Choosing a Program of Study
May 12, 2022
Long gone are the days of someone finishing a program of study and then taking up a job where they would work for 35 years before retiring. Those scenarios are now rare. In today’s world, people often change careers, roles, companies, or go back to school after many years to study a completely different career.
Let’s talk about the basics of choosing a major and some of the most common internal debates that students have as they decide their academic path.
Majors and Concentrations
A major is the main focus of a student’s studies while they’re in an undergraduate program. If Leon declares a psychology major when he starts college, that means a large portion of the courses Leon takes will have to do with psychology. However, that doesn’t mean that he will only take psychology courses while in school.
Concentrations, as the word suggests, have specific sets of focus in the curriculum that adds emphasis to a degree program. The Business and Management major at Delgado Community College, for example, has eleven different concentrations, including banking and lending, marketing, and human resources.
General education is a required set of basic courses that all students are expected to complete no matter what their major is, and it usually includes coursework in English, Math, Science, and Arts or Foreign Language. So Leon, who wants to be a family therapist, will spend his first 1.5-2 years of college taking general education courses in preparation for courses that go more in-depth into the field of psychology.
If you are thinking, “What a drag! Can’t I just go straight into my field of study?” Well, that depends. Students who are completing a technical or certificate program, at a community college or in a technical school context, do not have to take general education requirements. If you are planning to get an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, general education requirements will be part of your studies.
But do you really want to miss out on general studies? These courses can truly enhance and compliment your passions. If you are planning to study medicine, for example, your foreign language requirement can open the door for you to be bilingual or multilingual and a more culturally competent health professional. This can increase your passion for your profession and make you a better medical school candidate in the future. If you are a culinary arts student, taking that business class can provide you with the knowledge to someday launch your own restaurant business.
For people who are still undecided about their major or who may realize that their major is not what they expected, we have good news! The first two years of college allows students to explore new subjects that they may end up loving but didn’t know existed. In addition to general education, it prepares you for the real world, but also ensures you have the skills to thrive in your “higher division” courses. Can you imagine taking a higher division history course but still not know how to write a basic essay? While general education means an overall higher tuition of your college of choice, it ultimately will work towards your post-college success.
Along with majors, you may have also heard of minors. Minors are a focused program of study with less requirements and less units than a major. For example, Bruce wants to be a middle school history teacher, so he is an Education major. However, he is passionate about African American Studies and wants to be able to pass on this knowledge to his students, so he will do a minor in Africana Studies. His minor will require him to take 12 extra units on top of the 120 units required for his major.
What about double majors? What about double minors? What about double majors and a minor? All these combinations have been done before. Students add minors and majors to their programs often without too much thought. However, if you are someone that is very concerned about your tuition expenses or want to finish your degree as soon as possible, ask yourself the following questions:
- How many extra classes would I have to take?
- How many additional semesters/quarters might that be?
- Will my financial aid cover the extra costs? If not, how much would come out of my pocket?
- Am I nearing a unit cap for academic or financial aid purposes?
- Have I consulted with an academic advisor about the pros and cons of this decision?
- How would this addition make a difference in my career or academic prospects? Will I get a return on my time and financial investment?
Your answers will help you make an informed decision. It is important to note the fourth question, which reminds you that there is such a thing as “too many units”! The federal government sets a unit cap for financial aid eligibility, and each institution has its own “unit limits” or “unit ceilings.” As much as some may wish they could, you cannot be a college student for fifteen years. Consult with your academic counselor or financial aid department if you think you may be nearing your unit limit.
Choosing a Major
You are certainly not alone if you are still trying to figure out which program of study is right for you. Luckily, there’s a ton of resources you can tap into to get some answers. Let’s take a look and be sure to check out the toolbox at the end of the chapter.
Based on Personality Type
Think of it as a scientific horoscope. Personality type tests use psychology to take inventory of your values, and the way you tend to think, work, and relate to others. The Myers-Briggs, for example, is a very popular personality test used by companies and educational institutions alike; there are free versions available online. Some assessments that go more in-depth can cost money, but thankfully a lot of career centers, counseling departments, and even non-profit organizations pay for these tools to offer them to students or service recipients.
Based on Skills and Interests
Sometimes people know what they are best at and what they enjoy, but simply have a hard time matching that to a program. Others have significant work experience already and want to complement them with other knowledge by gaining certifications that confirm they have those aptitudes, or find career paths where they can apply those skills. For example, Anthony works at his parents’ bakery, running the register and taking daily inventory; however, he knows he doesn’t want to be a cashier for the rest of his life. How can he apply his excellent math, accounting, and logistical skills towards a career he’ll enjoy?
A skills- and interest-based assessment tools is ideal to help you consider and explore different majors and careers you may have never thought about or even knew existed. Prospective students often aren’t familiar with the huge diversity of majors and careers that exist. Seeking guidance from a professional is also a great resource. If you are a prospective college student, make an appointment with a recruiter or admissions officer from the college of your choice; if you are already a college student, you can request a meeting with an academic or career advisor.
