The short answer to when your college student should choose a major is when they are ready. However, as we all realize, it may not be as simple as that. Some students may be ready to choose a major early in their college career, or even well before they get to college. Other students may have great difficulty settling on a single major. And still other students may be ready to choose a major, but may not realize it.
Perhaps one of the first and most important conversations you should have with your college student about choosing a major is that choosing a major is not the same thing as choosing a career. Many students are reluctant, or even fearful, of choosing a major because they worry that this choice will lock them into a career. Students think career first, and then major. You may need to help your student understand that a specific major may lead to many careers, and that several majors may lead to the same career. Students should also be reminded that most people today may change careers several times during their working life, and may finally settle on a career quite far removed from their college major. If your student does not yet have a specific career path in mind, that should not inhibit them from choosing a field of study in which they are interested. The more your student studies and learns about their area, the more career direction they will have.
Students should also realize that many students change their major, often multiple times. Some surveys suggest that as many as 60% of students will change their major at least once during their college career. Making a change may be more difficult for some majors than others, of course, and school policies may differ, but many students change their minds as they learn more about their chosen field or are exposed to and discover new areas they had not known about.
Many students are concerned about entering college “undecided” about a major. It doesn’t necessarily help that they have probably been asked for years what they plan to major in. Students often feel pressure to make a choice of major as they enter school. However, those students who are truly undecided as they enter college leave all doors open for exploration. Hopefully, they will use their first few semesters to expose themselves to as many varied areas as possible to see what area seems to match their strengths and interests best. As a college parent, you can help your student understand some of the important reasons why entering as an “undecided” or “undeclared” student may be a good thing. You might also help your student explore some of their reasons for feeling undecided.
Many schools require that students declare a major by the end of their first or second year of college. Making the choice during the early part of the sophomore year may be ideal. Students have had time to make the often difficult transition to college life, take several varied courses (often all-college general education courses), and perhaps take one or two upper level classes in an area of interest. They are now in a good position to declare an area in which they would like to gain more experience and depth. Students should realize that this is still not necessarily claiming a specific career direction, but rather a field of interest. A particular field of study may lead in many directions.
Of course, there are some fields in which it may be important to make a decision about a major early in order to complete complex requirements. Students entering fields such as nursing, engineering or education, for instance, must often begin sequences of required courses early. However, it is important that your student understand that if the field of study does not feel “right”, they should consider a change. The right fit of a major is important. It is possible that a change, especially if it happens later in your student’s college career, may require an extra semester or even year of school, but they will need to weigh the extra time, and money, against the importance of studying something meaningful to them.
Many students enter college with a clear idea of their major. Many of those students with a clear idea change their mind during their college years. Other students enter college with no clear vision of a major and quickly find their passion. Still other students may struggle throughout their college career to settle on a field of study. It is important that your student commit to an area, preferably not too late in their college years. However, you can help your student understand that the choice of major does not necessarily determine their lifetime career. Choosing a field of study will help your student move toward an area in which they feel comfortable and fulfilled. Through college career counseling, internships, and early post-college job experiences, your student will eventually find their career path.