Originally Posted: Oct 5, 2011
Last Updated: May 3, 2016
For students trekking through the college admission process, getting accepted is only the first of many steps they'll take toward achieving their goals in life. Choosing a major and career path to pursue is equally important and can seem overwhelming to a teenager whose most pressing decisions thus far have been what movie to see or who to take to prom.
What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
-- Bob Dylan
For students trekking through the college admission process, getting accepted is only the first of many steps they’ll take toward achieving their goals in life. Choosing a major and career path to pursue is equally important and can seem overwhelming to a teenager whose most pressing decisions thus far have been what movie to see or who to take to prom. Fortunately, they can turn to their college counselors, who are uniquely positioned to guide them toward rewarding academic experiences and careers.
From tried-and-true methods to a few strategies you may not have considered before, take a look at a few of the ways you can start the conversation and get them going on the road to success.
Explore your students’ interests
When discussing your students’ prospective major and career goals, begin by looking at their interests and strengths. One strategy is to review their transcripts and look at the subjects where they’ve earned the best grades. Of those subjects, discuss which ones they truly enjoy, since good grades aren’t necessarily indicative of a student’s interests. Once they’ve narrowed down a few disciplines, they can begin exploring what majors are related to those subjects and see if anything strikes them. From there you can help them learn what is required to earn a degree in various majors and what types of careers they can lead to.
During this discussion, some students may discover that their interests aren’t in line with their strengths. A student who is fascinated by archaeology might not want to make a career of it if math and science aren’t his best subjects. But perhaps he did well in history, a field not entirely unrelated to the field of archaeology, making it a possible compromise. On the other hand, they should also realize that high school and college are two entirely different games. A student who enjoyed but struggled in a high school government class may thrive in a freshman political science seminar. Less-than-stellar grades in a particular subject may or may not be a predictor of one’s performance at the college level. Encourage your students to be honest with you and with themselves and to leave no stone unturned when exploring their major and career options.
Do the research
The major a student wishes to study can influence which school he or she should attend. Those interested in a science might want to look into research-intensive universities. Budding poets should find schools with strong liberal arts programs. You can help students who know what majors they want to pursue before they begin applying to colleges by researching schools that have strong programs in those fields. What percentage of students graduates with a degree in a given field? How many professors does the department have? What have the program’s alumni gone on to do? Go the extra mile and do some digging. Finding the answers to such questions will help you and your students determine if a school is a good fit.
Once a student has applied to a school or at least narrowed down a few they’re interested in, course catalogs are an excellent resource for exploring majors. Regardless of their admission status, students can look at schools’ course offerings and get a sense of what types of classes would be required for a given major. Consider keeping on hand the course catalogs of local colleges and schools your students most often attend and become familiar with their content. You and your students can also begin exploring their interests and potential schools right here on CollegeXpress.com.
If it can be arranged, students should consider sitting in on a few college classes. Not only will doing so give them an invaluable reality check about the rigors of collegiate coursework, but they’ll be able to test the waters in the majors they’re considering. Some go-getting students might also consider taking college classes while still in high school, which provides a means of easing the transition to college life while exploring their interests and earning credit.
Explore potential careers
Of course, the point of choosing a major is to begin planning for a career. Whether your students’ ambitions are vague or specific, you can help them devise concrete goals that will lead to rewarding jobs. Ask what motivates them and what they are passionate about. If money is their driving force, help them investigate top-earning careers. If they’re interested in helping others, look into majors that can lead to a career in the nonprofit sector. What makes them happy in life? What kind of work makes them feel fulfilled? As Harvey MacKay said, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
Ask your students how much of their life they want their career to consume. A student interested in medicine should understand the demanding schedule that is generally required of doctors. A student who is interested in law but wants to leave the office by 5p.m. every day should research the term “billable hours.” What kind of work-life balance are they hoping for? The answer to that question should help inform their major and career decisions.
Encourage them to consider job shadowing, an excellent, hands-on way to explore potential careers. Students who are at all up-in-the-air about “what they want to be when they grow up” should think about job shadowing with professionals in fields they’re interested in as well as in fields outside of their comfort zone. Family and friends can provide a wealth of opportunities in this regard. Part-time jobs and volunteer work are also good venues for career exploration, as long as the student’s school schedule permits it and their grades aren’t affected.
Career guides and assessment tests may prove useful in helping students parlay their strengths into fulfilling professions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the incredibly valuable Occupational Outlook Handbook, which details hundreds of types of jobs including the training and education required, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and typical working conditions. Job search sites such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com have career assessment tools that may be helpful. The ASVAB (the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), though used to determine one’s eligibility for enlistment in the armed forces, can also help students gauge their skills in various occupations.
Can’t come to a decision? They don’t have to!
Let’s be honest. Would you let a 17- or 18-year-old decide what you should do for the rest of your life? Probably not. So it’s not the end of the world if some of your students are heading off to college unsure of what they want to study or what profession they’d like to pursue. After all, these aren’t decisions to be made lightly, and the fact that they’re going to college at all will give them a leg up in the job market. Luckily, there are several options for undecided students.
Depending on the school, new students may be able to enter with “undeclared” status, allowing them to work on their general education requirements, explore subjects that interest them, and choose a major later on. They can then use their first few semesters to take advantage of their schools’ academic and career advisors. Some schools even offer freshman seminars with major and career exploration components.
Students who have strong interests in a few areas but can’t focus on just one might consider pursuing a double major. The availability of this option and the requirements for completing two majors will vary from school to school, but it might be a good opportunity for students who genuinely enjoy two different subjects. Ambitious students could consider dual degree programs, which involve the completion of two degrees in less time than it would take to complete them individually. In many cases, dual degree programs allow students to earn both a bachelor's and an advanced degree such as an M.B.A., potentially making them more attractive job candidates upon graduation. Academically curious students might also look into interdisciplinary studies and self-designed majors.
Most important, remind them that many college students change majors at least once, and most people won’t remain in a single career for their entire life, so there's no need to feel pigeonholed. Help them think about the big picture and the possibility of augmenting their undergraduate studies with a master's or professional degree. With a bit of informed support and encouragement, they'll be well on their way to fulfilling college years and rewarding careers.
Check out Major Decisions, an invaluable resource for your college counseling library. Profiling more than 160 of the most popular majors, it’s sure to help your students make informed decisions. Also available on Kindle!