Choosing a major: the pressure is on

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question even five-year-olds are used to being asked. By the time most students reach high school, the question turns into, “What major are you going to pursue in college?”

Sixty-eight percent of All Saints’ Upper School students say they know what major or career they want to pursue, based on 125 survey responses. While this number may seem surprisingly high, these students may be more confident in their choice of major than they should be. Thirty percent of undergraduate students change their major within the first three years of pursuing their undergraduate degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education. After all, most teenagers do not have enough experience in the real world to know exactly which career would fit them best.

Brittany Zak ’17, an All Saints’ alumnus, took a year in college to determine her passion.

“I was originally a biomedical engineering major at Johns Hopkins,” said Zak. “I then switched to Classics and Near Eastern Studies there, but then I transferred to Barnard as a Latin and Jewish Studies major.”

Zak explained the reason she decided to attend Johns Hopkins was because she was offered an opportunity to work in a nanomedicine lab focused on women’s health and preterm birth, which she originally wanted to pursue as a career.

“I ended up really loving learning about biomedical engineering, but not actually doing it as a job. I would spend hours in the lab pipetting liquids into 96 well plates and doing surgery on mice, so you could see how that would be an arduous process. I didn’t want to spend my whole life in a career where I couldn’t see the payoff of my work within my lifetime. The only classes I was really enjoying were electives, specifically Advanced Latin Poetry.”

Now, Zak is on a pre-law track and planning to earn her master’s in Public Health, which she likes because it allows her to study anything she chooses as an undergraduate student. She also values that studying humanities allows her to develop writing and critical argument skills she wouldn’t necessarily have as an engineer.

Zak is not the only student to realize he or she is better suited for a different track. One in 10 undergraduate students change their major more than once, with students initially choosing a STEM-related major even more likely to switch majors, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It is worth considering that so many students might change their major because their brains are still developing. According to modern science, the human brain is not finished developing until age 25, increasing the likelihood that some students choose a major based on a fleeting interest or big dream, rather than choosing a major they believe is more practical and best suited to their capabilities.

A good idea for those struggling to find their passion could be as simple as starting college as an undeclared major and taking an array of classes. This way, a student has more time to explore interests and find a major he/she truly belongs in. Even if a student does not decide to go the undeclared major route, most colleges allow students to change their major fairly easily, which can offer some relief during the stressful process of transitioning from high school to college.

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