High School 2 College

November 19, 2012

Getting Into College: Where and How to Start (Thinking About A Major)

You’re a junior in  high school (or a fairly motivated sophomore or an overly laid-back senior).  Adults are starting to ask you, “So, where do you think you’d like to go to college?”  You have no idea. You don’t even know how you can begin to get an idea.  Let me help.  I’ve been helping kids get into the right college for over 25 years.

First step:  What do you want to be when you grow up?

Wasn’t it so easy when you were a little kid and you knew you wanted to be a fireman or superhero or princess?  Let me reassure you that practically no one knows at age 16 or 17 what he or she wants to do for a living.  You don’t even know all the jobs you could do.   To pick a school that’s a good fit for you, though, you have to have some idea even if you change your mind many times between now and college – or even between now and age 25.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a subject you like better than the others, even if it’s not the subject you get the best grades in?
  • Would you rather study math and science or English and Social Studies for four years?
  • Do you like to work in groups or work alone?
  • Would you rather one subject deeply or take a little of everything?
  • Would you rather have a job based on what you know, what you can do, or what your personality is like?

Basically, while you’re at college, you’re learning either content or skills.  Jobs like nursing, accountancy, and engineering require that you learn skills primarily.  Majors like history, math, economics, and chemistry require that you learn content primarily.    Which appeals to you more?

Some people want a job where they can help humanity (see this article for women and biology).  Other people want a job where they have the potential to earn a lot of money.  Others need to be creative on the job.  (Click here for a recent list of high- and low-paying majors.)  Some jobs have the prospect for growth in the coming years, but other fields are shedding employees so fast that it’s almost irresponsible for colleges to be encouraging MORE people to go into those fields (read this article).

When polls are conducted, some careers boast people who are nearly all satisfied with their jobs, and other careers have the dubious distinction for having a lot of people who are sorry they chose that field.

So talk to adults you know, read some articles (all the links in this article should give you a head start, especially this one), and get a possible major or two in mind.

A word about applying “undecided”:  All kids (well, almost all kids) are undecided.  Choosing a major on  your application doesn’t mean you have to stick with it throughout college.   In most colleges, students don’t declare a major until sophomore year.  Choosing a major at this point means you’re indicating to the college what you think you’d like to study at this point in your life.  It’s not a commitment.  Colleges want to make sure they don’t accept more engineering students than they have room for.  They also want to make sure they don’t have all psychology majors.  And they want to make sure that within each major they have a reasonable boy/girl balance.  Applying undecided is usually a bad idea.  It says to the college that you haven’t spent enough time thinking about your future.  (On the other hand, if you still are determined to be a psychology major, you ought to apply undecided because there are just too many of those.)

It’s not equally easy to get in with all majors. It’s possible that you could get into a school as an English major but not as a nursing major.  In those cases, you have to be honest, even if stating your real interest lowers your chance of getting in.  Those majors based on skills, especially engineering, nursing, and physical and occupational therapy, have very specific educational paths.  You must take certain courses each year to complete your training.  You can’t decide to be an engineer at the end of your second year, for example, because the rest of the engineering students will be two years ahead of you.  You can, however, go in as an engineering (or nursing or physical therapy) student and change your mind after a year or two or three and switch to biology or chemistry or even political science.

While you think about what major might suit you, I’ll be writing the next in the series:  How to Build a List of Schools.  Stay tuned!

As always,  let me know if you  have any questions or comments.

Wendy Segal


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