How Can I Support My Student in Choosing a Major?

choosing a major

By Diane Schwemm

Your son or daughter may have headed off to college with a rock solid plan for the next four years. But many of us, whose children flew the nest with majors “undeclared” (or “Open Option”), are wondering, and sometimes worrying. 

Without the right major, my student might not flourish in school, or might limit his or her career options down the road. What, if any, role should I play in this huge decision?

It is a big decision, possibly even bigger than which school to attend. Unlike that choice, however – made when they were still living at home with us – this is one our students need to make for themselves. In speaking to fellow parents, I heard variations on the same theme. One friend, herself a college professor, stated it plainly: “Helping a child decide on a major is only a parent’s business if the kid brings it up. Otherwise, it’s a good opportunity to remind your child that there are academic advisors, class deans, and other professionals at her institution who can help her make an appropriate choice.”

As parents, we can actively give feedback. It makes sense to prepare ourselves for these conversations!

Learn how things work at your student’s college and familiarize yourself with campus resources

How does advising happen at your student’s school? Know the name of his or her academic advisor and how often they’re supposed to meet so you can ask how the sessions are going and what they’ve covered. Regular meetings with this faculty or staff member are key; the advisor can best guide your student’s self-evaluation of classes taken thus far, and brainstorm with him about what to take next. One well-chosen class, and awesome professor, can make all the difference.

The college may have an Academic Advising Center where your student can work with university staff who specialize in helping students translate talents and interests to an academic course of study. Another resource might be a campus Career Center who can assist by allowing your student to discover how academic majors intersect with real-life work and service opportunities. They often administer skills/interest inventories, and can connect students with mentors.

The Campus Events Calendar is also a helpful resource of involvement opportunities that will be full of potential inspiration: visiting speakers; showcases of student creative work and research; internship opportunities during winter break or over the summer; service learning, employment, and volunteer experiences. Encourage your student to take advantage of professors’ office hours. Conversations with professors can be pivotal.

Help your student compare and contrast her top options

If your student has narrowed it down, and if she seeks your opinion, don’t hesitate to ask questions that require her to closely consider what she’s committing herself to. (Arm yourself with information ahead of time; majors are described on the college website, with requirements listed; there’s a huge range in terms of intensity, course selection flexibility, etc.) Is it important to your student to make time for a semester abroad? Is he considering a double major? Does a major require a senior thesis/capstone project and does this appeal to his strengths? Is it important to her that a major include research opportunities?

It’s okay to talk about money

“Thank you!” you may be saying. “I’d like to feel confident that my student will graduate with a major likely to lead to a job and steady income.” Financial literacy is an important part of anyone’s education. Your student will consider money as a factor in a lot of choices made during the college years and your student’s choice of major can impact that.

“What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” by scholars from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, is a recent study worth reading in its entirety. You won’t be surprised to learn that Petroleum Engineering majors tend to make a lot more money than Counseling Psychology majors.

This doesn’t mean we coerce our performing arts-oriented students into majoring in computer science, of course, but there is useful information here for parents. The concept of “pathways between education and work” (my italics) resonated.

As it turns out, very few majors are perfectly linked to a single profession; most lead to broad sets of occupations. We know this from our own experience, and it’s powerful knowledge to share with our kids. Every major opens lots of doors. It’s the skills they learn and the aptitude to appropriately apply them that can make them successful.

At the extreme, the highest earning major earns 314 percent more at the median than the lowest-earning major at the median.

What’s It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors finds that different undergraduate majors result in very different earnings. At the low end, median earnings for Early Childhood Education majors are $36,000, while Petroleum Engineering majors see median earnings of $120,000.

So, yes, it’s valuable to consider the employment forecast and salary potential associated with certain majors and professions, but today’s “hot” majors will only suit your student if that’s where her aptitude and passion lie.

Ultimately, choosing a major should spring from the desire to explore and enlarge a deep interest in a subject. It may be a newly discovered interest, and that’s why we send our kids to college in the first place: to be challenged and inspired by new ideas and communities and to begin the process of finding a vocation.

Choosing a major should be hard work

The more our kids invest in it, the more they will own their learning and graduate with a sense of purpose. My son is a freshman, his major still undeclared. I’m ready to be astonished by the new directions his spirit and intellect take him. Even as I brace myself to support his fluidity and changes of direction, I recognize that his generation is better at embracing change than mine is, and they need to be.