How to Speak to Your Teen About Picking a Major in College

A few years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the school’s deans greeted a group of incoming freshmen with this question: “How many of you know exactly what you want to major in here at Madison?” Hundreds of arms shot confidently into the air. 

“OK,” he said. “How many of you have absolutely no idea what to study, let alone be after graduation?” Heads swiveled throughout the crowded room for a few minutes until three intrepid, shaky hands rose. 

The dean smiled broadly. “Congratulations,” he said, “You three are right.”

There is great pressure on teens to know what they want to major in before they start college. (Twenty20 @TerezaT)

Pressure on teens to know their majors before they get to college is intense

I’ve bustled five very different children off to some fine colleges and universities and have been shocked by how much pressure some of these kids feel to walk onto campus, already knowing their majors. Some of this pressure is self-imposed.

When Uncle Bob sidles up to them at the graduation party to ask what they plan to study next year, it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue to say, “Oh, I don’t know. I thought I’d just bebop around. Feel the vibe. See what hits me.” 

No. They say, “Pre-law, Uncle Bob.”

Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to do, and that’s okay

But, if we’re honest, some of this pressure comes from us and our failure to make it clear to our kids that eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Can you imagine if your high school senior closed his Spotify account because he’d made the definitive playlist for his lifetime? Or if your daughter announced she’d found the hairstyle that would carry her straight through retirement? You’d laugh and point out, quite rightly, that that won’t last.

Eighteen-year-olds and long-term decisions don’t really go together. They haven’t poked around the world enough, checked out the options, and spent sufficient time living in their own skin.

Yet that’s exactly what these kids feel pressure to do as they head off to college. And chances are very good that they will turn to you for guidance. As someone who’s discussed the major question frequently with many kids, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned that could make these conversations more valuable and meaningful for everyone involved.

Five ways to make the college major discussion meaningful

1. Punt 

Sure, a few majors need to be declared before your child even starts college. Engineering comes to mind. And some universities expect prospective students to apply to a particular “school” from which, they imply, it would be very difficult to transfer later. But most schools don’t require students to declare a major until the spring of sophomore year. 

Take advantage of that time! Encourage your child to fill up on core curriculum courses and sample a few other courses that interest them. The last thing you want is for your psychology-loving daughter to discover in the spring of her sophomore year that it’s chemistry that genuinely sings to her soul.

Suppose the four psych courses she already took don’t transfer to her new major or satisfy another curriculum requirement. In that case, she may be looking at spending an additional semester in college to get the degree she wants…cha-ching.

2. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a major is the same as a career

More than half of college graduates don’t ultimately work in their field of study. This doesn’t mean their majors were useless. Quite the contrary. It means they used their chosen disciplines to acquire skills and critical thinking abilities that they could transfer to various real-life applications.

So, don’t freak out if your son announces he’s double majoring in French and Elizabethan poetry. One of my daughters was an English major who worked in a healthcare consulting firm. Another was a philosophy major who was in law school. One of her best friends was an art history major who now manages a baseball team. Life unfolds.

3. Don’t tell your child what to major in

I’ve met far too many downtrodden college students whose parents insist that they major in Computer Science so they can get a job when they graduate. Seriously? Spend four years doing something you don’t especially like so you can . . . spend forty years doing something you don’t especially like? 

Your child was smart enough to get into college. They’ll be smart enough to use their education to find a job.

4. But don’t tell them to “follow their passion” either

I mean, the pressure. Most full-grown adults I know don’t have a passion. And truth be told, if my parents had encouraged me to follow my passion, I would have spent much more time with the cute Irish kid from my history class than I would have spent in my history class.

It’s much better to encourage your child to explore and follow their interests. Interests are more accessible to identify than passions, and everyone has them. Several of them. Let’s not make things more complicated than they have to be.

5. Have a thoughtful conversation about meaningful work

It’s easy for college-aged kids — and maybe even us — to equate majors with careers. It’s our job to disabuse them of that notion. Many professional positions our children will hold haven’t been invented yet. Our children invent them.

So I suggest raising our kid’s gaze by having heartfelt conversations with them about work. Meaningful work. Which problems would they like to be part of solving? What role could they see themselves playing in their communities? What types of tasks keep them engaged for hours? What topics quicken their heart?

There’s a gift in not knowing what you want to do. It’s discovering what you want to do. I propose we give our college kids the time and space to do just that. 

More Great Reading:

When Does ‘Normal’ Anxiety Become a Problem?

About Maureen Mirabella

Maureen Mirabella is the mother of five wildly different twenty-somethings who’ve given her a cumulative one hundred twenty-five years of momming experience, more than a few grey hairs, the occasional rough voice and, just recently, a little time to consider how this whole adventure is turning out.

Read more posts by Maureen

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