letter blocks that spell the word interests with a magnifying glass over the letters "I" and "N"
A high school student interested in attending college must eventually pick a college major. Every student shares that fate. If they wish to attend a university, they choose a specific field. Since the universality of this choice is so… well… universal, you’d think that all high schools and colleges would have thorough and methodical systems to help students make that decision.

That would be ideal. But as we tragically know too well, what ideally “should be ” rarely reflects “what is.”

Thus, parents must ensure a student’s career is considered. Students, after all, vary in their self-possession, ambition, and motivation. We can’t rely on them to consider every variable of their future. After all, high school students aren’t career coaches; they’re students. They’ve spent the last thirteen years primarily learning, not strategizing their careers and planning their futures. It’s unfair to expect them to make excellent grades, make wise decisions, get into great colleges, AND have a methodically articulated career plan.

However, most parents aren’t career coaches or counselors, either. Thus, they need to look for tried-and-true frameworks to guide the strategy they implement for their students. In this article, we’ll look at one of the critical ingredients students must identify when picking their college majors: interests.

The Importance of Interests in a College Major

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Our last post discussed how aptitude testing helps students pick a college major. As such, it’s important to distinguish between interests and aptitudes, along with other variables to consider when students choose their major. We consider them so we don’t confuse them because each impacts different parts of the career exploration process.

What are Interests?

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In the calculus of picking a college major, interests provide fuel, motivation, and fascination. In short, interests offer our careers meaning, some much-needed amusement, and, ideally, fulfillment. These are emotional drivers that propel us to complete tasks. Without that needed fuel throughout our careers, we grow unmotivated, weary, and complacent.

Remember that Our Interests Often Change

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However, it’s important to note that interests change over time, unlike aptitudes, which stay consistent throughout our lives. What we enjoy today might change next month. Humanity’s quest for amusement remains ephemeral. Therefore, we can’t rely on those points of interest to stay static. Case in point: I wanted to major in psychology as a college freshman. I had a seemingly genuine interest in psychopathy and criminology. Why was this, you ask? The answer is more embarrassing than you think (at least for me). Here it is:

How a Television Show Almost Made Me Pick The Wrong Major

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I had an unhealthy obsession with the television crime drama Criminal Minds. I enjoyed that show more than any college freshman should. As a 19-year-old, I sat dumbfounded as the fictitious Behavioral Analysis Unit of an FBI team anticipated and caught serial killers. I was particularly impressed by Matthew Gray Gubler’s portrayal of Dr. Spencer Reed, a young prodigy with multiple PhDs who used his photographic memory to catch homicidal villains. Each episode unfolded a cerebral sense of wonder that captivated my teenage imagination.

When my advisor asked what I wanted to major in, psychology seemed logical.

Don’t Think of Interests This Way

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Looking back, this decision was hilariously illogical. With almost twenty years between me and that embarrassing decision, it’s worth pointing out a few things wrong with my reasoning (or lack of).

Repeat after me:

JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING SEEMS FUN AND EXCITING DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GENUINELY INTERESTED IN IT.

As much as I enjoyed Criminal Minds, the show was more amusing than anything else. Watching that crime drama was pure, empty fun, not fuel for picking a career. After I took a few college courses in psychology, while I found the discipline interesting, I quickly determined I needed something different. It’s not that I was above reading peer-reviewed articles on the psychological impacts of aging; it just wasn’t for me.

Interests Guide You Towards the Right Role

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However, my dalliance with Criminal Minds taught me something. What I enjoyed most about Criminal Minds wasn’t the psychology. I loved the intellectual problem-solving. The BAU team was a cocktail of experts who brought solutions to specific problems they were uniquely educated to solve. I wanted to do the same, but not with psychology.

Consequently, feeling like an expert with a team of experts intrigued me. I wanted a career where people looked at me and saw me as someone who mastered a domain of knowledge. That’s what I should have learned from watching Criminal Minds. I wanted a career path where I was asked questions I was uniquely qualified to solve.

As I considered this, I could find this expert role in many career paths: law, education, STEM fields, and Computer Science.

SPOILER ALERT: I eventually changed my major.

Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Terrible Advice

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Counselors advise students to pick a career that interests them. Even worse, we’ve all at some point received recycled cliche mildly inspiring admonition to “follow your passion.”  At face value, this seems simple, but it’s easy to misunderstand. When we throw the word interest around, there’s a subtext of amusement, fun, relaxation, and perhaps a state of felicity devoid of stress. That’s not the kind of interest you pick a career with.

