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Why Your College Major Doesn’t Matter in the US

September, 2015
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It takes a lot of work to get into college these days. Kids are “preparing for college” at ever younger ages. Students, particularly in and around Asia, are groomed for excellence from the time they are in Middle School. Parents looking out towards elite college admissions hire tutors to give their children an academic edge. Additionally, students study vocabulary, prepare for language proficiency tests, participate in math bowls, debate teams and swim meets. Their days are engineered from dawn until dusk and they are kept busy and productive. With the technical aspects of college entry success covered, parents often turn their attention to the selection of their child’s college major. 

college-studentsChoosing a major can be stressful enough for college students, but it is especially stressful for High School students. Why? Most High School students know very little about the real world. The purpose of High School is to offer students a broad-based, mind expanding academic curriculum, not to prepare them for a specific major or work type. It takes the full four years for students to build a strong foundation in their native languages, an additional language, mathematics, the basic sciences or history. Additionally, they have electives, sports, test preparation and growing up to do…in sum, there is often too little time left to explore their interests, the world and the intersection of the two. In short, High School students often know too little to make an informed decision. That is why the vast majority of US colleges do not allow students to declare their major until the end of the second (sophomore) year. 

Many parents, however, feel uncomfortable about sending their children off without a ‘purpose’ and swoop in to help their students choose a major. The problem with this is two-fold. Parental criteria for a ‘good major’ may not reflect their student’s interests. Parents tend to choose the practical majors that they feel will best lead to a job after college. However, students tend not do as well when they are studying topics they dislike. Students who are dispassionate about their majors don’t perform as well academically or otherwise – which makes them considerably less competitive in the job market than they would have been if they had pursued a course about which they were passionate. Being interested in what one does leads to passion, energy, creativity and great effort – these characteristics are much more important in a job interview and at work than a student’s major, especially in a world where new jobs and whole new industries are being created every year.

The second problem with parents choosing a major is that they tend to stick to their decisions…but this only makes it more difficult for your student to change his or her major when they do figure out what really interests them. Kids battling at home so that they can study something they love drains their energy and often kills their desire to study anything well. They could really do with some support, as they have enough to do just to figure out who they are and negotiate the world as independent beings.

Parents, please take note of the following truths and take heart. Know that 50-70 per cent of American college students change their major two to four times during their college careers. In conversations I’ve had with admissions deans and professors, I have learned that this is a sign that students are doing exactly what they are supposed to do – explore, experiment and learn. The ability to change major and dabble in corresponding or wildly different subjects is one of the great advantages of attending college or university in the United States. As your child learns more and figures out what they like and where they excel, they can move onto an academic path that makes it more likely to succeed.

I am convinced the ability to shift majors contributes significantly to the many innovations born in US universities. For example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major who took lots of computer science classes because he was interested in that too. I would argue that as a pure computer science major he would have been more likely to miss the importance of people in his work – what would Facebook be without people? Bill Gates started off as a pre-law major (His father is a lawyer) and later switched to math because he found out that he liked math better. What if his parents had insisted that he stay in law?

It is also interesting to note that while obtaining a college degree is an important factor for securing a job, only 27 per cent of college degree earners actually work at a job that requires a specific undergraduate college major. 

Finally, know that admission to many popular postgraduate educational choices are similarly unaffected by undergraduate major choice. Medical schools have no undergraduate major requirements. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), medical schools accepted students from a wide variety of majors, including 43 per cent of biological sciences majors, 47 per cent of physical sciences majors, 51 per cent of humanities majors, and 45 per cent of social sciences majors. “Admission committee members know that medical students can develop the essential skills of acquiring, synthesizing, applying and communicating information through a wide variety of academic disciplines.” Similarly Law School, Veterinary schools and Business Schools have no preferred majors. The fact that 90 per cent or more of medical and veterinary postgraduate school enrollees have undergraduate majors in the biological sciences is a separate matter. The key point is that their interests and passions drive them there, not their majors. Only passion can get you an A in organic chemistry…it is just not that much fun otherwise…and you need top grades to get into med school.

While having a child who declares a major and steadfastly sticks to it no mater what may make parents feel more confident that their child is on a path to success, it is ultimately the students who love what they study who get the best grades, build strong relationships with their professors who share their passion, get involved with research, do more networking and build the skills they need to do what they want. Simply put, most students just don’t put all that energy into what they don’t like, no matter how happy the title makes their parents.

I am not saying that students should not consider their parent’s ideas. Parents have valuable experience and great lessons to share with their children. But I encourage parents to remember that their experiences happened within the context of a different world…one that does not exist in the same way today. Be open to the fact that your children will live in a tomorrow you cannot see. That tomorrow will demand passion, energy, work experience and someone with a new vision. Who knows…that anthropology major you are so worried about today may inspire your child to create something everyone wants to buy tomorrow!

And…what if your child is going to attend college in the United Kingdom or any number or European universities? Does this still hold? Yes and no. You may check the blog at teameduconsult.cn to read about how the issue of choosing a major affects students attending college or graduate school outside of the US.

 

By Tess Robinson

 

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