Friday, April 17, 2015

How to Pick a College Major

This is the time of year when high school seniors, and plenty of adults, select a college major. This post won't delve into the complicated issues of student loan debt, predatory college recruitment, or any of that. Instead, this post is basic advice on picking a major in college.

There are three major factors to consider: wants, needs, and abilities. This concept is best addressed by using a Venn diagram. And perhaps this article should have been subtitled "ignore everyone who tells you to follow your dreams, no matter what." This post is about giving realistic advice. Why? College is expensive. College completion rates are 50% or less. For those who manage to complete a four-year college degree, landing that dream job is even less likely. Think critically and plan carefully.

"Wants" refers to the things you want to do--work with animals, live in a warm climate, travel, etc. Place all of your wants in the "want to do" circle of your Venn diagram.

"Needs" refers to needs in the employment sector. In short, these are things that someone will pay you to do. If you're lost, look through employment ads. Become informed on what truly are growth industries (instead of relying on college recruiters). You may be surprised to learn that the job forecast for lawyers isn't currently very good, but there's plenty of room for more doctors (if you choose the right area of medicine).

"Abilities" refers to what you're actually capable of doing. This can be the harshest area to examine, but this is probably because it's the most crucial. Do you perform well on rigorous tests? If not, you may want to knock off any careers that require licensing. For example, nurses must pass an intensive state-mandated exam in order to become licensed.


  • It's your career, and only a small part of you as a human being. Don't confuse your career with your identity as a person.
  • Interests and hobbies do not necessarily translate into careers, no matter what self-help gurus preach to you.
  • Always stay alert to career possibilities which may cause you to change your major or pick up a minor.
  • Pick up a minor or double major. It'll broaden your knowledge and skills base, and make you more appealing to a future employer.
Advice to any and all majors:
  • Learn a range of office skills--Quick Books, Excel, etc. Scan the wanted ads and you'll see these listed as desired skills for most entry-level positions. Your business degree may eventually lead you to the CEO position, but it will likely be your ability to create and manage spreadsheets that gets your foot in the door.
Example 1:
  • I want to work with animals.
  • I perform well on standardized tests, and could complete the coursework and licensure process for becoming a veterinarian.
  • Veterinary medicine is a growing field; there are additionally job opportunities at zoos.
  • I will major in veterinary medicine.
Example 2:
  • I want to work with children.
  • I perform poorly on standardized tests, and it will be very difficult for me to complete the coursework and licensure process to become a teacher.
  • Teachers are in demand, but largely in areas (special education, math, and science) which don't match my interests and abilities.
  • I will not major in education.
This can be an emotionally difficult process. No one wants to be told not to do something. But you're better off being told "no" now, than in four years, after you've spent a small fortune on your education.

How to cheat and do what you want anyway:
  • Remember that part about learning basic office skills? I repeat: Learn basic office skills.
  • Many employers are looking for someone with "a" college degree and a range of office skills. It doesn't necessarily matter if you majored in English, or math, or business; merely having a four-year degree and being proficient with various office computer programs can and will get you a job.
  • Office skills mark the dividing line between philosophy majors who work at coffee shops for minimum wage, and philosophy majors who earn three or more times as much money at white-collar jobs.