Choosing a College Major

A high school student recently asked me about choosing a college major. She said, “I’m taking this sociology course in high school and the teacher said the other day that sociology is the best major for getting into law school, and that’s what I want to do. Now I’m all confused because I want to major in English when I get to college. Am I hurting my chances of getting into law school with that major?”

“What your teacher said is nonsense,” I said. “Choose a major that you find enjoyable and exciting. If you like English, choose it. Law school admissions committees don’t care about your undergraduate major. They care about your grades, letters of recommendation, and performance on the Law School Admission Test.”

Many students – and their parents – find that choosing a major is a source of stress and anxiety because they think the choice may hurt their chances of getting into a professional program after college. This dilemma is tough on a student aiming for medical school who wants to major in Music, or English, or Philosophy; or a student hoping for admission to an MBA program who wants to major in Psychology, or Theology, or Theatre. People say, “Med school? You have to major in a science like Biology or Chemistry. MBA? You have to major in some business area like Marketing, Accounting, or Management.”

The fact is, however, the pre-med student really doesn’t have to major in Biology, Neuroscience, or Chemistry to get into med school; but she better have a core of completed college courses like two years of Biology, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Calculus, Anatomy & Physiology, Neuroscience, etc., if she is to have a realistic shot at med school and doing well on the med school admission test. Meanwhile, she can major in some totally non-science area that she loves. By the same token, the MBA student should take two years of Accounting, Principles of Management, Marketing, Calculus, Information Systems, etc. And he can also major in some non-business area that he enjoys.

Granted, there are some fields where the college major should be seen as an entrance requirement – majors like Athletic Training, Physician Assistant, Accounting, Nursing, Med Tech, and Engineering – but the fact is, most career tracks do not require a specific major. I once asked the owner and CEO of a moderate-sized company if his recruiting office looked for students with a particular major. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We look for graduates who can write, think, speak, and work in teams. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers with good interpersonal skills.”

Consider these real examples: Jill majored in Theology and minored in Psychology, and was accepted into a PhD program in pastoral counseling; Roger majored in Psychology and minored in Business Administration and was accepted into three MBA programs; Karen double majored in Accounting and Spanish, used every elective plus some summer courses to take required science courses for entrance into dental school, and became a dentist.

It is important for both students and parents to remember that a college curriculum not only comprises a major, but also minors and electives. The major should be an area the student enjoys, finds interesting and stimulating, an area that “turns him or her on.” That’s what makes college so special. Students have the opportunity to learn about an area of study that may have little direct relevance to their career goals. They can stimulate and enrich their minds with exposure to scholars and experts in this area. The future physician can major in Art History, Philosophy, or even Dance, and deepen her understanding of the human experience. The career? That’s where double majors, minors, and elective courses become very important. Using those areas wisely can help students pursue their career goals.

These comments also apply to the student who changes career goals while in college. Marty, a junior Criminal Justice major, came to me in March of his third year and said, “I thought I wanted to be a cop, but after taking intro psych last Fall, I’ve decided I want to be a sports psychologist. What do I do? I feel like I’ve wasted three years, and I sure can’t finish a psych major in one year.”

Roughly, here is what I told him: “You haven’t wasted three years. All your credits count toward graduation, plus you’re just about finished with your CJ major. Finish the major; second, fill any available electives next year with psychology courses, especially ones you need for entrance into graduate school; third, if we can, we will include a psychology internship working with one of our local professional sports teams. [At the time, locally there was a triple-A baseball team affiliated with a National League Team, and also a professional ice hockey farm team with an NHL affiliation.] We’ll also work up a reading list for you in sports psychology to supplement your sports internship.

Marty was a sharp, articulate, and confident kid with great interpersonal skills. We were able to set up a “meet-and-greet” for him with a hockey-team official, and they accepted him as an intern. He graduated on time with his CJ major, psychology electives, and 12 hours of psychology internship experience in the operations office of a professional team, including getting to know the “psychology” of the athletes. Upon graduation, he was hired by the hockey team in an entry-level position working in the operations office. Today, years later, he is an executive with an NHL team. Why is he there? Because of his personal qualities, especially his interpersonal skills. He is not there because of his major.

In this blog, we stress the importance of developing a realistic coping plan of action to deal with stressful situations. Choosing a college major, supplemented by carefully chosen elective courses, perfectly illustrates how having such a plan can alleviate a lot of stress in challenging situations. And note how the plan must operate within the restrictions and requirements of current opportunities available, and with a realistic and – very importantly – flexible target goal. Circumstances and interests change, and you must be prepared to adapt to the challenges of such change.

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