Why Picking A College Major Can Be Confusing

By Becky Preble

If you are a parent, teacher, youth leader or anyone else who deals with 18 to 22 year olds on a regular basis, you have likely heard the frustration in the voices of young men and women as they share how confusing it can be to determine a direction for their lives. If they are headed to college, or are already in college, they can become overwhelmed by something as seemingly simple as picking a major. Some will bounce from one major to the next, wasting both time and money as they try to find their fit. Others will become so discouraged by their lack of direction they eventually drop out of college altogether. Unfortunately, some will go so far as to assume their inability to choose a major indicates a failure on their part, instead of realizing they may have never had the tools to make a good decision in the first place.

There are many reasons why picking a college major can be so distressing and confusing for young adults. Throughout my 20 years as a college and career counselor, I have seen first hand how ill-equipped our young people are when it comes to making decisions and choices about their future. As a parent, teacher or youth worker, you too may have seen young adults floundering around hoping they will “find themselves” and figure out what to do with their lives. You have probably experienced how heart breaking it can be to watch a young person struggle to find their path.

In this article I will emphasize one of the primary reasons why so many young adults have such a hard time picking a college major. Of course, there are many reasons why someone may be confused about their future. However, there is one reason that I see surface over and over again as I visit with young adults in my college and career counseling practice. If you work with young adults, or if you are a parent to a young adult, gaining insight into why they are having difficulty finding their college and career path will help you know how to offer encouragement and guidance.

The Primary Reason for Confusion When Picking a College Major

Most young people let their interests direct their path. If they are interested in something or they simply like it, they assume they should pursue a career in it. For example, I hear lots of young people say things like: “I like animals, so I want to be a veterinarian.” “I like to fly, so I want to be a pilot.” “I like clothes, so I want to be a fashion designer.”

One of the problems with letting your interests or the things you like determine your career path, is that interests can change. That is why you will hear a young man say he wants to be a lawyer one day, a zoologist the next day and a social worker the next. As long as his interests are changing, he may keep changing majors, thinking that each new major is the answer. I frequently have young ladies in my office who tell me how much they love puppies and kittens, so based on their love of animals they decide they want to be a veterinarian. However, I always ask these young ladies if they know what a veterinarian does all day in his/her job. Are they aware that the job duties of a veterinarian involve putting animals to sleep, doing surgery, dealing with the not-so-nice dogs, cats, etc.? While I’m sure that most veterinarians do love puppies and kittens, the majority of their day-to-day job duties involve so much more than petting cute little animals.

Compounding the problem of trying to identify which major to pursue is the fact that much of the career testing that is available today is interest-based. Such tests will typically offer three options of things that you may like and ask you which one you like the best. If you indicate that you like the same kind of things as a tug boat captain, then your results will say that you should be a tug boat captain. However, once again we need to ask what does a tug boat captain do all day, and would you enjoy doing those things?

Instead of just looking at their interests or what they like, young adults need to consider what they do well. What is it that they are particularly good at doing? The things that they are good at doing are reflected through their natural talents. Natural talents are part of our God-given design and just seem to flow forth from our being. One of the best ways to be successful and enjoy your work is to find a career path that takes advantage of your innate strengths. So picking a college major that matches one’s natural talents would be a good first step.

In order to clarify the difference between natural talents and interests and their respective roles in picking a college major, I will share a personal story.

I grew up on the coast of Texas and enjoyed going to the beach and fishing with my Dad. When I was in high school I watched numerous documentaries produced by Jacques Cousteau about the ocean and marine life. I loved swimming, so I could imagine myself being a part of the scuba team that did the diving in documentaries. I was so fascinated with the underwater world that I thought I might want to be a marine biologist when I grew up. It was true that I was very interested in Marine Biology, but I had no idea what a Research Marine Biologist did in his/her job.

If I were to tell you what I enjoyed doing when I was in high school, you would probably recognize that what I was interested in did not match up with what a Research Marine Biologist would do all day. You see even when I was in high school I loved public speaking. I was forever speaking up on the behalf of some cause or for another person. I also enjoyed being with lots of new and different people and counseling and offering encouragement to others. When I would learn about something that was new and interesting I felt I had to tell everyone about it. So you might say what I enjoyed doing was speaking, counseling, encouraging and motivating others.

Now, think about the job duties of a Research Marine Biologist. It is probably easy to see that public speaking, counseling, promoting causes and motivating others are not typical job duties for a researcher. So the things I enjoyed doing did not match the job I thought I wanted.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t consider our interests when trying to determine our career path? No, interests can be very helpful when trying to decide on a career field. But we need to consider our natural talents when picking a specific job within a career field. For example, if I would have pursued a degree in Marine Biology, I might have been better suited to work as a lobbyist involved in protecting our oceans. I also might have enjoyed a job at Sea World if I could have been the person who introduces Shamu and does public speaking about marine life.

So, if you know a young adult who is having a hard time deciding which major to pursue, help them see that they may be relying too much upon their ever-changing interests to provide them direction. Encourage them to pay attention to what they enjoy doing and to research which careers would best match their natural talents.