3 myths you might believe about how students choose majors

Choosing a major can feel like a high-pressure decision, but many prospective and current undergraduates are ill-equipped to make the right choice, Jeffery Selingo writes for the Washington Post.

Higher education leaders want to help guide students into programs they'll love, but some of the conventional wisdom about how students choose majors could actually be counterproductive. Selingo pulls from some of the year's relevant higher ed research to dispel these popular misconceptions.

Myth 1: Students are only motivated by salary

Female students tend to choose lower-paying, service-oriented majors like education and social work, according to a forthcoming report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Male students, however, pursue high-paying majors like engineering and computer science, says Anthony Carnevale, director at Georgetown's center

According to Carnevale, men tend to choose majors that pay more, while women pursue their passions.

Myth 2: Students should finalize their majors as quickly as possible

Nearly a third of first-time college students change their major within three years, according to a report by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

In fact, students who finalize their major later in college are actually more likely to graduate than those who settle on a major right away, according to a study from EAB. The same study found that students who switch majors typically do not extend their time to degree or decrease their likelihood of completion.

Related: 5 steps to building a co-curricular major map

Myth 3: Students have a pretty clear idea of what they want to study

When choosing a field of study, more than half of students turn to their social circle, and most don't find the advice particularly helpful, according to a survey from Gallup and the Strada Education network.

While students are least likely to seek advice on their college major from employers and working professionals in their desired field, those who did seek advice from those sources were the most likely to report it as helpful, Selingo writes.

Few students have a firm idea of what they want their life to look like, he notes. "Students today are commonly told they should follow their passions and find a mission in life, but very few 18-year-olds or even 22-year-olds have enough experience in the world to know what truly excites them," Selingo writes.

Ultimately, students should choose a major that interests them, but allow the academic and professional experiences they acquire during college to continue shaping the path forward, he argues (Selingo, Washington Post, 12/11).

Also see: Help students select the right major from the start

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