Based on Dream Job
Some people may need to work backwards to choose their right major. Start with what the ideal career looks like, then begin to work backwards to find the major that would best suit the career . Aside from the tools and assessments mentioned above (i.e. assessments, college admissions staff, and advisors), it’s a great idea to hear from professionals that are already doing what you dream of doing some day. Here are some ideas to get started:
- The internet is the easiest way to hear directly from people holding your possible dream job. Read websites, articles, magazines, and blogs dedicated to your career interest or written by professionals in your field.
- Attend talks and career panels by professionals in your field. A simple internet search or social media scroll may help you find public events to attend.
- Ask your family and friends if they know anyone with the profile you’re seeking.
- Tell your teachers or mentors that you’re looking to connect with someone within a particular profile.
- Research spaces,your community may have these types of professionals there. (Example: if I’m interested in civil engineering, I may go to my city hall’s Code Enforcement Department, or find a construction company in my area).
- Learn how to request and conduct an informational interview for when you are able to get in touch with a professional in your career path.
Based on the Job Market
“But will this pay my bills?” is a very real concern when it comes to choosing your program of study. For individuals who are concerned about their job prospects or the salary they can expect within a specific field, using statistics is a great way to ease the mind and guide decision-making process. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov, is a very helpful resource in this area. You can search the occupation that interests you to find out if there is growth expected (will there be more or less jobs in 5 years?), as well as the average wage, with state-by-state breakdowns. There are certainly many other websites out there that can help you expand your research, but be sure the information is from a reliable, trustworthy, and unbiased source.
Declaring and Switching Majors
Is there a right or wrong time to declare a major? What about switching majors? Here, we offer a few notes about timing and common anxieties about switching your program of study.
Majors and Admissions Process
When admission applications out number a majors capacity, it helps to distinguish
between “limited admission” and “open enrollment” programs, so you can work the odds
into being in your favor. Limited admissions, as the name suggests, only accepts a certain number of students per year. Many
“limited admission” institutions, have highly coveted programs, which surplus more
applicants may accommodate into their space. These departments host programs referred
to as “impacted majors.”
Because open-enrollment institutions don’t have a competitive admissions process,your selected major has zero impact on your chances of being admitted. However, it’s important to note that some open-enrollment institutions may have limited admissions programs that require an additional admissions process with specific requirements. At Delgado Community College, for example, culinary arts, nursing, cosmetology, and allied health programs have an additional admission process. This means that anyone with a high school diploma or equivalency can be admitted into Delgado to start taking courses. However, a student will have to ensure they take the appropriate pre-requirement courses ,fill out an application to be considered for admission, and meet the specific program standards.
If you are still undecided about your major, the good news is that most colleges understand this uncertainty and the likelihood that you may change your mind, so they allow you to apply as “undeclared”. Whether you are looking to enter a limited admissions or open-enrollment program, it is recommended that you understand what the admissions requirements are for the specific program(s) you are considering. In addition to time-sensitive deadlines. For instance, some schools allow you to be undeclared, but may require you to declare a major when a certain number of units is achieved.
Programs and Financial Aid
Did you know some programs are not eligible for federal financial aid? While Associate and Bachelor degrees are generally eligible for financial aid, some short-term certificate or apprenticeship programs may not be. Students may prefer short-term programs because they believe they will finish faster and therefore spend less money, but if you are paying all of the expenses out-of-pocket, this may not be your most affordable option.
Check with your particular institution and specific program of interest to be sure about your program’s Financial Aid eligibility.
Switching Your Major
Each institution has its own protocols regarding major switches. Some instances may be as easy as making a change within your online student portal. Other instances may require an application alongside a competitive admissions interview. There is generally no limit as to how many times you can change your major.
Does this mean you can keep changing it every time you don’t like a class in your program? Not really. Remember that both your school and the U.S. Department of Education have limits as to how many units you can accumulate before you fall into academic probation or even lose your Financial Aid eligibility. Besides, you don’t want to switch majors over the span of 12 years and remain degreeless, do you?
Once again, remember that your program of study is only part of your larger trajectory of learning and skill building. Even after graduation, your employer will expect you to learn how to perform your role well, and master tasks so that you will eventually perform them more effectively. As you advance within your career, you will need to learn new skills and familiarize yourself with new tools so you can take up more responsibilities, earn a higher wage, or train other people. Similarly, curiosity or pursuit of entering a different field may lead you to absorbing a lot of new information to reach your new goal. In all these stages, more learning, development, and refinement will need to take place.
This is why a big part of your college education is not only mastering and remembering the information in your textbooks, but about being adept at skills that can be obtained and applied virtually anywhere; critical thinking, study skills, time management, team work, asking for support, providing feedback, organizing, or problem-solving. What would you add to the list? Sleepless nights and wondering whether your major is your lifelong passion or not won’t last forever. Focus on mastering skills, building relationships, and making the most out of your student experience so that you can apply and harness newfound knowledge: no matter where life takes you.
These quizzes can help you identify a program of study that may be a great fit for you:
- Career Explorer: https://www.careerexplorer.com/assessments/
- U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Assessment: https://www.mynextmove.org/explore/ip
- 123Test’s Career Test based on Holland Codes: https://www.123test.com/career-test
- Myers-Briggs-based personality test: https://www.16personalities.com
These websites help you explore careers and the academic preparation that they require.