How should my daughter choose a major?

By Maxine Seya

My daughter isn’t sure what she wants to study. She has expressed that she would like to study a variety of things. It seems like a good way for her to figure this out is to meet with academic advisors at each college we visit (or to somehow get ahold of a sample schedule). Would that be a good strategy?

– Allison, a parent

Even as a college student at Northwestern, I was in the same position as your daughter. I wanted to study everything and nothing at the same time. My guilty pleasure was reading the undergraduate course catalog, a comprehensive list of all courses offered in each major, as well as a short description of the course and each major’s graduation requirements. They’re a great way to imagine “sample schedules,” as you mentioned.

Here‘s an example of Northwestern’s 2018-2019 undergraduate course catalog.

Most university registrar websites offer this comprehensive catalog as a free download. By digging into it, you’ll be able to get a sense of what classes your daughter can choose and how they compare to other majors. By poking through this detailed catalog as an undergrad, I found myself daydreaming about alternate realities in which I studied theater or anthropology or biology — it never ended.

If after going through the course catalog you still have questions, you can contact an academic advisor for more guidance. But the registrar’s course catalog will be a good and efficient start without having to make on-campus appointments.

That said, don’t forget that classes are just one slice of the college experience. Most college kids spend around 15 hours a week in lectures and discussions. Compared to her independent time outside the classroom, it isn’t a lot.

The rest of the time is filled with whatever your daughter wants. Many students find that although they didn’t love all their classes, they loved their college experience as a whole and were happy they majored whatever they majored in. My freshman year roommate was an English literature major who spent her electives taking science classes and her free time working in labs. Today, she is a physician who still loves literature.

Many teenagers feel like the major-selecting process is stressful if 1) they feel like they can’t change their mind later and 2) if their life trajectory and happiness depend on this one major selection. But when they approach it as picking a topic they’re somewhat curious about, it becomes fun. It’s no longer a chore.

Your daughter needn’t be pressured to select a major. She can be reminded that 1) a college major doesn’t have to be her entire college experience, 2) if she picks a major, she can change her mind later, and 3) whatever she decides, her major won’t determine her life trajectory or happiness.

Without the pressure, she might naturally float toward her curiosities.

I’ll also point out that you just identified one important characteristic you’re looking for in a college: flexibility. You mentioned your daughter wants the flexibility to study a variety of subjects.

Not all schools offer this flexibility.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.