Chalk board with the words Find Your Major on it

If you’re preparing to go to college, you’re preparing to pick your major. Entering higher education provides many opportunities, but the most salient benefit is the path to a career. When you graduate, you want to emerge from your time at University with a focused set of skills and specific knowledge, all in the noble pursuit of entering the economy. You want to be employable. If you’re not employable, you risk much, mostly in troves of wasted time and money.

This series will help you achieve your optimal career goals and avoid professional dead ends. You might be a student preparing to enter college or a college sophomore stressed about what major they must declare. Better yet, you could be a student’s parent worried about their career or putting off making their career plan. Whatever your background or reasoning, keep reading, and I’ll show the three steps I use with students to help them pick their majors.

The Problem If Students Don’t Strategically Pick a College Major

College takes four years to complete, right? WRONG. According to the College Board,[1] the average student takes 5.7 years to finish college,[2] with some reports showing nearly six years[3] after entry into their respective university. Many of these delays come from unforeseen problems. Education experts often list the following reasons as to why graduating college takes so long:[4]

  • Studying Part-Time While Working
  • Losing Credits After Transferring Schools
  • Studying Abroad
  • Personal and Unforeseen Circumstances
  • Changing College Major

In my experience counseling students, that last bullet is definitely accurate. Students who change their majors often delay graduating by at least one semester. According to a recent report by the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of tuition for a semester of college in 2023 was $4,839. Remember, though, that this amount covers only tuition. Student total cost to attend college at a four-year university averages around $13,013.50 (see table below).

Semester Cost of College for Public Institutions

Institution Type Cost of Tuition Cost of Attendance**
4-Year In-State $4,839 $13,013.50
2-Year In-State $1,750.50 $8,219.50

Semester Cost of College for Private Institutions

Institution Type Cost of Tuition Cost of Attendance**
4-Year Nonprofit $19,384 $27,420
4-Year For-profit $8,912.50 $16,447.50
2-Year Nonprofit $8,867.50 $16,503.50
2-Year For-profit $7,818.50 $13,607

This data is adapted from the Nov 2023 College Data Initiative Report[5]

Switching Majors Costs Time and Money

Students from wealthier backgrounds can afford to pay those fees. Yet, wealth can’t purchase time. Our minutes and months are a nonrenewable resource, and each student has a finite amount. Hence, wasting a semester of college is chronologically expensive for everyone. That time could be spent completing an internship, studying abroad, applying to graduate school, or starting a new job. Thus, picking a major must be done with an informed awareness and a strategic commitment.

Picking A College Major Through Aptitude Testing

Aptitude testing provides you with an objective evaluation of your natural talents. Your ideal college major and career should incorporate your aptitudes. If not, you risk becoming qualified for a job you’re not wired for. This is a huge pivot in the wrong direction in the delicate stress-balance cycle. The end result could be a job that pays you well but that has you looking like this:

Cartoon man stressed out wishing he'd taken an aptitude test

We’ve written about aptitude testing with great frequency already. However, the role career aptitude tests should play in college and career planning can’t be overstated. Unlike skills, interests, or personalities (which we’ll cover later in this series), aptitudes don’t change over time. Hence, when we make career plans based on aptitudes, we’re charting a course that’s less likely to alter.

While we’ll cover this in more detail later, remember that students have four primary aptitude assessments available:

  1. The Johnson O’Connor
  2. The AIMS test
  3. YouScience
  4. Highlands Ability Battery

I recommend that my college counseling students take the Highlands Ability Battery. To see why, read our article on Career Aptitude Tests Cost vs Benefits or our post on How Much Should An Aptitude Test Cost. This series won’t explain why the Highlands Ability Battery is the superior aptitude test. We’ll simply discuss how students can use it to pick their college major and careers.

How To Pick A College Major Through Interests

Interests change over time. And yet, students shouldn’t ignore their interests. Interests play a vital role in the career planning process. Simply put, interests provide us with fuel and energy. When we do activities that fascinate us, we tend to find more energy to do them. In many ways, factoring interests into your career planning and college major selection demands the same attention as your aptitudes. Sure, aptitudes tell you what professional tasks you have a knack for completing. But, no matter how advanced, a career aptitude test can’t accurately predict if you’ll actually enjoy completing those tasks. In other words, you might be good at something but hate doing it.

We recommend several reliable interest profilers or assessments. Each has its perks and drawbacks, which we’ll explore further in the series.

