Choosing a Career vs. College Major: Which Comes First?

Much like the chicken and the egg, which should come first: choosing your career or your college major?

We’ve all pondered the question, “What do I want to be when I’m older?” When we’re younger, it’s easier to answer this question. Being an astronaut or president seems so simple when you’re little. But as you get closer to college, the question changes to “What are you going to major in?” At some point in time, choosing a college major seems to be more important than choosing a career. Many people seem to think that college major should come first to drive the career choice. Parents, friends, and some school personnel even have their students focus on a major before considering long-term career goals. This is a backward way of thinking about higher education. Somehow, we had it right as children – choosing a career should come before choosing a college major.

We need to ask career-first questions to avoid *major* setbacks.

Every college-bound student is constantly asked what their major is. What we need to be asking kids is the same thing we ask when they’re in elementary school: “What do you want to do when you are older?” To avoid entering college as “undecided,” students are under enormous pressure to choose a major for the sake of having one. Around a third of college students change majors within their first few years of college. This can result in a hefty, added cost due to a longer stay in college.

The choice of major will direct a student’s career, like it or not.

Some students may like a major but hate the most common careers associated with the degree. For instance, a student may be passionate about European History but despise the idea of becoming a professor. When determining which school to attend, start with career choice. This is usually a tough decision for a high school student. However, it is important to begin the process of thinking about it and dialing down to a general decision. There are many tools and tests available to help students decide what career might best suit them.

Network and shadow early on to get a taste of real life.

For most students, there may be a couple of different careers on the list. The best way to get a feel for those careers is by gaining hands-on experience. Students can ask friends and family members for the hookups to shadow someone in those fields. If the role isn’t shadow-friendly, meeting the contact for coffee or lunch could be helpful as well.

Select a college using the Head, Heart, and Hand method.

There are three parts to college selection: the head, heart, and hand. These three factors go into the selection of college after a decision on career path. The Head is the logical part, like making a decision on college based on a useful major or degree. The Heart is the passionate side, like being passionate about a college’s basketball team or campus. The last part of the decision is the Hand, or the financials. To determine the overall out-of-pocket estimate, take into consideration the financial aspects of the college, including the cost of attendance and time it takes to graduate.

In the end, it’s all about helping your student choose a career that aligns with their strengths and passions. Career assessment tests are a great way to do this and are worth the investment. A mistake in any of these areas can not only cost you financially, but also take up precious years of your student’s early adulthood.

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