Picking a Major

I recently had a conversation with one of my students about picking her major.  She had gotten into her first choice school based, in large part, upon her test score (insert shameless plug here) but was now trying to pick her field of study.

“I want to study psychology, but everyone tells me I can’t do anything with a Bachelor’s in that field.”

“Everyone is right,” I said.  “At least a Masters, and even there the money isn’t necessarily phenomenal.”

“My brother says ‘study business.’  He hates the idea of my studying psych.”

“He’s the successful guy, right?  You told me you look up to him and trust his advice.”

“Yup.”

“He’s right – but I know you hate all that stuff: accounting, finance, etc.  I mean you’ll love marketing but a business degree is very math-oriented and you’re not a fan.”

“I know I know I know.  So I can study something I love and have no job or trudge through something I hate so I can have one?”

I laughed.  I wasn’t trying to be cruel.  But her statement indicated she was one step ahead of where she should have been.  The question she needed to begin with was:

Why am I going to college?

If the answer is:

A) To get a job

Then yes, she should look at careers and jobs and work backwards from there, identifying the majors of people successful in those fields, either from research or asking people personally.  Do not make the assumption that a degree in a field gets you a job in the field (unless you are picking accounting, in which case you will be nearly guaranteed a job upon graduation, and at a reasonable rate too!).

B) To study something I love

Then sure, she should study psychology.  I have a Liberal Arts background myself, with a degree in Literature.  I am now and always have been an intellectual so I, at her age, might have just breathlessly have told you that I “loved books” and wanted to go to college to read hundreds of them.

I could never have told you that I would be an entrepreneur when I was 18 because I don’t think I even considered that a possibility at that age.  I loved to learn and I had earned a full academic scholarship to my school of choice so I wasn’t taking a financial risk to pursue the studies I wanted.  The caveat here is that if you love Art History I am NOT encouraging you to study what you love if you don’t have some kind of scholarship or college fund set aside.  I’ll address how much I think it’s healthy to spend on college in a future article.

C)  Because everyone tells me I’m supposed to

Hmmmm.  Look, I’ve read the studies too.  People with 4-year degrees make more money (and sometimes, even they get out-earned by 2-year degree holders).  I get it.  But please realize that this is the first decision of your adult life.  Maybe you could have made a decision on where to go to high school based solely on the counsel of your family and friends.  They are important.  Very important.  But you need to own your college decision, really and truly.

D) To party!

Don’t worry.  it’s going to be everything you thought, and more (don’t worry, parents!).  Just be smart about your decisions and your finances.

As we talked through all of this, my student laughed and said, “Stephen, I’m still undecided.”

That’s fine.  You don’t need to have the rest of your life figured out right now.  And you may have motivations A-D (hopefully not just D.  If you only have that motivation, save us all some time and money and just go to community college!).  Just make sure you have a plan.  Plans can change.  But “no plan” isn’t wise.  “No plan isn’t worthy of someone on the cusp of adulthood.  As you get ready for college – no matter how many years away it is – whether you are a parent or a student – remember that college ends in a ceremony called Commencement, which means “beginning.”  Everything you do up until then is preparation and planning.

Make it count.

Stephen Heiner is a Premier Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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