by Roberto Noya, Owner & Consultant, College Counseling & Consulting LLC
Many people, including some who should know better, believe that all college searches boil down to the following: First, you choose a career; this will dictate your major, which in turn will enable you to pick the right college. While this formula may hold true for some students, in the majority of cases it is wrong on all three counts.
Given that the college search process should begin no later than the beginning of junior year, when we ask a student with college aspirations first to select a career, we are essentially asking a 16-year-old to pick from the very limited range of jobs with which she may be familiar. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and many parents to whom I say this share the sentiment. Moreover, many of the jobs that current students will compete for in the future do not even exist yet, and technology has changed dramatically the nature of traditional jobs. Why, in other words, would we assume that a high school junior can make the best choice of career before getting any significant exposure to his options? Moreover, why do we need to ask him to make such a choice at age sixteen?
As for a career choice dictating a major, this is simply not so for most careers. Having worked at two Ivy League universities and five colleges, all of them steeped in the liberal arts and two of them also offering undergraduate degrees in engineering, I know that if you do not major in engineering, you may lose at least a year in becoming an engineer. As best I can tell, the same goes for architecture. Beyond these, I am hard pressed to think of a career that requires a particular undergraduate major.
Take medicine, for example. While nearly every college and university offers a pre-med program, relatively few offer a pre-med major. The pre-med programs tend to feature a special pre-med advisor reminding the student of which courses are required for medical school (one year of biology, physics, and English and two years of chemistry, through organic chemistry) and helping the student identify the type of medicine best suited to her and how to prepare for the dreaded MCAT. Medical schools, however, do not require a particular major, even though most pre-med students choose to major in biology. The fact is that the admission rate to medical school is no better for science majors than for other majors. To be sure, students who hope to work in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will likely need a graduate degree that will require substantial exposure to the discipline in question as an undergraduate.
As for law, the best advice out there for preparing for law school is to read broadly and develop critical thinking skills, something that can be achieved in a wide range of majors, particularly when accompanied by a strong set of general education courses. It is these skills, not any one major, that will serve one well en route to law school and in law school (and, presumably, in practicing law). Many years ago, I heard that the students who scored highest on the LSAT–a significant factor in law school admissions decisions–were the physics majors. Then again, at most college and universities, physics majors are rare and very academically able, so one should not jump to the conclusion that it is solely the nature of the subject matter that prepares one for this standardized test.
Business is even a better illustration of my point, in that frequently the majority of Fortune 500 CEO’s majored in liberal arts disciplines, not business, as undergraduates. While some men and women in business did major in the field as undergraduates, many others majored in economics (which is not a pre-professional major) and many more in fields of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, all liberal arts areas. One year I invited the founder and CEO of a successful internet company in Maine to speak on campus about the value of a liberal arts education. He himself majored in English at Colby College (a private liberal arts college) before obtaining a graduate degree in computer science and founding his company. Like so many others, he stressed the importance of getting a broad knowledge base and developing the skills of inquiry, investigation, critical thinking, and communication in preparing for success in the global economy.
In other words, for the best known professions, there are no required majors or even obvious best majors. Training in these fields comes at the graduate level and/or on the job, not from an undergraduate major. Combine this fact with the questionable value of asking young adolescents to choose a career before they can reasonably assess their options or their suitability for particular kinds of work, and the wisdom of basing a college search primarily on these factors becomes evident.
There is little doubt, however, that some students have good reason to target a particular profession, having been exposed broadly to it at a young age and having determined that they possess the right skills and disposition for this kind of work. In addition, other students find a passion for a particular subject during their high school years. Even such students, though, would do well to remember that college will be their first opportunity to sample new subjects (not many high schools offer any courses of substance in anthropology, philosophy, or neuroscience, for example) and that they may stumble on unanticipated new subjects which capture their imaginations.
The pre-med student who loved biology in high school may fall even more in love with philosophy as a field of intellectual pursuit, even if not as a career choice. That student is well advised to major in philosophy, even as she continues on a pre-med track. If, however, she chose her college solely for the strength of its biology program, she may discover that there is no fleshed out program in philosophy there. Even some prospective engineers discover early on in their college careers that they do not much enjoy the study of the field and/or that they may be less well suited to it than they originally assumed. And many students who enroll in accounting majors decide that high finance or social work may be a better match for them as a result of academic, extra-curricular, internship, or work experiences in college.
In other words, one important part of the college search should entail investigating not just the particular program the student thinks he might pursue as a major, but to assess the overall quality of the academic program, its general education requirements and whether gen. ed. courses are relegated to a second-class status at the university, and the ease with which a student can switch majors before the end of sophomore year. Yet in over three decades in college admissions, I have seen numerous marketing surveys, all of which indicate that students and parents rate “quality of major” as the single most important factor driving their choice of colleges. This despite the fact that between one third and half of the survey respondents are undecided as to major.
I lament that so many students considering their college choices think narrowly about the undertaking. Colleges and universities, as well, however, are complicit in encouraging such myopia by themselves focusing primarily on majors in their outreach to prospective students and, in some cases, in their admissions process. At many universities, particularly the public comprehensive and research universities, applicants are admitted to a particular major.
As the country struggles to keep up with the demand for students with strong backgrounds in STEM disciplines, State and Federal programs have combined with industry to promote the majors in those fields. The press, as well, has helped this effort along by publishing the average salaries of college students by major, an exercise that ignores entirely the fact that if students in a major enter low-paying fields (such as social work or teaching) in disproportionate numbers, the average salary of the group is dragged down, though the major itself could have led to more remuneration if the students had chosen to pursue higher paychecks. Moreover, many of these published reports focus exclusively on the first job after graduation, instead of on the graduates’ entire careers.
At all but one of the colleges where I worked, “undecided” was the largest single intended major choice. At all but one, as well, students were encouraged to explore broadly before selecting a major, which they had to do by the end of the second year. In most of the colleges, the majority of students did not end up majoring in the field they listed on their admission applications as their intended major, and some switched majors after declaring one, as well.
It is now commonly accepted that a B.A. degree is as important in job hunting as a high school diploma was in the early and middle part of the 20th Century. An undergraduate degree no longer guarantees employment at the highest levels, though it dramatically improves one’s chances of landing employment and making more money, both right after graduation and in the long run. High school students thinking about college should probably accept that pursuing one of the traditional professions will likely require a graduate degree and/or substantial on the job training, regardless of their major in college. And I believe all this means that choosing a college wisely requires more than just evaluating the quality of the undergraduate major the student thinks he might pursue.
None of this is intended to make light of the fact that it is more difficult today for a college graduate to find a good job right after graduation. That is a function more of the recent global economic collapse, the current anemic recovery from that event, and the dramatic shifts that have occurred in the nature of work and the global workforce in the Age of Globalization. I hope, therefore, that students avoid believing they must decide on their major while still in high school and equating choosing an undergraduate major with choosing a particular career.