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Seven Steps for Selecting a Major and University

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Young people have a sea of college advice available from friends, family, websites, and “expert” coaches. But conventional advice seems to drown out some important points that I wish more young people (and parents) would consider when making the choice about life after high school.

If you’ve decided higher education is for you, spend the time to consider what is best for you and resist the urge to conform to external pressures. Select a major and university where the rigor matches your interests and abilities.

Earning an undergraduate degree is beneficial for many reasons: graduates experience lower levels of unemployment, greater lifetime earnings, and a higher quality of life. And this might sound obvious or you might think I’m naive, but one of the top reasons to attend university is to keep learning.

As depicted in the visual below, learning happens between your comfort zone and your panic zone. Each person’s learning zone is different.

When you are in your comfort zone everything is familiar and little learning occurs. Experiencing some level of tension is an essential element to learning. However, you don’t want to experience so much tension that you end up in the panic zone feeling constantly frustrated or stressed.

Students who aim too low never test their academic learning potential. And students who get into academic programs that push them into the panic zone can experience high levels of anxiety. These students end up focusing on surviving rather than learning.

As you prepare to make this important decision, open your mind to many possibilities and then consider narrowing down your options using the process I describe here.

1. Begin with your interests

Find something you want to learn about so you can learn how to learn. Reflect on what high school classes you intrinsically enjoy. Consider the student organizations and volunteer responsibilities that are most meaningful to you. In addition, you can learn about your interests working part-time, shadowing people in multiple professions, and interviewing professionals in vocations of interest.

The key is to find something you’ll enjoy learning about. Not something your parents think you’ll be good at, not something experts predict will be in high demand in four years, and not something just because you think it will earn you a lot of money. Here’s three reasons why:

  • Close to a third of students change their college major.

  • What someone studies in college does not determine their career.

  • Lifetime earnings within major vary. For example, a liberal arts graduate who makes just above the median lifetime earnings for their major will out earn a typical business or STEM graduate.

One of the greatest benefits of university is learning how to learn. Over 90 percent of hiring managers surveyed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” Once you learn how to learn you’ll be able to make learning a lifetime habit. That’s what employers are looking for and that’s what will help you be successful in life.

2. Focus on the major first (not the university)

Put together a list of schools who offer degrees in your area of interest. Keep an open mind when selecting from over 1,800 possible majors. You can also design your own major or apply undecided. If you choose the undecided route, choose schools with a breadth of academic programs, who give you time to decide your major, or with open curriculums (like the University of Rochester).

3. Review the required courses

A typical bachelor’s degree requires students to complete 120 credits or 40 courses. If, for example, half of the courses required to earn a degree in a particular major are required core courses, make sure those are classes you think you would enjoy. If too many of the courses don’t appeal to you, cross that school’s major off your list.

Majors with the same name can be notably different between schools. Find out what makes the major unique at each school and weed out the ones that aren’t aligned with your interests. For example, if you are interested a marketing program with a focus in fashion, you probably won’t want to study at a school whose marketing program has a focus in consumer packaged goods.

4. Consider the price, the place, and the people

  • Price: Use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to find out the net tuition of the remaining schools on your list. The net tuition is what you pay less scholarships, grants and financial aid and it includes the cost of tuition, room and board, and books. The site also allows you to see what you might pay based on your family’s income. These figures often are surprisingly lower than the tuition figures you find on a school’s website.

  • Place: Consider how close you want to be from home - a car ride, a short flight, or perhaps multiple flights. Consider whether you would prefer to attend school in an urban, suburban or rural community. Cross off any schools in places you know you wouldn’t want to live.

  • People: The university you attend will be your home for four or more years, so rule out any place that doesn’t feel welcoming. Your satisfaction with your college experience is connected to your involvement in extracurricular activities. Many schools boast about the number of student clubs they have, but the total number doesn’t mean much if the school doesn’t have one or two activities you’ll enjoy. Consider the size of the student body as well. Does a small school with 2,000 students feel like a place you’d thrive; do you want to experience a big school with 15,000 students or more?

5. Consider the rankings

List the remaining schools from the highest rank to the lowest rank. Rankings aren’t everything, but top schools will often have the following benefits:

  • Higher retention and graduation rates

  • Smaller class sizes and lower faculty to student ratios

  • Wider variety of programs and services

  • More engaged alumni

  • Better networking opportunities

5. Review the admissions criteria for each school left on your list

Rather than apply to the highest ranking schools, identify the ones that are best for you. Narrow your list to the schools where you know you will be academically challenged, but not challenged so much that you hate your life. Review the profile of the most recent admitted freshman class and focus on schools where your GPA and standardized test scores fall between the 25th and 75th percentile.

Your parents and friends will be impressed if you get into your reach school, but strongly think about if attending might place you in the panic zone rather than the learning zone.

6. Visit the schools with the best fit

Take the campus tour, sit in on a few classes, eat in the dining hall, and if possible, spend an evening on campus. If students from your high school are currently enrolled, use your network to connect with them. Also, if you begin this process early enough, consider participating in a summer program to get a sense of the people and the place.

7. Apply early decision to your top choice

This advice assumes you have followed all the previous steps (i.e., you have done your research and found an excellent match).

* * * * *

I’ve just presented a general framework for selecting a major and university, but every student is unique and brings a personal set of life experiences and dreams to this process. Make this framework your own. Since this isn’t the type of decision you get much practice making, consider seeking assistance from objective individuals who are familiar with the process.

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The idea of learning zones is from Tom Senninger's Learning Zone Model.

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