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What is the best major for college?
The quest to choose a college major sometimes sparks friction between young adults and their parents. With decades in the workforce, parents are a repository of valuable insights on career trajectories. Meanwhile, students bring a fresh perspective shaped by the particularities of each generation. Having observed many college searches, I can assure both students and parents that no college major is an automatic ticket for success. The best choice of college major depends on each student’s interests, skills, and vision for their future.
A classic dichotomy would be to compare English, or another humanities field, with engineering, or another STEM-related major. Since 2008 the number of undergraduates majoring in English has fallen by 25%, while enrollment in computer science and health fields nearly doubled between 2009 and 2017. Economic uncertainty, combined with the high cost of college, intensifies the need for college to pay off—and the general perception is that STEM fields are a fast-track to secure, well-paying jobs. Yet recent research shows that while STEM careers tend to offer higher starting salaries, other fields have higher salary growth. So, by the time college graduates reach their 40s, the difference in salaries becomes minimal. Two factors influence this dynamic: a) STEM careers require ongoing investment to be current, and b) the abstract skills developed in humanities fields are easily transferred to a variety jobs and industries.
Just like education is a process, so is translating an education into a career. The best strategy to prepare for post-college jobs is for students to engage fully in their education. Students who are pursuing challenges that inspire them are more likely to connect to mentors, lead independent research, and find internships. Employers want workers who are intrinsically motivated and can think creatively. College is a place for students to practice this experience, while they broaden their view of the world and how they might fit into it.
Graduate schools also value students who are authentically enthusiastic about their studies. Students planning to continue on to graduate school in law, medicine, and business should consider choosing undergraduate majors that truly engage them. When I worked as an Associate Director of Admissions at Columbia University Business School, we appreciated seeing candidates who could think across disciplines.
With change being such a constant in our world, today’s students will face challenges, opportunities—and jobs—that we cannot currently predict. In addition to varied occupations, students may work in multiple industries. College prepares young people for lifelong, fruitful careers by making space for them to build self-awareness and explore possibilities. As parents and mentors, we can provide information and perspective. Most importantly, we can offer trust—which yields the highest return on investment as young people develop the skills, confidence and resiliency to succeed on their own terms.
Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org