If that’s the case, I might be tempted to try to become a video game designer. After all, I enjoy video games. Such simplistic logic will lead you down a career path riddled with delusional security.

Rhetoric scholars call this a “False Analogy” fallacy.

This fallacy occurs when someone assumes that because two things are alike in one or more respects, they are necessarily alike in some other respect.

Here are some examples:

False Analogy in Career Interests
Superficial Interest Superficial Conclusion
I like playing video games. I should be a video game designer.
I enjoy watching high-stakes drama! I should be an actress!
Reading is fun to me. I should be a novelist.
I like pictures of stars. I should be an astronomer.

Thus, it’s not that a student shouldn’t follow their interests. Yet, they need to be clear on what precisely those interests are.

As we discussed earlier, our interests change over time. The frequency of that change depends on the professional in question, but they inevitably will. Finding your passion might translate more into finding a hobby than an actual vocation.

True Interests Demand Seriousness, Not Amusement

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Thus, true interests are more than a stop along our quests for amusement. True interests entail fascinations that students take seriously, not frivolously. Motivated high school students pursue those interests actively, not passively.

Rian And His Interests in Providing Access

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To illustrate, consider the following example.

Rian, a student I worked with in 2022, learned to code early in life. He also enjoys making money, especially in entrepreneurial settings. After working with Rian for a few weeks, I realized one task he enjoys is making hidden opportunities available to everyone. For example, in one internship assignment, Rian was tasked with helping code a language model to help translate medical data into various languages. It was his favorite project throughout his internship.

Rian later created an anemia prevention application. By taking pictures of their fingernails, the app allows pregnant women to use it as a preventative measure to detect anemia. I want to illustrate that this took countless hours to code and complete. It also meant securing a medical data set from an organization that he could use as a reference to calibrate the machine learning. As clever as Rian is, he needed a mentor to help him when he stumbled through the milestones of the projects. He cared about doing this, so he spent time doing it.

Much of what he did wasn’t enjoyable, yet his interest in completing this project was sincere.

Defining Your Interests

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If you were to ask Rian what his professional interests are, he would not say this:

“I have a passion for coding!”

That’s as boring as it is basic. But why doesn’t that work? Well, it’s simple. Coding is not Rian’s interest. It’s a skill Rian possesses. A more correct description of what captures Rian’s interests would be this:

“I’m interested in how technology gives opportunities to those without access to them.”

Notice how Rian’s interests focus on solving a problem, he’s, dare I say, “passionate” about. Here, passion doesn’t mean fun; it means he cares enough about it to take it seriously. That’s a wise way to look at your career plan. What problems are you trying to help other people solve? By defining those problems, you’ve done half the work. And as you can see, finding your career interest is work.

The Danger in Finding Your Passion

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In addition to the “Find Your Passion” advice, there are other dangerous career misconceptions. For example, take the person who coined this phrase:

Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day.

-Anonymous Idiot

I get the sentiment. And it makes some superficial sense. Yet, whoever coined these words as wisdom is either a liar or a fool. Forgive my frankness. It’s just wrong.

Regarding these words, Paul O’Keef, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Exeter, said this:

“What are the consequences of that [claim]?” That means that if you do something that feels like work, it means you don’t love it. It’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest.”[1]

Olga Khazan, a writer from the Atlantic who interviewed O’Keef, recorded these words:

“Passions aren’t found. They’re developed.”

Khazan goes on to give this example to illustrate O’Keef’s warning:

If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”[2]

Do not pick an exciting industry; choose it as your college major. This is your career, not a tie or a dress you wear to prom. This may sound harsh, but it’s essential to emphasize. Anyone can make this mistake. I became a career coach and admissions consultant to help others avoid some of the same mistakes I made. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding. Hence, it’s an interest I take seriously.

How to Pick a College Major by Your Interests

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This is a complex task. However, with a bit of honest reflection, you can brush against the answer. Remember, though, that it’s an answer you’ll constantly uncover. O’Keef and Hornberg argue likewise:

Recognizing that interests are malleable and can be developed can make us more resilient, open and creative.[3]

These professors hint that our past gives us the breadcrumbs needed to identify our interests. So, as a high school student reflects on their experiences, they should consider these elements:

They often begin with a spark of curiosity caused by something in one’s environment, such as a fascinating physics lecture or a moving piece of art. Through a process involving repeated engagement, positive experiences and accrued knowledge, people can come to personally value that content or activity and internalize it. What was at first interesting becomes an interest. If these qualities continue to intensify, a passion can emerge.

Let’s break these clues down.

