One of my favorite parts of my job is talking to students about what they want to major in and what they want to do with that degree. In some ways, I envy the multitude of possibilities that my young students have, but I also recall the sweaty-palms anxiety of having to “make a decision that will affect the rest of my life.”

My goal when I talk with my students is to encourage them to think big–what do they really want to do? And to feel reassured that whatever the path, they have the ability to make it happen. I wish I had had the same support when I was selecting a major.

Whether your own student has known since she was three years old that she wanted to be a civil engineer or he is nervous about choosing a major that he feels he has to complete no matter what, here are some tips for having a conversation with your student:

  • Ask questions, rather than make judgments. Ask questions such as “What interests you in that major?”  and “What are you most looking forward to learning more about?” are great opening questions to find out more about what makes the major interesting to your student. Avoid asking “What are you going to do with that?” Questions such as though are difficult for anyone, especially young people how are still exploring the possibilities of careers to answer.

I remember when I decided to major in English literature, I was either asked “What are you going to do with that?” or told that I was going to teach. “I guess you will teach, right?” people often said as if that was the only thing I could do. Conversations such as these made it difficult to have any conversation with adults about my future plans, and, unfortunately, limited my ability to learn more about what I could do with an English degree.

  • Encourage exploration the first few semesters. Even if your student knows without a doubt what he wants to major in (and what he life’s path and purpose are), encourage him to explore various other possibilities. While exploring other courses and experiences may not result in a double major or change of heart entirely, it can be worthwhile. Encourage that exploration and the opportunity to move outside your student’s comfort zone.

I changed between an English major and a history major during my first year and then went back to choosing English. What I discovered about myself with those two majors was that I really enjoyed reading, researching, and writing. Studying history for a couple of semesters reinforced my interests although I realized I liked the content of the English classes better.

  • Be prepared for changes. Finally, prepare yourself for your student thinking through or acting on their changing interests. And these changes may happen multiple times as they have new experiences and learn more about themselves. This is a good thing. It means they are seriously contemplating what they want and “trying” pathways. Your student’s college or university will require a final decision at some time, but until then, ask questions, encourage exploration, and give them room to change their minds!
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