses by taking three or four accounting and finance courses.  For the later case, you might decide to major in business administration and focus your elective courses by taking three or four Spanish courses.  At least part of that choice will be decided by where your passion lies; the rest by advice from counselors and people already in the profession.


The same kind of thinking can be used for other majors as well.  For example, are you interested in the sciences and considering a career there?  Which skills would you like to develop?  Answering that question requires you to consider whether you want to work in either a laboratory or outdoor setting.  Identifying specific laboratory and field skills should be the first thing on your To-Do-List.  Also, consider how foreign language, statistical and business skills might fit into the mix. 


Inexperience and lack of knowledge about career options may make it difficult for you to get very far with this approach. It is difficult to know which skills are important when you are unfamiliar with a profession.  Nevertheless, being aware that your education includes acquiring both skills and knowledge will make discussions with high school and college counselors more fruitful.


So, why do this during your senior year of high school?  Thinking about these issues now helps you settle on which college you want to attend.  If you know that acquiring good chemistry laboratory skills is important to you, then going to a college that offers few laboratory courses may not be a good fit for you.  Likewise, students interested in business should look for colleges that offer many business courses teaching the skills you wish to obtain.


Do consider choosing a major to be an iterative process—if you do not like your original choice, then use this newly-gained knowledge to select a better fit for you.  However, it is important to consider how the need to make-up missing prerequisite courses might extend your time in college.  As always, there are trade-offs for most choices in college.




Check out these links to begin your search for a college major:


1.  Forbes Magazine recently published this article about which majors lead to the most lucrative careers (the link to Money Magazine is older):


2.  Princeton Review has this article about the most popular majors:


3.  This website from the U. S. Department of State offers advice about how to choose a college major and describes the difference between a major and a minor:


4.  Many colleges offer information about choosing majors from their career counseling departments.  These websites also list the many different majors available:


5.  Additional websites geared to helping you decide on a major:


 6.  The U.S. Department of Labor publishes the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which tells you what training and education is needed for each occupation listed.





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