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Why Majors Do Not Matter

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.


I will begin and end this essay with the same paragraph:


My advice to high school seniors: Find a college that “fits you,” has most of your interests covered somehow, and has caring professors to help you navigate the process. Feel free to explore all your interests. The major you end up in, itself, will evolve. Your interests and your lifetime of careers will also evolve, opportunities will arise, and your life will be just fine.


Let me relate a story.


It was inevitable. When I was in college admissions, a student would come up to my college display table and ask: “Do you have a major in Law?”



Sigh. Seriously? There is no quick way to answer a question like this in a word or two. Any lawyer will tell you that there is no one program of study on the road to becoming a lawyer. There is no A+B+C=lawyer formula. Even the LSAT exam really is not related to most academic majors, it is more a collection of logic puzzles.


Other college reps used to wonder how I kept students at my table for long periods of time at college fairs. I liked to educate students about things like this, and education takes time, effort, and patience.


There is no simple answer to a question like “do you have a major in law?” or “do you have a major in medicine?”. In fact, we might want to change the dialogue.


First step: I would like the word “major” to disappear from our PRE-college dialogue. Asking 8th graders what their college major will be is ridiculous. Of course, once a student is at a college, the word “major” is important to provide an outline of course requirements and to assign you an advisor, but until a student is actually enrolled, it is much more useful to talk about interests and potential careers than it is to use the term “major.” In some cases, such as nursing and engineering, “interests” “potential careers” and “major” are pretty much synonymous. In others, such as Law and Medicine, there is such a wide variety of potential majors to choose from, the dialogue needs to be a bit different.


Suggestion: From 7th to 12th grade, rather than talking about majors, let’s talk with students about their: interests (academic and non-academic), strengths, hopes, passions, possible career goals, and professions that look interesting to them.


At college fairs, and when students visit with a college rep during a campus visit, students need to replace the question “do you have a major in _________?” with the question “can your college help me become ________? or with the question “does your college offer opportunities in ___________? or with the question “do you offer many courses in __________?” An even better approach would be to ask “I have interests in ___________, ____________, and _____________. What opportunities in these areas can your college offer me?” These questions would begin a constructive dialogue, rather than just a quick yes or no answer.


Going into college “undecided” is quite normal. Starting college “dead-set on only one thing” often leads to disappointment. You never know where life will lead you. The healthy approach is for a student to say “My goal is to become a __________ and I am thinking about majoring in _________, but I am open to learning about a variety of subjects.”


Don’t eliminate a college just because their list of majors does not include yours. There are so many colleges that do not have a “major” in “X,” but they might be the best college in the world for a student who wants to do “X.” Example: Monmouth College (IL) does not have a “major” in Technical Theatre, yet it produces techie after techie, year after year. In fact, even the Tech Director of the Second City Theatre in Chicago is a graduate of Monmouth. The Tech Director at Monmouth, Doug Rankin, is one of the best. So, if a student simply asks “do you have a major in tech theatre” the simple answer is no. If the question is stated: “I want to get involved in the tech part of theatre, what can Monmouth do to help me?,” then a productive dialogue can occur.


Kai Kight is a motivational speaker who has done a lot of Ted Talks. My favorite is his Ted Talk called “Why Majors Don’t Matter.” Google it sometime! It is only about 20 minutes in length. He is such an awesome musician and speaker!


Some of the themes from his talk:


“follow your passions”


“build your own future”


“combine your interests in A, B, And C to come up with something uniquely YOU”


“think differently”


“wake up happy in the morning”


“do what gives you energy”


“passion-driven leadership”


None of these themes mention the word “major.”


I really love Kai’s food analogies in the video:


1. Move across the grocery aisles to find the ingredients that will make your meal unique (educational translation: don’t only take courses in one subject. You might learn something in another subject area that gives unique structure to what you end up doing with your life)


2. Re-define your ingredients (educational translation: in each course you take in your subject area, try to take away something different, a different “twist” on your subject, that will help you in your future career path)


3. Don’t give up after the first batch. Learn from your mistakes. (Educational translation: don’t be afraid to change your course. Change your subject areas if you need to, even on the graduate level, and then in your work-life. You need to be happy, and sometimes you need to make big changes to help you define the path that is right for you. Wake up happy!)


I admit that there are some programs, and some individuals, that disprove my hypothesis. Example: my wife knew in high school she wanted to be a dietitian. She found a college that offered Dietetics. Went there. Became a dietitian, and was one for 40 years. There are also some individuals who know they want to be a computer science professional or an engineer (for example), they go to a school majoring in that, and then do that for the rest of their lives. I know there are other examples. However, for most individuals, such a “linear path” just does not happen. Plus there are sub-specialties in these fields that actually combine two or more “majors.” Biology and Art for someone who wants to become a dentist, surgeon, or plastic surgeon would be a good example of this.


I polled my recruits (including my younger son) from past years to find out how many of them had a “linear” experience. Less than 10% had a linear experience and ended up majoring in, and doing, what they thought they would when they were high school students.


Questions for readers of this article who themselves went to college: Was your path linear? Did you change majors? (if yes, how many times?) Is your current job/career directly related to your major? Were your career interests while in middle school, then high school, then college, and now…all the same?


My advice to high school seniors: Find a college that “fits you,” has most of your interests covered somehow, and has caring professors to help you navigate the process. Feel free to explore all your interests. The major you end up in, itself, will evolve. Your interests and your lifetime of careers will also evolve, opportunities will arise, and your life will be just fine.

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