How to Have the College Major Conversation

How to Have the College Major Conversation

In this interview from the spring of 2017, Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, spoke with Blair Munhofen, a Signet admissions consultant and director of college counseling at an independent school.

Where should thinking about college majors fit into a student’s application process?

I ask my juniors and even my sophomores what they’re interested in studying and what kind of classes they like. I purposely avoid asking “what do you want your major to be?” because too often we equate a student’s college major to their career. When you ask a 15-to-18-year-old this question, they have very few experiences informing their response, because there is so much still on the horizon for them.

In general, I think teenagers are aware of five major career paths: doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, educators, and engineers. In reality, there are so many more careers, professions, and vocations out there, and there is also more nuance and crossover between career paths than most students perceive.

When I talk to students, they don’t have a lot of knowledge around majors like anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and that’s not their fault. So I do take students’ responses with a pretty hefty grain of salt. It’s great if they’re thinking about a particular field, but I invite them to be open to other possibilities.

How do you explain to a student or parent the difference between major and career, and how do you counsel a healthy separation between the two?

That’s definitely challenging. There are certain jobs that require very specific content knowledge, and sometimes that has to happen in a college or graduate school environment. For example, you cannot be a self-taught engineer; you have to have a credential. So that’s an example where major is very closely tied to degree.

On the other hand, I work with a lot of students interested in pre-med. I tell students that if their degree is in biology or chemistry, on paper they don’t stand out much from all the other pre-med students majoring in biology or chemistry. For undergrad, I encourage them to major in a subject they really love. Majoring in history, for example, would teach skills such as research, synthesizing information, and making complex arguments. Incidentally, it would also help a student stand out from their peers. Many medical schools are looking for philosophy majors, because wrestling with ethical questions is at the heart of medicine. So while a student needs the appropriate prerequisites for pre-med, their college major is not as closely tied to their career path as they often think.

I also impart to students that there are many jobs you can’t study to get. There’s no college counseling major in this country, for example. College is about what you study, but also about facilitating the experiences that help you build the softer skills, such as communication and interpersonal relationships, that are attractive to future employers.

It seems like a spectrum. On one end are the students who know exactly what they want to study, have experience in the field, and directly connect their major to their career. On the other end are students who have no idea what they want. In the middle are students who aren’t sure what they want, have some experience, but not a ton, and haven’t fully explored other options, maybe beyond the “top five” you mentioned.

Yes, I see all of these kids every year. If you know what you want to do, I’m more comfortable with you going to a public school, because you may not need the time or space to explore other majors. When students have no idea what they want to do, I rarely recommend a public institution (as long as financial aid can be accommodated). Public schools lose money if students take more than four years, and changing majors because you’ve realized you want to study something else often means additional semesters in your undergrad experience. Medium or small schools can be nice in this situation, particularly when they don’t let you declare a major until sophomore year. Students are given the time and space to explore new areas before making a decision.

Any student not sure about their college major should look for two important programs when assembling their college list:

    1. The Advising System: Does the school connect you with a mentor early on to choose classes, help you through the major decision process, and introduce you to other faculty to mentor you on the way?
    2. The Career Services Program: Is the school bringing employers to campus and facilitating career internships so students can gain experience with different career paths?

How do you explain to families the relationship between a major that is not career-oriented and finding a career? It’s particularly scary in the age of high student loans.

If you’re worried about cost, that absolutely should be a factor in how you decide things. It’s okay to be conscious of financial constraints and balance that with your other desires, including college major and career. Making decisions based on finances is a part of life.

Students and parents should know that the first five years after graduating from a liberal arts college can be difficult. Skills in reading, writing, analysis, and even human empathy can be cultivated in that environment and grow deep roots, but translating those skills to specific careers can be difficult, and not obvious at first. It’s common for a recent graduate to hold a few different jobs, as it can take a while for the investment in this kind of education to pay off.

Students can mitigate this by pursuing internships in college. Even as, say, a gender studies major, your skills are welcome with a lot of employers and companies. Work with career services to develop the language to articulate your strengths and support yourself through job application processes.

