How to Help Your Child Choose a College Major

Tips for Parents on the Right Way to Give Support

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Choosing a college major can be an anxious ordeal. It's your child's job to choose that major. Yours is to encourage and support them through the process. If your child can't decide or is uncertain where to start, help by asking a few questions or murmuring reassurances. Don't foist your dreams on them. Some kids hit campus knowing exactly what they want to do; others are at different stages in the process. That means you are, too.  

My Kid Picked His Major, I'm Not So Sure

It's not unusual for a parent to fret about their college kid's choice. You always dreamed they'd be a lawyer; they want to go into art history, instead. Or you know their heart lies in creative writing, so what are they doing in nuclear science? This is your child's decision to make, ultimately. It's far more helpful for both of you if you ask non-judgmental questions and encourage them to talk about the decision. Talking brings clarity to those dreams and ambitions—for both of you.

You may discover the major they are proposing isn't what you thought it was. From astronautics to viticulture, there are​ many new and  intriguing majors that didn't exist when you were in school. You may also discover that one or both of you have a classic misconception about a college major—maybe all art majors won't starve!

Be happy your child knows exactly what they want to do! Just make sure your college student understands the how-tos involved in declaring a major at their school—including deadlines, requirements, paperwork, and the pros and cons of waiting until the last minute.

My Kid Is Clueless About College Majors

Many college kids arrive on campus as undeclared majors. At some point in the first 2 years, they must choose a college major. If your child has done nothing but knock out general ed requirements with a slew of introductory classes, panic may set in. Random 101-level classes are not the best way to decide. These methods are:

Choose an Academic Area First

A list of 200 possibilities can feel overwhelming. Many of today's majors didn't exist in the 1970s and '80s. Whether your child ultimately ends up in astronautics (the design of spacecraft), informatics (the study of computer systems and how they're used by groups) or viticulture (winemaking and vineyard management), start by looking at broad areas of interest. Are they an art type or a science student? Choose a broad category first, then delve into the specifics and help them narrow the list.

Take a Quiz

Taking a pop culture quiz to figure out something as important as a college major may seem as silly as those "How good a kisser are you?" quizzes in a teen magazine. But a quiz can be a useful tool, especially when it's based on psychological research, and done as well as Marquette University's fun and quirky   Choose Your Major quiz.

Every college career center offers traditional career interest and aptitude quizzes, as well. One online psychological assessment is known as the Holland Code (or RIASEC model), designed by Dr. John Holland. It asks you to rank 48 different tasks and groups these into six different occupational categories—the initial for each spells out RIASEC.

Getting My Kid Down to Just One Major (Or Maybe Two)

If your college kid winnowed their college major choices down from the vast array of possibilities to a handful, that's fantastic. Now all they have to do is pick one—or two:

Choosing a Major

Encourage your college kid to go online and take a good, hard look at the department, the major and all its major-required courses. Stroll the campus bookstore and look at the textbooks professors are choosing for those classes. Then take the intro class. Sit in on others. Talk to students who chose that major, as well as an academic advisor to map out what that major path would look like. And if it's still looking good, take more classes to help confirm the decision.

Make sure your college kid understands the how-tos involved in declaring a major, including deadlines and paperwork, for his specific school and major.

Choosing More Than One

Some college students are so passionate, they may not want to limit themselves to just one major. A double major is an enormous undertaking and one that, depending on the college, may translate into the fifth year of study (and tuition payments). So it's also worth investigating the differences between a major and a minor.

Caveats, Warnings & Resources

Astronomy 101 Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

Introductory courses are not necessarily good indicators of the intensity and intrigue of a field, nor the kind of coursework majors can expect. Astronomy and astrophysics are math and physics-centric majors, but you'd never know it from some Astronomy 101 classes. Make sure your college kid has fully explored the coursework required for the major—with special attention paid to science, math, and writing requirements—before taking the plunge.

Lawyers Starve, Too

Everyone makes assumptions about certain career paths. Whether it concerns starving artists or wealthy lawyers, make sure you and your child don't fall prey to common misconceptions about college majors. Those you thought were slam-dunks might not yield the credential to practice anything without a graduate degree.

Help Exists Everywhere

Remind your college kid to look around them for help. In addition to their university's undergraduate and academic advisers, each department has academic advisers. Professors are great resources, but upperclass and grad students will give your child the real story on the unexpected challenges of a major. Career center counselors are also a wealth of information on the types of jobs available to students in specific majors.