The Difficulty in Picking A Major or Career at 18

College is a magical place: a whole campus filled with young adults on brand new paths of self-discovery, professional development, and academic specialization. For first-years, this new environment also entails a whole new set of decisions like how to spend your time, who to surround yourself with, where to get work done, and most importantly, what you’re going to study.

The pressure to pick a major early on can be immense, and getting it wrong can have unintended consequences. 

Almost a third of students change their major within three years and a tenth change more than once, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 39% of undergraduates left with a degree after four years. That number rises to 55% after five years and 60% after six years. Unfortunately, this has major financial consequences for families: the longer you stay, the more debt you incur. With the cost of tuition steeply increasing and income largely staying the same, every added year makes it more difficult to pay back those loans: across the nation, there is $870 billion of student loans carried by 37 million people.

Tips to Find the Right Path for You

  • The key is to be proactive about searching for what you like and ways to get experience doing it. Taking a breadth of classes early on and tailoring each next semester to explore new fields while knocking off prerequisites will allow most students to gauge a variety of interests while staying on track to graduate on time.
  • Ampersand prioritizes extensive personality assessments that match Professionals with recommended career paths, and links them to informational interviews to help them understand the industries on a deeper level. This dedicated time set on exploring available paths is an incredible investment for any individual.
  • Be strategic in the classes you try. If you’re deciding between physics, chemistry, and a variety of engineering majors, taking calculus is a safe bet toward your required courses. However, you may find that adding a philosophy class to your STEM-heavy schedule satisfies the same logic-driven part of your brain.
  • Testing out a few completely different disciplines from your intended course of study could make you a more versatile individual and problem-solver. It may cause you to change course entirely, or simply incorporate a unique way of thinking into your desired field. Just make sure to ask yourself why you’re enrolling in a class: is it just to fill a gap in your schedule, or does it actually sound interesting and new?
  • For those students who are completely unsure, be patient and take classes across the academic spectrum longer than one semester. On top of that, continually talking to friends about their courses will prevent being “undecided” from feeling directionless.
  • Extra-curricular activities like internships, undergraduate research positions, and student clubs serve as valuable outlets to determine the right major and career path too. However, it can be difficult to find the right opportunity without already knowing your field of study.
  • Ampersand pairs students with three rotational internships, one month at a time, to help students explore different career options through experience at real companies. On top of the internships, students participate in curriculum sessions and 1-on-1 mentoring that tackle important development topics—like personality and career assessments, resume coaching, basic job skills, and so much more—that help each student discover their path.

Why Taking your Time to Declare is Worth It

Failing to explore a variety of options can prevent students from discovering careers they didn’t even know were possible. Expecting 18-year-olds to know themselves and their interests well enough to chart the entire course of their career is a ridiculous ask. It takes time, experimentation, and real-world experience for someone to know what they want, and then find the right path to attain it.

During introductions, your major often becomes an extension of your name. At many schools, officially deciding on a major unlocks more classes and advisors. Plenty of internships and post-college jobs look for “a degree in a related field.” Depending on the school, students may even be required to declare on the admissions application. For some people, this decision has been set in stone since elementary school and for others it can be incredibly daunting. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important to get it right the first time and do everything in your power to graduate in four years with a degree that will be valuable for your intended career. Rather than declaring preemptively then figuring out you’re completing the wrong major, it’s valuable to survey multiple options, put in work to better understand your unique skills, passions, and interests, and then decide the best route for yourself. Take the time to do personality assessments, informational interviews and internships, if possible, to explore those various paths.

As current and former students, we provide free resources to help you throughout your education, which may include links to third-party websites (where security and privacy policies may differ from Ascent’s). For our full disclaimer, please click here.