How Interests Lead to Real Passion

  1. Begins with a spark of curiosity.
  2. Spark caused by environmental factors (e.g., a lecture or art).
  3. Repeated engagement with the activity.
  4. Positive experiences build interest.
  5. Knowledge accumulates over time.
  6. Activity gains personal value.

While helpful, this checklist is also challenging. These tasks require students to intentionally act on their curiosity, which can be difficult to do sometimes (e.g., asking the cute guy or gal in the corner to dance with you).

Thus, finding your interests entails creating more of a mindset than itemizing a list of occupations. Fostering that mindset, as it happens, is the key to stumbling into the right college major.

Growth Mindset of Interest Vs. Fixed Mindset of Interest

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Carol Dweck, in 2006, coined the nomenclatures “Growth” and “Fixed Mindset.” O’Keef ruminated on how the very words in “Find Your Passion” encourage a fixed mindset. One mindset believes the self can have potential, while the other does not. The word “believes” here might be a misnomer, though. For example, most students I work with “believe” that any human can learn skills, expand their abilities, and reach new potential. However, many who subscribe to that fact might not act or behave in a way that reflects that belief.

I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve never really enjoyed math. To this day, it’s difficult not to identify myself as “someone who sucks at math.”

Remember, I subscribe to Dweck’s “growth mindset” philosophy. I tacitly teach it to my students and publicly preach it from the housetops. However, breaking out of that fixed mindset cycle is tough for me due to my mathematical history and abilities.

That’s a fixed mindset, which is silly, but there you have it. Even though I do math constantly in my job as a business owner, it’s still challenging to shake it off.

However, if I practiced and acquired some experiences (maybe a few positive ones in different settings), I’d easily break out of it.

Sadly, high school students have it just as hard as I do.

Fixed Mindset of a Student’s Interests

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Dweck explained it this way:

In school, conceiving of one’s intellectual abilities as fixed can be detrimental, whereas believing one can develop and grow skills supports greater learning. We argue that encouraging people to “find” their passion may cause them to eventually believe that interests and passions are inherent and relatively unchangeable. People who think this have a fixed mindset of interest.[4]

According to Dweck, when students with a fixed mindset encounter challenges, the results can be “catastrophic.” There’s a salient reason for this. These students believe that if “they don’t already have the skills or intelligence to complete a task, there’s no chance of improvement.”[5][6]

As you might have guessed, the fixed mindset creeps in as we age. Ann Renninger’s research, conducted as a professor at Swarthmore College, provided further insight into this phenomenon.

With the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything.

Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything.

Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something.

That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects.[7]

 

Benefits of a Growth Mindset For Students

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Much can be achieved when a student explores an interest with a growth mindset. With this mental framework, where a student focuses on exploring and realizing potential, success is inevitable. If not inevitable, the difference between success and failure is marked by a willingness to experiment, learn from one’s mistakes, and put in the necessary effort to gain mastery.

Unsurprisingly, the growth mindset philosophy has caught fire in the entrepreneurial world. Catherine Cote, a writer for Harvard Business School, outlined the following advantages a growth mindset can give professionals, which can be just as easily applied to students.

  • It Allows You to Move into New Fields
  • It Fosters Resilience
  • It Enables You to Iterate on Your Product
  • It Keeps You Humble

Every parent I meet wants their students to acquire these traits. What parent doesn’t want a child willing to explore curiosity, build resilience, incorporate feedback to fix mistakes, and grow in humility?

Now, let’s discuss how parents can foster a growth mindset in their children.

How Can Parents Help Students Explore Their Interests?

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The parents I see cultivating their children’s interests have several traits in common. For one, they’re attentive. These parents pay attention to their children and design their lifestyles in ways that allow them to observe them. I don’t mean they strip their kids of all privacy and study them like lab rats. I suggest that when students mention that they like or enjoy something, they notice. They then take it a step further and engage their students. Engaging students usually means asking open-ended questions.

Use Open-Ended Questions When Discussing Interests

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Julien Mirivel, an Applied Communication professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, explained open-ended questions this way:

On a basic level, we can distinguish between closed-ended questions and open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions—“Do you like blue or

yellow?”—tend to narrow and control human interaction.

 

Open-ended questions, on the other hand, tend to expand and give people freedom to decide what to share and what not to share—like “Tell me about some of your favorite experiences in your life” or “What conversations have impacted you?”[8]

Image of Julien Mirivel that has these words to the side: Closed-ended questions... tend to narrow and control human interaction. Open-ended questions... tend to expand and give people freedom to decide what to share and what not to share - Julien Mirivel, PhD

The more agency students have in what they share, the more likely they will eventually share clues that lay the breadcrumbs to isolate their interests. Attentive parents often file these curiosities away for later when those clues are divulged. However, these parents don’t wait long to act on their curiosity.

