Bless the students (and the parents of them) who leave high school, enter college, study and learn, and graduate with one specific goal in mind. Maybe they have always wanted to be a nurse or wanted to study a foreign language so they can live and work in another country. These rare birds never waver. They take their classes, fall deeper in love with what they chose, intern in the field, prepare their resumes, graduate, and enter into their own “field of dreams.” (See what I did there?)

[This is where you hear the screech of a record being yanked off a turntable]

Not every student–not even most students–describe a journey like the one above. And quite honestly, as an educator, I much prefer an initial journey of uncertainty for students as it provides them opportunities to really question what they want to learn and do. Oftentimes, when they approach deciding on a major with openness and curiosity, they choose pathways they didn’t know existed or didn’t realize were indeed a good fit for them.

I have a colleague who admits he changed his major seven times during his undergraduate experience, eventually returning to his original major. What did this rollercoaster teach him? For one, it taught him that it was okay to be curious, explore, and develop self-awareness. All of these characteristics serve him well in his higher education career.

While trying out seven different majors may seem extreme (it really depends on what that looks like in your student’s schedule), there are some things you can do to help them explore and land on a final choice.

  • Start early. It is never too early to talk about majors and what they like or dislike about them. My daughter chose her major, biology, early and stuck with it even if she is still unsure about what direction she wants to go after she graduates (in two months!).
  • Encourage them to “flirt” with other majors. Most majors require what we call “general education” or “liberal arts core courses” in which students take classes outside their major discipline. A course in religious studies or studio art may surprise them in terms of their interests. If they find that they are drawn to different areas of study, they may be able to minor in them without overhauling their plans. Or they may find a major that is better suited for them.
  • Suggest they review the entire (yes, the entire) list of majors offered. Ask them to choose at least 10 that are mildly to very interesting (even if they are not sure what they entail). Then, direct them to review the information about the major in the catalog or bulletin (that place where the courses of each major are listed and described). They can then revise and narrow the list as they get further along.
  • Use an online assessment. Services such as provide students with a short assessment that then maps them to potential majors. Your student’s advisor or career counselor can suggestion others.
  • Take a “career exploration” class. When my son announced, after one semester, he didn’t think his major–computer science–was a good fit for him, I encouraged (okay, required) him to register for our one-credit-hour career exploration class. Colleges and universities often provide credit-bearing courses and workshops on career exploration. If you cannot find one at your student’s institution, have them talk to career services.
  • Make conversation. Notice I didn’t say “ask questions.” Badgering your student is not a great way to get them to dig deep and think about what they like and what they dislike about what they are studying. Share your own story about how you learned what you liked to do and what you wanted as a career. If you, too, graduated from college, share that experience as well.
  • Learn to relax. The goal may be that your student graduates in a timely manner, right? Or maybe the goal is to discover what they like and get in the appropriate program or on the right pathway, even if that means changing to a technical school or apprenticeship. A college major–no matter how connected to the job market it is–doesn’t teach a college student everything about the career pathway. Much of what is learned is on the job and as long as your student has a good skillset that includes soft skills such as showing up, following directions, and thinking critically and creatively, they should be fine. And you will be fine, too.
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