Major Myth Busting

Two women, sitting on opposite sides of a desk.

Niki Weight is eager to bust three myths to hopefully help college students stop stressing so much about changing their major.

National research indicates 80% of college students change their major at least once, adding it’s not uncommon for students to change their major three times.

The director of Western Oregon University’s Student Success and Advising (SSA) Office, Weight said college students often incorrectly believe:

  1. They are the only college student struggling to choose a major and deciding what to do with their life.
  2. If they don’t know what they want their major to be, they will waste time and money.
  3. There is always a linear path from the degree they earn to a career.

Teaming up with WOU’s Service Learning and Career Development Director (SCLD) Adry Snorradottir Clark, Weight wants to debunk the above myths, and let students know what they are experiencing is a normal part of being a college student.

Weight and Clark said WOU provides support and encouragement to students who are seeking resources to guide them in their decision-making process to find their major.

“Students don’t have to figure out everything or go through the process by themselves,” Weight said. “We are here to guide them.”

Debunking Myth 1: Everyone else is perfect.  

When students reach a dead end or crossroad, Weight said they tend to believe they are the only one struggling to decide what to do with their life and everyone else has it figured out.

“Every college student is going to take a class they don’t like or have a semester where everything seems to go wrong and it will cause them to question why they are in college,” Weight said.

Weight and Clark tell students typically everything eventually works out, and encourage students to use this time of uncertainty to intentionally and actively explore their interests and learn more about who they are.

Students tend to want to switch majors after failing a class or realizing they dislike what they are studying.

Clark recently met with a student who wanted to be a nurse. After doing poorly in microbiology, the student realized she didn’t like science. “She felt her whole world was falling apart and she didn’t have any options,” Clark said.

Explaining her philosophy is to guide students in their decision-making process, Clark asked the student why she wanted to be a nurse.

“She shared with me that she likes helping people and it’s a stable career that pays well,” Clark said. “We took that criteria and started looking and thinking about other careers that the student would find similar interests.”

Weight said she asks students to reflect on their underlying values and what is their underlying purpose for going to college. “Majors and careers may change but those underlying values don’t,” Weight said.

Clark and Weight said student can explore majors and career paths by taking assessment tests; considering their values, interests and personality; attending career fairs and guest lectures; meeting with WOU alumni for an informational interview, taking intentional classes to explore majors, and participating in club activities and sports. Students can also meet with staff in SLCD and SSA to learn more about these resources and receive guidance through the exploration process. Clark encourages students to meet with company recruiters, adding there were more than 176 employers on campus in October.

“Our goal is to broaden their horizon on what they could do and help them understand there are about 10 careers out there that they would truly love,” Clark said. “We help provide a framework so they can think about themselves in terms of the work they would enjoy doing.”

Debunking Myth 2: No major equals wasting time and money.

Clark wishes students wouldn’t choose a major until their second year in college.

“I think the pressure for high school students to decide on a major is unrealistic because students don’t have enough experiences or knowledge to know what their options are,” Clark said. “Almost every student changes their major.”

For many students, Clark said, college is like visiting a deli for the first time.

“Let’s say a student has never eaten in his life, never had a meal and he walks into a deli and is expected to order food,” Clark said. “How does he decide what to order? I think too often we expect students to understand what they want to do with their lives even though they have had limited experiences. That somehow by osmosis or an epiphany that they will know what to do.”

They recommend students take classes to meet their core requirements which should include classes in a major they are interested in. WOU offers 52 majors.

Weight said students can earn credits to graduate while actively exploring majors they might like.

“Our philosophy is that students need the space and opportunity to explore who they are and that’s OK,” Weight said.

Debunking Myth 3: It’s a linear path   

Weight said the most misleading myth causing students the most stress is if they pick one major it leads to only one career path.

“There is a lot of anxiety for students to make the right choice for a major,” Weight said. “They believe there is a linear path between their major and a career.”

For example, if a student earns a history degree than he will become a history teacher or a dance major can only become a professional dancer.

“In the real world, that is not how it works,” Clark added. “Career and a major often times don’t have anything in common. There are very different requirements for being good in a major versus what being good in a career.”

Clark said a student may want to study literature but that doesn’t mean she is going to be an author or read books for a living.

“The student will develop skills in writing, interpreting complex information, learn about empathy from reading and different communication skills,” Clark said. “There will be lots of jobs that need and want those types of qualifications.”

Clark and Weight want to help students understand what transferable skills they have and where they could use those skills in a career.

“Every major at WOU develops career readiness skills,” Clark said. “We have learned employees want an employer who is a critical thinker, has strong communication skills, is creative and has some technical skills.”

Fact: A college degree opens doors

Acknowledging the process often isn’t easy, both Clark and Weight said changing major is an opportunity for the student to go in a new direction, possibly one they truly want to explore.

“I wish students could enjoy the journey, enjoy the exploration and realize that sometimes the clues are all around them,” Clark said.

While the lessons may be stressful, Weight said it will prepare them for life’s other challenging moments.

“Students are learning the process on how to make a good decision, a skill they will use the rest of their lives, Weight said.

A student’s determination to earn a college degree will open many different doors, Weight said.

Weight and Clark invite students who want to change their major to make an appointment to see them or staff in their departments.

“Come in and let’s figure out what is next for you,” Weight said. “We are here to support you and help you broaden the conversation from what do you want to major in to what do you want to do with your life?”


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