Choosing a College Major 101: A Parent Guide

What, When & How to Help (Without Going All Helicopter)

Unless your kid knows exactly what he wants to do, watching your child go through the process of choosing a major can be tough. And things are considerably different now than they were back in our day. So here's a comprehensive parent guide to choosing a major - what, when and how to help, without interfering.

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College majors and the requirements for entrance into that major can vary dramatically. Some are open to anyone who's interested. Others require prerequisites - and some heavily-impacted majors require essays, portfolios, and interviews. So while your college kid might have until the start of junior year to actually file the paperwork, he needs to think about the what, when and how now. (And there are some pros and cons associated with waiting to file the actual paperwork.)

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These days, there are hundreds of majors in everything from astronautics to viticulture. And for the college student frantically trying to pick one, it's not an embarrassment of riches - it's an embarrassment of overwhelming-ness. Fortunately, those college majors all fall into six broad academic areas, including the arts, sciences, business and environmental studies. So browse the list by academic area first, then delve into specifics. (If nothing else, topics like astronautics and viticulture will give you plenty to chat about.)

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It's your college kid's job to choose his major. Yours is to encourage and support him through that process. But when your kid calls in a 2 a.m. panic because he can't decide, or he's just not sure, or doesn't know where to start, well, you want to do something. So here are tips for everyone, from the kid who's clueless to the one who just needs to narrow the field. (Your kid made the decision, but you're not so sure? There are tips for that too.)

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Double majors and packaged minors weren't something many people even did back in the 1970s and '80s. So if you're needing a quick refresher on what these things are, you'll find a guide to the lingo here: majors, minors and double majors.

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Aw, c'mon. Admit it. You have certain preconceptions about college majors. You believe musicians will starve, attorneys will be wildly successful, and that your child's college major will determine his entire future. Choosing a major is a big deal, but times change - and many of your preconceptions are actually myths.

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A few final notes on missteps and pitfalls. Plus tips on where to find help on campus. Your kid may have visited his academic adviser already, but has he paid a visit to the career center, chatted with a grad student, and gotten the major lowdown from the folks who really know?

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Musicians, thespians, dancers and artists face a whole different set of requirements in applying for those majors. If your child is a prospective music or drama major, this overview - College Admissions 101 for Music & Drama Majors - will answer your questions about the conservatory vs. college issue, auditions, applications and more. For information on art schools, portfolios, and that application process, read College Admissions 101 for Art Majors.