Sounds like your college major and your career are two related but separate things. How do you advise high school and college students to explore different options and cultivate those separate paths?

I tell students that they will probably do some important things that will help them discern a career path for themselves, but that may never make it onto their resumes. I recommend students connect to a network of professionals in different careers, and have conversations about their work, their personal lives, etc. Talk to your parents’ friends or your friends’ parents. The paths to careers are circuitous, and having these conversations can be the first step to understanding that.

It’s not uncommon for internship offers to come out of these conversations. Five years ago, I would not have recommended internships for high school students, but I’ve completely changed my mind on that. Now, if you’re a high school student without an internship, you’re absolutely in the minority. It’s more than a credential you need to get into college; it’s valuable in helping shape your college experience later on.

Most people want a direct path to a career that provides their living and status first, and fulfillment second. It sounds like there’s a way to approach major and career decisions that lets them unfold naturally, but that you can still do this in a prudent and strategic way.

You can think of this in terms of an investment. If you put money in a mutual fund, you’re inherently risking money. There are times when the market might have a downturn and you’ll see a loss. But over time, you’re setting yourself up to have a gain in the end. Nothing in life is guaranteed, of course. Students can consistently and continually open themselves up to new career experiences, keep talking to people, explore internships, and follow their own interests. That will pay off over time, with interest.

The direct college-major-to-career path is more like a savings account. You get very little growth but a good measure of security. At the same time, you are closing doors by choosing the straight path and saying “This is the only way.” That’s also got an inherent risk involved, because you’re not looking at other avenues that might be available.

I think it’s scary for students to entertain the idea that college is not going to create a career. It requires them to take a lot of responsibility.

I often tell kids, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” If you know your parents are doctors and seem to have a good life, that’s anecdotal evidence, and that has value. But you don’t know about other experiences or paths unless you go seek them out. I hope students have the opportunity in college to see what else is out there, and seek to create learning opportunities for themselves. Regardless of the name of the school on the transcript, if all they have is the degree, they won’t get much further than the initial interview.

This sounds similar to the process we recommend for students exploring extracurricular activities.

There’s something to be said for the adventurous spirit, looking to have experiences. That can be cultivated in a lot of students, and I think it’s vital because our world is rapidly changing, and being able to adapt is an incredibly important quality to have.

And you’re right, I also like to remind students that this is really similar to the process they went through in high school. Developing that exploratory habit during the high school years bodes well for a student going into college.

What was your career journey like?

I was interested in studying and teaching history. When I got to college I wanted to take a non-Romance language, so I took Arabic, and I fell in love with it. I loved the work and the community, and it was incredibly exciting. I declared a major in Arabic while I continued pursuing history, thinking I wanted to be a college professor. The summer after my sophomore year, I did research with a professor on Islamic political movements, then did a fellowship the following year, and in my last year wrote a thesis paper.

I wasn’t sure about Masters programs, so in the meantime I decided to teach high school to see if I actually liked teaching; I’d been a tutor and an RA, so I knew I liked interacting with kids. For a while I was teaching, coaching sports, advising, and gaining tons of experience. Coaching in particular gave me new perspective on being a better teacher. Motivating kids to take on challenges was really fascinating to me, and I loved exploring how to take that from a sports environment into the classroom.

I was also really interested in students’ college admissions experience, and I realized I loved mentorship. As a college counselor, your job is mentoring kids, and that really resonated with me. So I took the circuitous route to being a college counselor, and developed skills along the way based on my experiences and opportunities that led me down that path.

I love what you’ve described. I think many parents and students believe there is a perfect career path out there and they just have to find it. What you’ve described instead is an ongoing dance between who you are at a particular time, the environment you’re in, and the skills you have, and letting those things influence each other.

Anything else you would add for parents and students thinking about the college process?

I would try to leave students and parents with the idea of being open to possibilities, which just means recognizing that circumstances and situations will change, and being aware of that is a huge step. Developing openness as a practice ultimately bodes well.

Want more great tips for your high school journey?

Sign up for our weekly high school newsletter!

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

More Resources