High School 2 College

January 21, 2020

Three Rules about What You Should Major In

Every teenager I know, from the beginning of junior year until at least the middle of senior year, is asked the same two questions everywhere he goes:  What are you going to major in, and what do you want to be?

Not since you were five years old have as many strangers and near acquaintances been so interested in your plans for the future!  But you can no longer answer “superhero”; people expect you to answer something reasonable, like “doctor” or “businessman” or “psychologist,” or you risk looking like you have put absolutely no thought into your own future.

So how, at age 16 or 17, are you supposed to know?

Frankly, most adults I know are working at a job or career that’s not the one they planned for when they were teenagers. So why choose at all?

The key, I believe, is to start moving forward, knowing that your path may take a turn in an unexpected direction at some point.  But if you never start moving, for sure you’ll never get anywhere.  So pick a major or a career you think you might like and take some action to make that come about, even if you never actually get there.

From a practical perspective, why not just put “undecided” on your college applications, since the truth is that you really ARE undecided?  Sometimes that is the best choice.  If you’re a girl who thinks she might want to major in psychology or English, or a boy who thinks he might want to major in math or business or some science, undecided might be best.  Every college has a ton of female biology majors and male math majors.  Colleges like to balance their incoming freshman classes in terms of gender (few boys want to go to a college that’s 90% female, and few girls want that, either – or they’d be looking at women’s colleges).  But they also like to balance out each major by gender as much as possible.  So a girl who is considering majoring in English isn’t increasing her chances of getting in to a particular college by applying as an English major, but a boy who might  want to major in English is indeed giving his chances a boost by listing that major on his applications, presuming his grades in English and Social Studies classes confirm that liberals arts would be a likely good fit for him.

So rule #1 is apply undecided only if the major you’re thinking of is common for your gender.

Some majors are designed to teach you more stuff, and some majors are designed to teach you how to DO stuff.  As a history major, I didn’t need to learn how to do anything I couldn’t do before.  I just learned more history, and I learned how to analyze it better and write about it better.  But those who major in engineering, nursing, physical therapy, accounting, and similar majors are actually learning how to do something.  For my history major, it didn’t matter if I took a class in the late middle ages before or after I took a class on the causes of the American civil war.  But someone who is majoring in engineering learns the basics the first year, then learns a bit more the second year, then specializes into mechanical or civil or electrical or some other kind of engineering the third year.  An engineering student can’t take a third year class during his first year, because he just won’t have the background for it yet.

All those “learning how to do stuff” majors generally require smaller and more specialized classes.  A college can put 400 history majors in a lecture hall, but not 400 senior-year nurses.  So those skills-based majors are usually more selective.  In other words, those programs have more requirements (perhaps they require SATs or SAT Subject tests when in general that university is “test optional”) and take fewer students.

So if you’re planning on majoring in biomedical engineering, should you just list your major as undecided because it’s easier to get in?  No, you can’t.  In most cases, the engineering (or nursing) departments constitute a different college within a university, and switching in isn’t easy.  Changing from a physics major to an engineering major will require you to apply again and start back with freshman classes, likely ensuring that you’ll go to college for much more than 4 years just to get your bachelor’s degree.

It’s very easy – and common – to go in as an engineering major and then switch to just math or just science because you’ve already taken the basic coursework, but it’s much harder (and sometimes impossible within the same school) to transfer from majoring in science to majoring in engineering.

So rule #2 is to list as your probable major the hardest and most specific major that you’re considering, even if you know that you’re not at all sure that you’ll stay with it.  It follows my advice above about starting down a path.  If you start to be a nurse and after a few classes you realize it’s not for you, it’s easy enough to change to biology or psychology.  But if you start with biology, you might not be able to get into the nursing program.

Does it make sense to major in history or English or any other liberal arts subject?  What could you possibly do with it?  Because college is so brutally expensive, too many families presume that if their students aren’t majoring in something practical, something that will turn into a career like business, their kids are wasting their own time and their parents’ money.  Not so.  I majored in history and was in banking as a branch manager for 11 years.  My cousin majored in Peace Studies at Binghamton and is now working for an internet company making a very impressive income, living in New York City.  Employers often look for employees with liberal arts degrees because the employers can be assured that those candidates can read critically, can write intelligently, can think independently, can complete a program they’ve begun, and most importantly, have learned how to learn.  As this article explains, a liberal arts degree translates into a higher income for life.

Rule #3, therefore, is major in what you really like to study with the confidence that it will turn into a worthwhile job.  Just start walking down that path.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

 

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