Using Skills to Pick a College Major

Aptitudes and interests measure your potential for a career. Skills, however, measure your actual performance. We define skills as learned proficiencies. In other words, no one suddenly gains mastery in a skill. Both novice proficiency and masterful expertise only come with practiced experience. While we’ll illustrate this lesson later, it’s essential to know that what one lacks in aptitude can be made up for in skill. This won’t come as a shock to most. A talent-shaped void can always be filled with persistence and hard work. When you combine both of those qualities, that equals skill or mastery in a professional task.

cartoon man with many arms, each hand holds a symbolic icon representing a skill he's mastered.

For example, I have a niece who speaks German with great fluency. Foreign language talent primarily springs from two aptitudes: tonal memory and verbal memory. Oddly enough, my niece is low on both of them. However, she’s put forth thousands of hours speaking German. By doing so, she struggled and fought towards fluency until speaking conversationally in German became almost effortless.

Why would she spend so much time mastering something she doesn’t have an aptitude for?

The answer is quite simple. She wanted to. She loves the German language and loves the people and culture even more. Consequently, she invested her time and energy into mastering that language.

If you have hard skills you enjoy using, factor them into your career planning. Consider this: If you can code but don’t have an aptitude for it, perhaps you could minor in computer science if you enjoy coding that much. After all, coding continues to become one of the most sought-after skills in the workforce.[6] Most career coaches and consultants I know herald coding as a future-friendly skill,[7] expertise that grows in value with each passing year.[8]

Furthermore, skills come in a variety of forms and functions. Hard skills, particularly those in STEM, tend to be the expertise employers pay more for. However, all employers want workers and professionals fully fluent in various soft skills. Soft skills often include proficiency in areas that are difficult to measure. Examples of soft skills include an employee’s professionalism, communication practices, teamwork, writing ability, interpersonal awareness, project management, etc. Again, while these skills are hard to measure, they’re often what employers hope to read about when they read recommendation letters from former employers. Therefore, it’s worth factoring those skills into your college major if you excel at keeping a team on the same page, mediating conflict, precise communication, or other soft skills.

If you do, you can emerge from your college experience with more certifications and experience. Lastly, intentionally developing these skills could build a professional brand around such a corporate virtue. Our final article on picking a college through skill will cover this more. So, keep reading if that interests you.

Conclusion

To conclude, Luke Ciciliano, an entrepreneur and talented software engineer, wrote this:

“If you choose a career path based on the wrong reasons, you might end up unhappy in your job which can negatively affect your quality of life. You also might not be making as much money as you wanted and end up credentialed for a job which you’re simply not good at.”[9]

Sure, you can waste money and time studying the wrong major. But why do we declare a major in the first place? We choose a major to get a job that helps us attain the life we want. If we fail in this, we add more stress to our lives and do not realize our potential and dreams.

In a nutshell, your college experience can’t be something you play by ear. It’s worth preparing for. It’s essential. If it weren’t, people like me (career coaches and college counselors) would be out of a job. A college education can enhance your career or waste years of your life (to say nothing of the debt it can leave you with). The difference between those two outcomes is the level of preparation.

If that’s something you can get behind, continue reading. In the meantime, consider subscribing to our newsletter for free college planning hacks and more career planning tips.

Talk soon,

-Marc

References

 

[1] College Board. CollegeBoard.org, College Board, 2020, https://research.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2020.pdf. Accessed 7 May 2024.

[2] Hanson, Melanie. “College Graduation Statistics” EducationData.org, June 12, 2022, https://educationdata.org/number-of-college-graduates

[3] National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_326.15.asp. Accessed 7 May 2024.

[4] McCarthy, Michael. “Why College Students Take More than Four Years to Finish.” OnlineU, 14 March 2023, https://www.onlineu.com/resources/going-to-college/why-students-take-longer-to-graduate. Accessed 7 May 2024.

[5] Hanson, Melanie. “Average Cost of College & Tuition” EducationData.org, November 18, 2023, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college

[6] Ciciliano, Luke. “Should I Be A Developer? How to Pick a Career as a Programmer.” freeCodeCamp, 16 May 2022, https://www.freecodecamp.org/news/should-i-be-a-developer-programmer/. Accessed 10 May 2024.

[7] General Assembly. “Coding Skills in 2024: Your Gateway to Future Technology Careers.” General Assembly, 22 February 2024, https://generalassemb.ly/blog/coding-skills-the-futures-most-v

[8] Darby, Fi. “Why coding is still the most important job skill of the future.” Upskilled, https://www.upskilled.edu.au/skillstalk/coding-most-important-job-skill-of-the-future. Accessed 10 May 2024.

[9] Ciciliano, Luke. “Should I Be A Developer? How to Pick a Career as a Programmer.” freeCodeCamp, 16 May 2022, https://www.freecodecamp.org/news/should-i-be-a-developer-programmer/. Accessed 10 May 2024.

 

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