Seek Group Activities and Extracurriculars that Foster Interests

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Renninger’s research shows peer and group exercises can deepen students’ interest.[9] In my experience, this works exceptionally well in an area the student is already interested in. If a student knows how to do some coding, consider putting them in a coding boot camp over the summer. The social momentum of working alongside a group often creates a sense of community that keeps students engaged. Younger learners usually need more “external support,”[10] the classroom can frequently provide that support, no matter how traditional.

group of cartoon kids coding together

Show Students Their Knowledge Gaps

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Even students who have spent countless hours exploring their interests don’t know everything. Exposing students to that gap in their education can show them the skills that await them. In this instance, making them aware of ignorance can inspire them. With a growth mindset, a student can better envision the time and effort it will take to get them to that level of mastery. We see this a lot in sports.

A student who plays tennis watching Serena Williams may practice harder. A novice writer reading their favorite author’s new book exposes them to literary techniques they’ve never tried. Likewise, an aspiring full-stack engineer who’s mastered Python may finally take a stab at learning Java after seeing a software exhibition at a tech conference.

This isn’t always a sure more. A student could also get overwhelmed by all there is to learn. However, if they’ve cultivated this mindset, it hopefully will inspire more than intimidate.

Summary of Cultivating Interests

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Remember, students identify and develop their interests when picking a college major. The earlier they do this, the better. The goal isn’t to pick an industry quite yet. Instead, think of it as prodding them to pick a problem they’re serious about solving.

You find the role (the kind of problem solver) you want to become before your exact occupation. When it comes to picking the occupation, an aptitude test is helpful. Remember, aptitudes are not skills but natural abilities or cognitive dispositions that make acquiring skills easier or harder. If students care seriously about conservationism or environmentalism, do they want to be foresters, park rangers, environmental engineers, or chemists? That’s where an aptitude test comes in.

You read more about which aptitude test is best for your student. Many parents we work with find our article on Best Career Aptitude Test: Cost vs Benefits to be helpful.

Students can combine their interests with their aptitudes to pick a college major. By doing so, they can learn the necessary skills and develop their interests in a way that prepares them for their future careers. Additionally, students who apply to college with a cocktail of skills and developed interests often showcase the exact self-possession in their college application essays that colleges want to see.

Conclusion

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Thank you so much for reading this entire article. Remember, interests are serious, not just amusing. If you see your student taking something seriously, start a conversation to help you understand how you, as a parent, can encourage the exploration of that interest. If your student already has an interest in exploring, consider using a group-directed course and program to give them a community that will push their skills further or deepen their interests. If they’re already skillful, expose them to what they haven’t learned yet.

With your help and support, they’ll get there. Moreover, they’ll learn a ton along the way and cultivate an intellectual curiosity and confidence that will carry them through their education.

If you found this article engaging, consider subscribing to our newsletter. There, you will receive college and career-planning tips to help you and your students optimize their education.

About the Author

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Image of Marc Gray, CEO of Odyssey College PrepMarc Gray, owner of Odyssey College Prep, streamlines college admissions with advanced aptitude testing. He guides students in creating unique passion projects for their applications. As an active blogger, he writes on college admissions, test prep, and aptitude testing.

References

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[1] Khazan, Olga, and Karla Starr. “How to Really Find Your Passion.” The Atlantic, 12 July 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/find-your-passion-is-terrible-advice/564932/. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[2] Ibid.

[3] O’Keef, Paul A., and E. J. Hornberg. “Stop Trying to ‘Find’ Your Passion–There’s a Better Way to Love What You Do.” Scientific American, 29 September 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stop-trying-to-find-your-passion-theres-a-better-way-to-love-what-you-do/. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cote, Catherine. “Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset: What’s the Difference?” HBS Online, 10 March 2022, https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/growth-mindset-vs-fixed-mindset. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[6] Dweck, Carol. “Developing a Growth Mindset with Carol Dweck.” YouTube, 9 October 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[7] See Source 1

[8] Mirivel, Julien C. “The six keys to positive communication – Center for Positive Organizations Center for Positive Organizations.” Center for Positive Organizations, 29 April 2021, https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/news/the-six-keys-to-positive-communication/. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[9] Renninger, K. Ann, and Suzanne Hidi. The Power of Interest for Motivation and Engagement. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. Accessed 10 July 2024.

[10] Ibid.

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