Choosing a College Major

How should your teen choose a college major? Use these six suggestions for guiding your child and in facilitating discussion.

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Your teen is nudging up to the finish line of childhood and preparing to launch into early adulthood. It is a key point of development. Though your teen and her classmates may already seem to be independent, high school seniors need the guidance of their parents, especially when they are choosing their “initial” major in college. Although lots of choices are a good thing, teens often struggle in the process because there are too many possibilities.

Your job is to mitigate the risk of a poorly chosen major, as much as you can, so that your teen lands on an academic goal that fits him or her and can be useful in life. After all, it can be discouraging for a student to graduate from college with a degree that offers few job opportunities or that has little value to the young adult — a major that he never intends to use. Consider these six ways to help your teen:

Draw a timeline

We all need to understand our past and prepare for our future. The past helps us see our patterns, strengths, successes, challenges and choices so we can maximize the good and minimize the struggles going forward. If we don’t think deeply about our future, we move forward without a plan and quickly learn we’re not ready for it.

That is why parents should take their teen through a timeline. Simply draw a line on poster paper, with a segment for each year of your teen’s life so far. Then add 10 segments for the future. More or less, you end up with 28 years.

Ask your teen what he has learned about himself — his strengths, weaknesses and interests — in the first 18 years and what that might mean for the next 10. You’ll be surprised by the conversations this starts, and your teen will begin engaging at a deeper level about what will really matter in college.

Discuss purpose

Before launching into an exercise in determining a major, help your teen think through the question of “Why college anyway?” There are many viable paths that lead to successful careers, so instead of assuming college, discuss why she should embark on this path in the first place. Ultimately, this path must provide some serious value: maturity, a broader view of the world, a way to earn a meaningful living.

Consider marketability

Once you’ve determined that college is the right path, discuss the very real possibility of earning an unmarketable degree. There are some sad stories about this, where a graduate had to start at the bottom of some industry with no help from his degree. Identify your teen’s areas of interest and how each could be developed into a career. What education would it require? This brainstorm may help identify a marketable degree.

With some exceptions, the best reason for pursuing a degree with little marketability is that the student has a clear commitment to graduate training such as in business or medical school, which is built on a broader bachelor degree. A degree that is interesting but offers no advantage in the workplace may not be enough to sustain the student.

Interview others

Have your teen interview people who are seniors in college and who are five or fewer years past high school graduation. They can provide great feedback on how they decided on their majors. Many of us, myself included, didn’t get serious about this until our junior year in college. Your teen may be able to shortcut that process by hearing from those whose process is still fresh in their minds.

Give options, not recommendations

This is the hard part for parents: Resist the temptation to recommend majors. Your teen needs to hear options from you, but she also needs to feel some sense of ownership and discovery for herself. Otherwise, you run the risk of her not choosing a good path simply because you pushed a major too hard. So instead of saying, “You’re so good with science; why don’t you go pre-med?” say, “Let’s look at all the majors that fall in your science strengths and even consider the ones that just seem interesting.”

Allow your teen time to mature

I started this article with the term initial major for a reason. College does provide space and time to change majors as your teen matures. Don’t let him fall into the obsessively anxious habit of thinking he has to get it right the first time. Remember that God has a plan for your teen that fits him perfectly, just as He does for you. Trust Him for that.

Dr. John Townsend is a psychologist, university professor and the author of The Entitlement Cure.

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