Choosing a Major

The other day I was going over my daughter’s college transcript so far.  She is halfway through and getting ready to choose a major.  The college has actually been pestering her to choose for over a year now. Ever since she was barely a sophomore.  Probably because she passed the 60 credit-hour mark early, having carried so many AP credits over from public high school.

Some of you, with younger kids, may not be that familiar with the ins and outs of puting a kid through college.  One of the hardest parts for the student, I think, is deciding a major.  Decision-making, in general, seems hard for them.  Where to live, what to wear, who to hang out with or date, what causes to support.  And for many, how to pay for it all.

But deciding a major is so…final.  To them it feels like putting up roadblocks to all other paths in life, so that you can follow the one chosen path.  A person who has only lived for 20 years, and most of that confined under a parent’s roof, might, understandably, be reluctant to do that, to limit themselves to a single option.  Faced with such a weighty decision, many might freeze and be completely unable to decide.


Full Disclosure:   I was an English Major.  My mother was an English Major.  I love the skits on A Prairie Home Companion that make fun of English Majors (this script discusses job prospects!)  I pick apart news articles for typos.  I cringe at misstatements or dangling modifiers on TV shows.  I even lived next to a library once.   And of course, I have not missed a PBS Masterpiece episode in 20 years.

My daughter may well carry on the family tradition of choosing English as her major.


Looking at her classes, the ones she had chosen to take so far, one thing stuck out.  They were varied.

They were not all the same, or even restricted to the same discipline, such as Art, or Science.  She had some social sciences, some sciences, some literature, some math.

Her general ed credits (the ones required before choosing a major), and many electives besides, were done. All she had left were the ones to complete her chosen major.  And only about thirty or forty credits before the alarm bells went off at the college and they started double-charging her as a student with too many hours.

Learning to Generalize

The way I remember it, in the olden days (translate: the eighties), most majors required no more than 60 credit hours to complete both the prerequisites and the requirements of the major, combined.  More often than not the requirements might overlap with some general ed course you were taking.  That meant that the other 60 credits of an undergraduate degree were up to you.

In other words, before you chose your major, you had the opportunity to take a variety of classes, keeping in mind the gen ed requirements –that you take a certain number of classes within each discipline.  You could see how you liked Math, or Science, or Psychology.  You could get an idea of what interested you, what area you felt most drawn to.  You could experiment.

That is why they called it “general ed.”  You are not training to be a specialist, but a generalist.  You are learning what knowledge is out there.

The Options

Looking at the subjects my daughter said she was most interested in pursuing quickly narrowed down the field of potential degree candidates.

She had recently taken a class or two in American Sign Language—could she become an interpreter perhaps?

Nope.  Eighty additional credits were required for the prerequisites and requirements of that major.  There was absolutely no overlap with what she had already taken, other than a check in the box saying that she had fulfilled her general ed requirements. Deaf education and classroom interpreting had similar trajectories.

How about International Studies?

Nope.  Eighty additional hours.  Very little overlap.  Plus a costly study abroad trip required.

Interdisciplinary studies?

Unlikely, though doable.  It would involve a degree of introspection and planning by my daughter that makes me squirm, let alone her.  And still at least 60-75 additional hours.

Lack of Discipline? Or Too Many Disciplines?

Now at this point the more organized and efficient among you are likely to be saying: But couldn’t she have planned out her college time better?  With some majors, planning is not optional.  Engineers and nurses certainly have to hit the ground running.

Certainly, she could have planned her time better. But I’m not sure I would have wanted her to.

College, to me, is not just about getting a major, or even about getting a job.  It is about independence and learning your own mind.  It’s about learning how to think and reason logically and humanely.  It’s about learning how to express yourself clearly and coherently (and, in some cases, also beautifully.)

All Along

Which brings to mind our last, and most humble choice, English.

As you may have guessed, not only had she satisfied her general ed credits, but also many of the prerequisites for this major.  She was well on her way to getting the required minor.  Credits needed, all told?

About thirty. She might even graduate on time!

Which makes me think.  Perhaps she was an English major all along.

The foregoing is merely my opinion. Feel free to comment or correct me below!