One of my former students is in the process of wrapping up her first semester of college and so far, she’s off to a great start. She’s made a lot of friends and become involved in her campus community. She was also chosen as a member of her school’s IHSA hunt seat team back in August so she’s spent a lot of time at the barn and has been learning the ins and outs of intercollegiate competition – with great results.
The only fly in the ointment, however, is that she has recently decided not to follow through on her first-choice major and it’s causing a bit of anxiety for her. There are, of course, a lot of factors that have played into her decision, but the primary reason for her change of heart is that she’s found that she’s not as academically strong in that area as she wants to be and she doesn’t enjoy the classes dedicated to that particular major as much as she enjoys some of her other ones.
She’s certainly not the first student to face such a transition midway through her first year – nor will she be the last. For my part, I tend to liken these early major changes to first loves in high school; many times, high school students strongly believe that their first boyfriend or girlfriend will be “the one” and they’ll never need to date anyone else again. It’s the same with majors; students often dream about following a particular career path or studying intensely in a specific subject and can never see themselves changing direction. But when you’re that young and haven’t yet been exposed to the wealth of academic programs available at the college level – subjects like anthropology and environmental communication and art history, which aren’t usually touched on in high school – it shouldn’t really come as a surprise if you discover that there’s a major out there that you like better than the one you originally planned to complete. First boyfriends and girlfriends can be the same – I have one good friend who is happily married to her high school sweetheart and many more friends who met their respective spouses after high school – and even after college!
So what should a student do when he or she discovers that the major isn’t the right fit?
- Realize that you are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of college students change their major every year. Some make the discovery that a change is needed early on during their college careers (like my student is doing right now); others get two or even three years in and decide that the path they’re on isn’t the right one after all. (When I was an admission counselor, my student assistant even decided late in the first semester of his senior year that he didn’t want to follow through on his education program; teaching high school history just wasn’t for him. I’ll never forget that particular conversation – his parents were not amused, to say the least! But in the end, he completed his history degree on time and went on to a successful career in higher education as a financial aid officer, so all was not lost.)
By realizing that your decision to change your major is actually a normal one and that countless other college students have made the same transition during their four years – and survived! – you’ll take a lot of the panic out of the circumstances surrounding your choice. In fact, you can probably talk with your friends on campus about your situation and you might be surprised to find that many of them are going through the same thing. Being able to commiserate, then – as well as taking into consideration all of the other things about college that are going right for you (like my student, who is having a great time on her school’s equestrian team) – can help turn your academic challenge into a speed bump rather than a road block on your educational path.
- Schedule an appointment with your academic advisor or a career counselor on campus. Many colleges and universities assign your first academic advisor based on your intended major as an incoming student, but many others also appoint the professor for your first-year seminar class (which may or may not be in your potential field of study) to fulfill this role until you get acclimated on campus. Regardless, you should make time to get to know him or her during your first semester so that you feel comfortable having such a challenging conversation down the line if the need arises. All faculty members have no doubt encountered a lot of students who have changed majors during the course of their teaching careers and they will be able to provide suggestions for courses you can take that may help you discover a new path – or even put you in touch with faculty members in other academic areas who might be better equipped to counsel you through the transition.
The career services or career development office on your campus might also be a good resource for you if you think that changing your major will substantially alter your chosen career path. (Much of the time it will.) They can provide you with career resources that can introduce you to a wealth of careers and jobs that you might not have previously considered and can also put you in touch with alumni who are working in a variety of fields. Who knows? Perhaps one of those alumni will allow you to come in and job shadow for a day and you might just discover a new interest that you never would have found otherwise!
- Open your mind. It sounds simple – and even a little cliched – but once you’ve decided to change your major (or have discovered that the major you intended to select isn’t going to be a good fit), you’ll need to open your mind to all available possibilities, including ones that you may not have considered before (for whatever reason). If you’re stumped as to where to begin, consider taking a personality inventory test, like the Strong Interest Inventory, to find out where you might have strengths that you could parlay into a new academic area or career field. If you’re feeling particularly brave, go ahead and sign up for a course next semester that sounds really interesting but that isn’t necessarily something that you would have considered taking before you decided to change your major. (I still maintain that Philosophy of Art, though not a part of my English major and not a course that I automatically would have gravitated to as a college freshman, is the best course I ever took, hands down. To this day, I can not only pick out a Rothko across a crowded gallery or museum, but I can tell you what I like about it and why.)
If you’re attending a liberal arts college, use your divisional requirements (mandatory coursework in the liberal arts divisions of the hard sciences, humanities, fine arts, and social sciences) to explore opportunities. If you’re at a traditional university, use your general education coursework in the same way. Either way, at the end of the day, a change in your major or career field doesn’t change anything except the path that you take to your ultimate college degree.
My goal as an independent educational consultant (IEC) is to help each and every one of my students find their right fit college or university so that they can have a tremendous four-year experience and ultimately discover their career passion. But when I sit down with students and their families for initial meetings or we chat on the phone or via Skype, the academic component is just one piece of a student’s college search puzzle. Granted, it’s an important part of the puzzle and is often the most substantial, but it’s not the entire picture. A lot of other factors are at play when students embark on the college search, including – but not limited to! – extracurricular activities available (for my students, that means the school’s riding team or program) and whether or not the student is a fit for the on-campus community. If I can help it, I never send a student to a college that will lock them into a major so tightly that they’ll need to transfer if they decide to change paths down the road; instead, I recommend schools for my students based on their individual needs – including the possibility that they may trade one major for another at some point!
Would you like assistance in finding the school where you can pursue your first major – and your second, if the need arises? Contact me!