The College List

Choosing a Major (or not)

About half of students choose a major on their college application, but many times they make the decision without much research or thought. Even if they have put thought into it, how many 17 year olds truly know what they want to do? Nearly 1/3 of students who actually declare majors end up changing them within 3 years of enrolling. For most colleges, entering as a freshman undeclared is not viewed negatively, yet students feel pressured to choose a major before they apply. Here are some helpful steps students can take both before and after arriving on campus to aide in making the decision of what to study:

  • Career and Personality Assessments:  students should complete career and personality assessments while in high school to help them consider careers and majors which align with their personality traits, interests, aptitudes and abilities. There are many different assessments available, but completing 1-2 will at least get you thinking about what may be a good match. Often, they open students’ minds to careers they had not considered before and at least get them thinking about it.

  • Job Shadow:  students often pick careers based on what someone in their family does or what they hear pays well versus on actual personal experience. Participating in a few job shadows while you are still in high school is a great way to get in-person experience in a job without committing your future to it. It may only take a few minutes or hours to confirm or cancel a job interest. At the very least, it will gain you better insight to the career and give you possible connections for mentoring and career advice.

  • On Campus Advising:  finding an advisor who is familiar with your academic programs of interest and career goals is very important once you get on campus. If you do not know what you want, having an advisor to help guide your exploration is also important. They can make sure you stay on track with taking classes to graduate on time and make suggestions to help you refine your choices. Often, they have valuable personal experience to offer insight on potential careers and connections for further development. Research your potential colleges and make good advising a MUST HAVE on your list.

  • Major Exploration Programs: while building your college list, consider schools which have programs that allow students to explore their options more freely. Many colleges do not make students actually declare a major until end of sophomore year. Brown is particularly well known for its ‘open curriculum’ as students do not have to declare a ‘concentration’ until their 4th semester. They have much more flexibility to take classes in a variety of subjects before deciding what they want to focus on. Ohio State offers several pathways for students who are undecided such as the University Exploration program which allows students to sample a variety of classes and gives them academic counselors to help them make their choice. At Cornell, all students who enter the Engineering program are ‘undeclared’ and do not have to select a specific Engineering major until sophomore year. They are able to spend their first year exploring the various engineering fields and can get advising to help them decide. These are just a few examples of options available to students who need more time to decide and are important to research before choosing your college.

Northeastern’s Application

Northeastern’s Application

Some schools do not ask students to choose a major on their application or only ask them to choose a division within the school. If they do ask, entering undeclared is OKAY aside from a few exceptions. Top business programs, computer science and engineering are particularly notorious for being hard to switch into for students who originally chose something else. In those instances, I would highly recommend declaring the major and at least giving yourself a chance to explore it. Sometimes students are afraid to declare a competitive major as acceptance to these programs is often much more difficult than others, but do you really want to go to a school where you risk being denied access to the major and courses you want?

Whatever you decide to declare (or not), make sure you are choosing a college which offers most if not all of the potential programs you are interested in. Do your research on the advising offered, opportunities for exploration, and variety of programs of study available. It can vary significantly and you want to do anything you can graduate on time and eliminate the possibility of needing or wanting to transfer.

Counseling Resources on Campus

Recently, colleges have become more aware of the increase in mental and physical health issues among their students and have drastically improved the services and resources available to them. With nearly one third of all students having a diagnosable mental health issue at some point during their freshman year, these resources are invaluable. However, despite the plethora of resources available to them, at least 40% of the students experiencing mental health issues are not getting the help the need. The main problem is not the lack of resources, but rather the student not taking the initiative to seek them out.

One thing students should do early is inform themselves on the campus resources available to them while on tour and considering which schools to add to their list. Once accepted, students should make it a point to get even more familiar with the mental and academic counseling options their college provides - many offer both right on campus. In fact, many schools actually have trained mental health professionals and psychologists on staff and they usually have walk-in hours as well as appointments. From support groups to tutoring or private counseling sessions, many forms of help are available.

Students need to understand they can get counseling for nearly any issue ranging from sinking grades, eating disorders, test anxiety, and sleeplessness to roommate problems, depression, and alcohol and drugs. No issue is too small and it is better to seek help before the problem develops further and continues to disrupt life. The common rule of thumb is if it has been a disturbance for more than two weeks, seek help. Students should never hesitate to give either the academic or mental health counseling offices a call and set up an appointment or just walk in to discuss their options.

In cases of emergency or after-hours, students can call campus emergency numbers, local community agencies, 911, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and even text the Crisis Text Line for help. They should make a list of these important resources to have on hand.

Whether it is an academic advisor, career counselor, tutor, or roommate, students should also find someone they are comfortable speaking with and not be ashamed of discussing their issues. While these people may not be the proper ones to help, it is always better to talk to someone about problems than to keep them to yourself. At the very least, this person can advise them to seek help where appropriate or get them help when they are concerned.

If students have mental health issues before entering college, it is particularly important that they establish a plan and know where to go when they will need help. It may even be worth considering establishing a relationship with a mental health professional on campus or locally before the stress of freshman year begins.

Whether or not students think they will need some sort of counseling, they should learn about their options and understand that there is no shame in seeking help. Adapting to college life and adulthood is challenging and at one point or another, we could all use some help.

As parents and educators, teaching students to self advocate and take advantage of the resources available to them is an important part of preparing them for college and beyond. We need to make sure our students are comfortable with asking for help when needed and that they know where to go for that help.

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