Statistics tell us that as many as 75% of college students will change their major during college. Some 10% of students may change their major as many as four times. That is a lot of shifting. However, when we think about students changing their major, we usually think about students changing their mind, discovering a new passion, finding a new field or career interest. What the statistics do not tell us is how many students may change their major – not through their choice: they are not opting out, the choice is being made for them.
Some majors at some colleges and universities have entrance requirements. Other majors have minimum GPA requirements in order to remain in that major. A student who has not done well in one or more courses required for a particular major may be blocked from the major, denied admission to the major, or dismissed from the major. Many departments institute these requirements because they know, from years of experience, that students who fall below these standards will ultimately not succeed. From the college’s viewpoint this makes sense for your student. However, you, and your student, wonder – what happens now? It can be a heartbreaking, and perhaps frightening, situation.
As with many situations that may arise for college students and their parents, the first piece of advice is often – don’t panic! Both you and your student may need to take some time – and take a breath – to be ready to investigate next steps. Three steps may help you and your student move forward and see this as a detour rather than an ultimate roadblock. We suggest that you take time to accept the situation, assess the possibilities, and create a plan of action.
For some students, being denied a major may actually be a relief. Perhaps your student felt that this was a wrong choice, perhaps it wasn’t his choice, or he realized that the struggle was becoming overwhelming, but didn’t know what else to do. For other students, however, accepting the situation may not be as easy.
Your student may need your support more than ever right now. The grief and sense of loss is real, and it is important, as a parent, that you acknowledge how difficult this may be for your student. He wonders what will happen next and doesn’t know where to turn. He may need to give up a dream that has been long-held: he has “always wanted to be . . . “ He may feel like a failure and may find it difficult to accept reality and responsibility.
Simply being there for your student may be all that you need to do at first. He may need time to accept the situation. He may need to follow through on an appeal process or at least talk to someone in the department to understand. Of course, this is for your student to do, not you. As a parent, your job is to support him if he feels he needs to complete this process before he is ready to move on.
You might talk to your student about the realities of the job or career he has had in mind. If he is struggling this much with a major, might he also struggle – and would he really enjoy – the job or career? Help him think about the skills of the major with which he has struggled, and think about the daily realities of the job. This may help him realize that the “fit” of the job may ultimately not be right either. Help him realize, too, that a particular major may not equal a career. There may be other avenues, yet unexplored, which will help him achieve his goals.
Once your student has accepted that she needs to adopt a “Plan B” for her college career, she may be ready to take stock of the situation to think about her alternatives and options. She may need time and need to add experiences in order to explore. One place to begin is to think about the classes that she has already taken outside of her current major. What has she enjoyed? Which classes has she done particularly well in? Are there classes that she has wished that she could take but couldn’t because of her major? Now might be a good time to try one or more of these classes.
Help your student think about what is was that appealed to her about the major. Was it a career? Are there other avenues that might lead to the same career? This may be a detour, but she may not need to give up the career – just the path. Are there other related careers that she may not have considered? Was this really your student’s dream, or was this your dream, or a guidance counselor’s dream, or a choice based on the possibility of quickly getting a job after school?
This assessment phase of the transition process may require some serious soul searching on your student’s part – as well as some serious discussion. This may be the time for your best listening skills, your most supportive dialogue, and serving as a sounding board for your student to explore and get to know herself.
Once your student has done some serious thinking, he may be ready to take some action. Your student may not yet know where he wants to go, but he will be ready to begin to take some steps.
One good place for your student to begin is to talk to his academic advisor. If the advisor is in the major, your student may be reluctant to talk to him. If he is no longer in the major, he may wonder why he should talk to that advisor. There may be some good reasons. An advisor in the major has probably been here before and worked with other students leaving the major. He may be able to give guidance about how best to move on, other related majors and options, or other avenues to a similar career.
If your student is not comfortable talking to an advisor in the major, he will need to find an alternative. If he has a good relationship with another faculty member, that may make sense. If he can ask to be reassigned to a new advisor, that may be an option. Or he may need to visit an Advising Center or Advising Office for help. There will be someone on campus who can help – he just needs to look.
A second place your student should visit early in this process is the campus Career Office. Career Centers often provide not only career counseling, but various assessment tools which can help your student explore his strengths and the major and careers that make sense for him. Career Counselors can provide important guidance about options and pathways.
This may be a good time for your student to arrange and conduct some informational interviews. As he thinks about possible careers or areas of interest, suggest that he call some people in the field and ask if they will give him a short amount of time to talk with them about their career. Because your student is not asking for a job or anything other than a half hour or so of their time, most professionals are willing to meet and talk. (We all like to talk about what we do!) Your student can ask about the daily tasks of the job, the major that brought the person to their career, or any advice that they would give. This will help your student think not only about pathways, but also whether the job sounds interesting.
This may not be an easy process, and it may take time. You and your student should have conversation about a timeline – perhaps he will need some extra time – and about alternatives. Are there alternative routes? Might he be able to transfer to another school to continue in the major? Is that really a good idea? Should he take a semester off to explore?
Taking some steps is important. However, the steps should be based on the acceptance and assessment of the situation. It is important that you help your student recognize that this is not a failure, but rather a shift or transition. Moving forward – in some direction – is important. Whether he is exploring by talking to advisors, career counselors, professionals, or exploring by trying new courses or taking semester to work or intern, he is taking some steps in some direction and will find his new path.