Advice for the college bound

[Originally posted on October 15, 2011 by Kevin Ross]

One of the great joys in my life is watching the students I work with head off to college. I am always fascinated by the depth of their passion for various topics. Since I am so heavily involved in FIRST, many students are rather surprised to hear that I don’t actually care what they major in. I have a soft spot in my heart for those who choose science and technology, but that is only because I am a nerd and feel the need to spawn new nerds! Honestly, my only hope is that all students use their time in college to find their passions. (Yes, you may have more than one!)

You have to love what you do to be good at it. The corollary is that if you don’t enjoy your subject of study, you are unlikely to do well at it. Keep this in mind for what I have to say next.

The most common ‘trouble’ that students find themselves in during the first year or two is the realization that they don’t actually like the subject they are working towards. I have some observations for you.

0) Coming out of high school, you are making a huge decision based on incomplete information. It is totally unreasonable to expect this answer to be correct. How should you know what you want to do for the rest of your life? I know senior citizens who still haven’t figured it out after 65 years.

1) You are not alone! An actual number appears to be difficult to determine, but many studies I have found cite that at least 75% of students will change their major at least once. Personal experience: I changed mine from theater to physics to math to computer science! What should you take from this? If you have a desire to change majors, do it! You are not a failure, moron, a flake, letting anyone down, or being indecisive.  You are evaluating a previous decision based on new information. To the contrary, it would be stupid to continue if you are not liking it or not doing well enough to succeed.

2) If your parents didn’t go to college, then changing majors may be difficult for them to digest. They often times have unrealistic expectations on how college actually works.  You will need to educate them that this is common. (Search “Percentage of students who change majors” in your favorite browser). If your parents did go to college, it is likely they will be more understanding. Since they might be footing the bill, you will have to work this out with them.

3) Remember your high school graduation party? All of those “So, what are you going to study in college” questions. It is unfortunate that everyone asks. Most of us come up with an answer and stick to it without knowing if it is a good answer or not. This leaves us in the situation of having publicly stated our plan and set expectations without knowing for sure. Ignore it. Your plan, your life, you can change it.

4) Try to be realistic. Not all majors are going to help you be successful. There are a number of easy majors which don’t provide you with marketable skills when you are done. Beware. Engineers make the most out of college because engineering is a hard program to go through. If you are changing your major, you need to evaluate what is going to work best for you.

I like to hear students taking a range of classes for the first two years. You will eventually get a major that suits you. Be sure to take the opportunity to learn how to communicate while you are there. A writing class and a public speaking class are critical. If you ever want to be a leader, you will need these skills to be effective.

Go forth, do what you love and love what you do. The world already has plenty of dispassionate people who don’t enjoy their careers. Do better than that.

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