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Monday, January 31, 2011

Campus visit or Major visit?

We think that most high school students and their families usually get the sequence backwards. First they select a college and then they select a major. But selecting a college first assumes that which college you attend is the most important factor. Many an advisor declares that the college major is one of the most important choices made by the student. They are wrong; your major is the most important decision.

If one’s goal is to gain financial independence via a college education (granted this is not the mission of every 18 year old), then what one studies makes all the difference. Today’s graduates in Petroleum Engineering are getting multiple job offers at high starting salaries. On the other hand those that are graduating with degrees in Theatre, Medieval German and Gender Studies rarely find any job offers at all.

If you want to pursue a degree in Petroleum Engineering there are fewer colleges to choose from (see On the other hand it is hard to find a college that does not have a Business degree (the most common of degrees in America today).

How does one conduct a Major visit? How does one check out different majors and the opportunities in these majors to determine if a major is a good fit for your skills and interests?

Unfortunately most high school guidance counselors can’t help much; most of them can’t tell you how the opportunities vary between a chemical engineer and a petroleum engineer.

You might actually need to visit a campus or two. But not to check out the resort like setting but to speak to the professors in the field you are interested in. Talk to some of the students in your major, and perhaps sit in on a class. Then meet with the Student Placement office and see what you can learn about who is hiring the graduates and if you can get the contact details so you can talk to the folks with the jobs directly. This action is valuable on a number of dimensions because some of these same campus reps might have ideas for you about scholarships and internships once you arrive at college.

One clue about the right major is investigating how those majors are faring in getting internships during their summers. If the internships are primarily with no pay that is a sign of a poor demand for grads in that area. If the internships are primarily for pay, then it is a sign that employers are recruiting college grads in a field where recent grads are in high demand.

Keep in mind that the most common major for college freshmen is Undecided. If you are unsure, why not attend your community college for a year or two or work for a year while you try to narrow down your career direction?

And a majority of college students change their majors during college. But there are changes and there are changes. Going from Computer Science to Math in your freshman year is a minor deviation. Switching from Mechanical Engineering to Civil Engineering in one’s sophomore year is also not a big deal. But if you decide in your senior year that instead of wanting to be an elementary teacher you want to change to pre-med, you just added a couple of years duration to your college experience (even before you start medical school). And if you have studied at a typical private Liberal Arts college they might not even have the science curriculum that you need to get ready for Med School.

There are a number of online career assessment tools at Quintessential Careers. But keep in mind that these assessments tend to focus on what you might be good at. They rarely reflect whether there are in fact many jobs in the field. You might be an outstanding musician but are you really good enough to earn a living as one?

So think major first and college second when planning out your college path.


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