Three Ways to Help Students Choose the Right Major

If you asked the average high school student from Generation Z about their plans after graduation, they’d likely say: I plan to go to college, then start my own company. However, if you could fast forward to see what actually happens, it’ll likely be:

  • I changed my major a few times.
  • I transferred to a different college.
  • I did not graduate because I didn’t feel like I fit in.
  • Then, I tried to start a company.

Focus is difficult today. Making decisions and sticking to them may be harder than ever. Narrowing down a college major is challenging because of several 21st century factors:

1. Options are greater and selection is larger.

Much more than when I attended a university, major areas of study have expanded. There are more options for students to choose from and the selection process of choosing—and even creating—a major is overwhelming. It’s like having a meal at a super-sized cafeteria. How can I fit all these food items on my plate? Sometimes, students default to saying: I need two plates. Or, I can’t even make a decision.

2. Kids enter with less work experience.

One huge reason teens find it difficult to choose a college major is they have little work experience. In my day, the average high school student worked a job. And work itself (even if it’s not a career choice) helped me choose. Now, the average student does not work. I’ve met teens who choose a major based on watching a TV show. Criminal justice looks so exciting on television. It’s problematic to choose without real world experience.

3. Colleges are all too happy to keep them around.

When a student changes majors and takes six years to finish a degree, it just means the school keeps a customer longer. Despite what purists say (and I tend to be a purist) higher education is about economics: recruiting and retaining customers. Just like any business. Students can just keep exploring.

So many choose a major in college, then change it two or three times, according to conservative estimates. I’ve spoken to professors who said students on their campus average four to five changes in majors. Wow. That’s a lot of zig-zagging. The result is wasted money; wasted time and wasted energy on a student’s part. Parent’s too.

There’s got to be a better way.

Three Ideas to Help Students Focus and Choose a Path to a Major

1. The Meta Major Model

In some universities, the wandering method is becoming antiquated. The entire University System of Georgia asks students to declare either a major or an “academic focus area.” This means a meta-major, which is supported by intensive advising to help them find their academic interests and “flirt” with subjects they may want to pursue. The goal is to enable students to gain momentum by putting their “toe in the water” and find areas of passion before “choice paralysis” sets in their junior year. Lots of exploring; lots of discussions; lots of mentoring. It’s a little like dating someone before you get married. I like it.

2. A Gap Year

I’ve long been a fan of encouraging students to take a “gap year” between high school and college. Both of my kids invested in one and it paid off greatly. Simply defined, a gap year is a year-long experience where a young adult gains experience in travel, in work and in interviews before launching into a costly formal education. It’s a sort of “On the Job” Training experience. Fewer classrooms; more workrooms. It’s a way to gain experience before declaring a course of action. The University of Nebraska athletic department actually offers an experience following college graduation for athletes who invested so much time in sports they never experienced an internship or an overseas trip.

3. High School Exploration

In the same way that colleges like the University of Houston offer courses such as “Exploratory Studies,” high schools can promote working jobs (not just typical extra-curricular activities) and offer courses that enable students to get their “hands dirty and their feet wet” in real-life work experiences. If Horace Mann was correct—that the purpose of school is to prepare kids for the norms of society—then secondary school should be about offering creative opportunities to prepare for a career. Vocational schools already do this and those grads have a genuine head start on adulthood. Why not make this normal?

According to one College Mental Health survey, more than 80% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year. Nearly equal numbers of students felt exhausted, and not from exercise or physical activity. While occasionally feeling tired or a little stressed is normal, students often feel paralyzed because they have no clarity about their life. It’s time we help them make these big decisions with clarity.

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Three Ways to Help Students Choose the Right Major