BLOOMINGTON — Somewhere between elementary school and college, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” switches to “What’s your major?”
The average college student changes majors three times, according to a commonly cited statistic.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering ACT, the college testing firm, recently reported that nearly two-thirds of the students taking the test choose majors that are not a good fit with their interests.
But switching majors can add to the cost of a college education if it delays graduation.
That’s why college officials and high school guidance counselors say it is important that students find a major that fits their skills, interests and values rather than one based on what’s the “hottest” or most lucrative field — or what their parents or others tell them they “should” major in.
“I always ask a student who is struggling with this decision, ‘What do you love?’ It’s so much easier to get better grades in something you love,” said Amelia Noel-Elkins, director of University College at Illinois State University.
University College advises nearly all first-year students at ISU, oversees orientation and provides assistance with the transition to college, including selecting a major.
Robyn Walter, career consultant at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Hart Career Center, said many students enter college either uncertain about their major, or they decide to switch gears.
Both Walter and Noel-Elkins emphasized there’s a difference between a major and a career.
“A major in and of itself isn’t going to get you a job,” said Walter, citing the need for experience through internships or related work, even volunteer work.
Noel-Elkins said employers are less interested in an applicant’s college major than in the applicant’s critical thinking and communications skills, including writing and speaking.
The Christmas break is a good time to talk with students — both those in college and high school seniors — about college majors and careers.
This is particularly true if a student seems stressed or anxious, said educators.
Walter recommends starting by asking, “How are you doing?” Follow up by asking, “How can I help you? How can your school’s resources help you?” It’s also important to emphasize to students, when deciding on a major or career, “they don’t have to do it by themselves,” said Walter.
This also is a good time for students to gather information by asking visiting relatives or family friends about their careers, noted Brooke Bollman, a guidance counselor at Normal West Community High School.
Bollman suggested students ask about what they do, where they went to school and what kind of classes they took.
Tom Frazier, director of the Bloomington Area Career Center, said there are many good-paying jobs in high-demand areas, such as health care, welding and manufacturing that need post-secondary training, but not a four-year college degree.
“It’s important that parents realize it shouldn’t be a social stigma if your kid doesn’t go to a four-year school,” Frazier said. “I just want them to be successful.”
Students change majors for many reasons.
Noel-Elkins notes people go through a lot of changes between the ages of 17 and 21.
“When a student picks a major, it’s based on the information they have at hand,” Walter said. “When they get here (to college), they discover more things.”
Instead of seeing general education courses as “a box you have to check off,” Noel-Elkins said, think of them as an opportunity to explore possible majors and other interests.
Emily Miller, an academic adviser at Heartland Community College, said taking introductory courses in a field such as business or criminal justice is a good way for students to see whether it’s what they expect or like or — equally important — don’t like.
And if a chosen major isn’t working out, rather than feeling “stuck” because it might take extra time to complete a degree, Miller advises making the needed change and keeping matters in perspective.
“In the grand scheme of your life, this isn’t going to be the big setback you think it’s going to be,” Miller said. “At least now you have a plan and are moving forward.”