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You're Going to Major in WHAT?!?

Kristina Dooley July 11, 2021

Youre going to major in what

For more than 20 years I have witnessed a shift in the contents of the "anxiety buckets" my students bring to the table when they begin their college search processes. Topping the list today: which major to choose...before they even complete a single college application.The question about what a student might major in usually follows the often-dreaded "Where are you applying?" Both of these queries might receive an immediate response, but the reality is that the answers students give are often based more on what they think is expected from them vs. what they might actually be considering. That word - EXPECTATION - can be the source of considerable internal conflict for students, especially when they may truly have no idea quite yet in which career areas their aptitudes and interests might best be suited. 

So the question this leads me to is: should we be asking 15, 16 and 17-year old students what they plan to major in? Should we, instead, be asking them about what they enjoy doing or, even better, what they LOVE learning. Notice I didn't suggest asking what they want to be when they grow up or where they'd like to work to make the big bucks. Nope. In fact, look at some of the most successful entrepreneurs and you'll find that their businesses were founded on something they loved. Their cash rolled in because they did something they were passionate about...not just something they studied in college: Walt Disney (loved illustration), Bill Gates (loved computer programming), J.K. Rowling (loves writing) and Oprah (loves Oprah. Well, it's true).

The problem that often arises when a student sits down with me and I ask them about what they like to do, or what they like to study is that my question is met with a canned response that they no doubt have been practicing since at least the 9th grade: 

"I like science. I'm good at it. I plan to study biology and go to medical school."

Now, I realize there are many students for which this forecasted trajectory might be accurate, and appropriate. However, I could probably count on one hand the number of students I've worked with who follow through on plans laid out in this manner. Sure, a student can "like science" and be "good at it"...what I'm not so convinced about is the "plan." Is this a plan that's been prescribed because of potential ROI, or driven by our definition of success? Or is it one where we can replace the word "like" with "love" and "plan" with "want"?

"I LOVE science. I'm good at it. I WANT to study biology and go to medical school."

Looking at how we define success there is often a clear benchmark that's used: money. Lots of it. However, a preconceived notion exists that those earning the most have graduated from the "top ranked" business schools and medical schools in the country. Here's the reality based on the degrees earned by the wealthiest people in the world

(Image Credit: Entrepreneur)

The most noticeable piece of this is that more billionaires hold a BA than all advanced degrees combined. This is important to point out because many parents feel a punch to the gut when they hear their child wants to study something creative like photography, dance or theater. Even areas of study such as sociology, history and communications can elicit this same reaction amongst some caregivers. The reality is that the oft repeated phrase "you'll never make money by studying that" just doesn't hold water anymore. While it may be true that there are more job openings in STEM or business-related fields, those who aspire to move up in the ranks, or even lead, have to work to get there. Their major may get them an interview, but their communication, leadership and proven record of knowing how to learn will move them quickly upward. The best part: none of these qualities are major-specific. 

So, let's try this: the next time you're at a gathering with teens, instead of asking them what they plan to major in when they head to college, ask them what they love doing. Follow that up with some inquiry into WHY they love whatever that is. Finally, pose this question to them: if you had the opportunity to create your own major - filled to the brim with classes on topics that you love - what would that look like? And most importantly...

Let them believe it and let them own it.

Don't discourage them with quips about how they'll never get a job by studying that, or that they should be prepared to eat Top Ramen in perpetuity if they go that route. Instead, share with them some stories of inspiration (if you've forgotten what those are, see the pre-Oprah link above) and encourage them. We can't expect kids to follow their dreams if we passive-aggressively turn off their mental GPS. Each student has their own turn-by-turn's not our job to tell them they need to take the shortest or fastest or most logical route. Oh, and while we're at it, let them enjoy the ride.

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