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Choosing a college major

By Marlene Kern Fischer


When it came time for my kids to choose their majors in college I didn't expect to have input. Although I was somewhat involved in their course selection in high school, I felt that by the time my boys made it to college, figuring out what they wanted to learn would be their concern.

My oldest son went off to college with lots of ideas about what he would study. He was interested in everything and had shown aptitude in both left and right-brained subjects. However, in addition to not knowing what he wanted to major in, he felt pressure, as many kids do today, to choose something “practical” like the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). He thought he might try engineering or math because he'd heard he would be more likely to get a job after graduation. He didn’t particularly love those classes, however, and switched to pre-med, which was followed by approximately five other majors.

As he would later say in the essay he wrote for his graduate school applications, “As a result, my first few schedules looked more like a random sampling of classes that my college offered than a list of classes a single student would enroll in.” He grew increasingly frustrated and his grades reflected his lack of focus. By mid sophomore year he considered taking a break and leaving school. It was at this point his father and I stepped in.

I remember sitting in lectures and being captivated by my professors’ words. The college experience I had was the one I wanted for my kids.

We sat down with our son and told him that we felt that college was the time to study the things you wanted to learn about and not about choosing courses based solely on future job prospects. My husband and I had attended a liberal arts university where we both chose “impractical” majors. However, I still view those four years as the most intellectually stimulating and enjoyable years of my life. As an English major, I loved every minute of the classes I took in Shakespeare, Victorian Literature and poetry, to mention a few. I remember sitting in lectures and being captivated by my professors’ words. In addition to the courses for my major, the classes I took in theater, sociology and history were also among my favorites. The college experience I had was the one I wanted for my kids.

My son went back to the course selection list and decided to major in Judaic, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies. He had always wanted to learn more about the Middle East, as well as study Hebrew more intensively. When he returned to school after winter break, he happily shared details of his classes, and his GPA reflected his renewed direction and confidence.

I went through a similar exercise when my middle son got to college and decided to be a business major. Although he plans on pursuing a career in the retail industry, his passion has always been history. He started watching the History Channel as a little kid and had eagerly taken all the advanced placement history classes his high school offered. I listened to his course selections but did not offer my opinion.

However, after his freshman year, I could tell his enthusiasm had dimmed so I stepped in and gave him the same advice I'd given his older brother. I suggested that, while he could continue taking business classes, which would certainly be useful in his career, he should consider switching his major to history. I also reminded him that college was a gift that his father and I were thrilled to be able to give him and one that did not come with “practical” strings attached. Our only requirement was that he take his studies seriously.

He seemed almost relieved after our discussion and decided that while he would still minor in business (and possibly English), he would pursue a degree in history. He has since grown close with a few of his history professors and has expressed interest in doing a research project with them in the future.

I think my boys were somewhat surprised by my attitude towards their choice of majors because I am generally a pragmatic person. However, I believe deeply in the value of a liberal arts education and feel that not everyone is meant for engineering and technology. The pendulum seems to be swinging back in the direction of valuing a liberal arts education; employers and graduate schools want kids with skills such as oral and written communication and critical thinking. They may care less about what you actually studied and more about seeing that you did well. It is certainly easier to achieve better grades when you love what you are learning.

Although my kids don’t always listen to me, I'm glad they were open to my advice when it came time to choosing their majors. I hope the opportunity to pursue their interests in college helps them on their paths in life or, at the very least, makes their journeys more enjoyable.

Postscript
Since this piece was first published, my two older boys have graduated, the oldest from law school and the middle one from college. I am happy (and relieved!) to report that both are gainfully employed and have been since their respective graduations.
The type of law my oldest son practices has absolutely nothing to do with his undergraduate major, which is really not surprising. His law school classmates had degrees in the sciences, social sciences, arts and literature, among others, and most did not follow a “pre-law” curriculum. Law schools seem to focus more on your undergraduate academic performance and LSAT scores as an indicator of your ability to think critically and write — skills which are crucial to practicing law (and many other professions).
My middle son did finish with that history degree (with minors in business and environmental studies). He works for a major fashion brand in a job that requires business, analytical and creative skills — a far cry from his concentration on the Renaissance. I'm certain, however, that he was served well by taking a liberal arts course load, including the fine arts classes he loved.
So, if you have qualms about your child not studying something “practical,” or fear majoring in the humanities will limit their future prospects, I hope my sons’ experiences will help alleviate your concerns.

 

Follow Marlene on Facebook, and read more of her wonderful stories on her CollegiateParent author page and her blog, "Thoughts from Aisle Four."

 

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother of three sons, food shopper extraordinaire, blogger and essay editor. She attended Brandeis University, from which she graduated cum laude with a degree in English Literature. A founding contributor and advisor at CollegiateParent, her work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Grown and Flown, Parent and Co., Kveller, Her View From Home, the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, MockMom, Better After 50, Beyond Your Blog and The SITS Girls. You can read more of Marlene's work on her site, "Thoughts From Aisle Four."

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david s.
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Excellent article and advice.

Ally
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Ally

Nice advice for the few who can afford to think that way.

Johnny McCarron
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I really agree with you that you need to study what will make you happy. I think that a lot of people put off studying things that they really want because they think they need to major in something that will get them a job. However, if you are passionate and good at what you study, you should be able to find something that will bring you enjoyment. Do you have any other tips, particularly about choosing a good college to attend?

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