With the multitude of different majors available in higher education institutions across the United States, it is no surprise that many students find it a challenge to pick one and stay with it. The National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] released a report on first-time college students showing that “within three years of initial enrollment, about 30 percent of undergraduates in associate's and bachelor's degree programs who had declared a major had changed their major at least once." The numbers fluctuate across institutions and across majors.
I was one such student.
As I submitted college applications, I was certain I wanted to study international tourism. I loved traveling and that particular major seemed like a perfect fit. During my first semester, I realized that studying tourism also meant studying economics, and that was not as exciting, so I decided to switch.
Switching majors may seem straightforward in terms of logistics, but you may want to keep a few things in mind before you do so.
Before committing to a switch, dig deeper and explore what lies beneath your interest in changing majors. Something led to your initial thoughts on changing your major, and without proper reflection, you may not have a complete understanding of the reasons why.
When students seeking to change their majors come to Jenn Leard, associate director of career advising and student engagement at Goucher College, she advises them to “thoroughly and intentionally assess the disconnect and the options."
Asking yourself open-ended questions and writing down your reflections is a great way to evaluate your reasons for the switch. Some questions to consider include:
1. What motivated you to pursue your original major?
2. What career were you pursuing and why?
3. What have you found out since you started that doesn't align with your aspirations?
4. What career are you currently interested in, if you already have one in mind?
5. What do you know about the new major/career?
Reasons for changing major may include a better understanding of your career goals or a realization that you underestimated the difficulty of your current major. In order to have the complete picture, however, you may need to seek outside assistance.
Changing a major is a huge undertaking, and yet Leard has found that often, “students are making decisions about changing a major in isolation, with limited (sometimes incorrect) information, and based on only one worry, challenge or experience." But you don't have to do that! As a student, you have access to numerous on-campus resources and one of these is your career office.
After reflecting on the questions listed above, schedule an appointment with your career counselor to further discuss any insights gained. A career counselor will guide you through the exploration process and ask additional open-ended questions to help you identify the reasons behind the switch as well as options for moving forward.
As a college student, I wish I had reached out to the career counselor for more assistance. It would have made the transition between majors much easier.
Once you have spoken with a career counselor, research the career and the major you want to pursue.
When Leard reflects on the students she works with, she emphasizes that they “typically do not have all of the information necessary to paint a full picture about what any given major has to offer; this is where research, resources and support -- advisor, mentors, coaches, counselors -- can be helpful." Making a choice about your future without the necessary information is a risk so you want to carefully research and review relevant resources before committing.
Your career counselor will encourage and guide you as you embark on that research. Leard's goal is “to help the student gather as much information as they can, talk with as many people as they can, get creative about their options and understand critical experiences (such as research opportunities, internships, community-based learning, study abroad) where they can apply their academic work." It's as if career development is one of the courses you have to complete and in order to perform at your best, you need to properly prepare by studying what's available to you.
You may have already guessed that as a student, I didn't do any of the above. When I realized that the required courses for international tourism did not align with my interests, I switched to social work, thinking that I simply wanted to work with different people. I didn't speak to anyone; I didn't review any available information on either my original major or the new one. And I didn't even look at the course requirements for the new major! As a career coach now, I can only shake my head at this younger, college version of me.
During your research on your new major and chosen career path, you want to pay attention to the impact of the switch, both in terms of academics and finances. For example, you may lose credits you've already completed and take longer to finish your degree. Therefore, you may need to pay more than what you initially expected. In addition, at many colleges, scholarships awarded may only apply for the first three or four years of your study and if you end up staying an extra semester or year, you may be responsible for covering the entire cost.
That's exactly what happened to me when I found myself staying an extra semester and having to pay all the tuition on my own.
If you don't want to incur additional costs, and if your institution allows it, you may consider a heavier load so you finish on time. A bigger course load can have a significant impact on you; it may increase your stress level and reduce your performance. As such, you really want to consult with a career counselor prior to making that decision so you fully explore your time management skills and potential to take on more than the recommended load.
The NCES report mentioned above shows that “about one in 10 students changed majors more than once," which suggests that the choice was perhaps not made under the best circumstances. If none of the above four points are considered, you may find yourself changing your major or making a decision to change it quickly, Leard points out.
“Slow down," Leard advises, “and step back from the decision to self-assess. Checking-in about [your] values, motivated skills, aptitudes and interests — knowing who you are — is the foundation to uncovering what you want to learn and how you want to make a difference."
Soon after switching to a social work major, I took a psychology class and was fascinated by the subject. At that point, I reached out to a psychology professor to explore options within the field and carefully reviewed the required courses before finally making the decision to switch to a psychology major.
Making a decision about your major is making a decision about your future. It may feel like you have to make the change immediately so you don't waste any more time. But making the decision quickly can put you further behind if you become one of the students who changes a major multiple times.
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