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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW
gerald_bradshaw@post.harvard.edu
Bradshaw College Consulting
(219) 663-3041

Dear Mr. Bradshaw:I need advice on picking a college major. I have top grades and test scores, and I hope to be admitted to the University of Chicago or Northwestern, with Indiana and Purdue as backup schools. I would like to major in English; my concern is about job prospects. I have friends who are having a hard time finding jobs with their liberal arts degrees. Those who found jobs don't seem to like them and are not happy with the low pay. Any advice? -- High School Senior

Choose A College Major Carefully



Dear Senior: It might come as a surprise, but picking a college major is something many students do as an afterthought. And once they choose a major, many more students change their minds after a year or two. MIT reports that 60 percent of its undergraduates change majors by their junior years.

Even as high school students reach their junior or senior years, few students have given much thought about what to study in college. If they do, it usually is about majoring in a subject where they earned their highest grades. Teachers and counselors reinforce this idea by telling students they are "a natural mathematician" or have a "real gift for English."

Most students who haven't decided on a major can rely on the school guidance counselor. For average students, they provide a useful service; they do their best to make sure students meet the minimum requirements for graduation and admissions to a state college or university.

But for most schools, the amount of time a counselor can spend with a student is severely limited. The actual contact time often is less than an hour per year. This can be troubling if the school normally does not send students to top-ranked universities. These students are at a huge disadvantage because leading universities have their pick of highly qualified students.

Changes in admissions requirements occur frequently at selective colleges. Students (and parents) need to meet with counselors, perhaps several times a year, to ensure they are aware of these changes and can adjust schedules accordingly.

This can mean the difference between getting admitted or not. Some colleges accept two chemistry classes as fulfilling the science requirement one year, then change to chemistry and physics the next.

Often, it takes a phone call to the university to clarify last-minute changes, and counselors are in the best position make those calls.

You raise an even larger question on the link between careers and majors. To students nervous about employment prospects, the choice of a major can be daunting. Students typically fall back on subjects with which they are familiar when choosing a major. This is a pity because many variables should be considered when choosing a major -- the job market being No. 1. Sticking with subjects one knows best might not be the wisest decision.

For example, a student strong in math might be tempted to major in engineering, which is a wise choice. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that engineering majors enjoy high salaries and high job satisfaction ratings. Fifty-four percent of chemical engineering majors reported being "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their careers.

However, only 44 percent of English majors posted similar results. Psychology majors had the lowest score, with only 26 percent reporting they were satisfied with their careers. The least satisfied tend to be those with majors that fall into the area of general studies, such as philosophy or African-American studies. The WSJ quoted one New York-based career coach who suggested students not list those majors on their résumés.

"It's not something you want to advertise," the coach said.

I encourage students and parents to do their research before applying to college. High school and college counselors only help so much. You might find the career development office of the colleges to which you are applying as the best place to start.

Dear Overwhelmed -- There are many misconceptions concerning the application process to a top college or university. If you apply, it is important to simplify the process beforehand and be as down to earth as possible in your analysis. That will help ease your anxiety.

First, dump any preconceptions you have about life at a top college. Start with an open mind. Vague ideas about privilege, dreaming of gothic spires and crewing on the Charles River are inspirational, but peripheral to your overall goal of getting a good education.

What will get you into Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania or Notre Dame are demonstrated intelligence, the ability to perform under pressure, and -- at least as important as either of the above -- careful planning. You will need a precise understanding of what courses you want to study and why.

First, there must be good reasons for applying to a top school. You have researched several and have decided an elite college or university is the place you will do your best.

Clearly, you like the idea of a highly competitive student body. You have discovered that students at top colleges learn quickly, have a very low dropout rate and enjoy conditions conducive to outstanding academic performance.

Next, you are likely to graduate at least in the top 5 percent of your class, although this does not mean a solid set of A's. If you have an uneven record in your freshman year, but are on target in the second and third years, prepare a brief explanation in your personal statement.

SAT and ACT scores are the only criteria that are universally standardized, so they carry a lot of weight. A good score on the SAT is at least 650 (out of a possible 800) in each category of the test. The magic number is over 700, but admissions committees point out that students with perfect scores routinely are turned down, and students with lower test scores routinely are admitted.

If there is any doubt about your scores, take the test again in October. If you already have taken it, use Score Choice to send in the highest scores. So it doesn't matter how many times you take it. (Caveat: Without taking a test prep class, it is unlikely you will improve you scores an appreciable amount.)

You must realize that entry to an elite school is very competitive and that each year, excellent candidates fail to get in. You have to face this fact and know that should you not get admitted, there are other excellent universities where you would be happy. In any case, be sure to have a backup school.

Once you have considered all the above and are still set on applying to the very best, then you can focus on the admissions process.

One reason certain high schools get so many students admitted to elite colleges is, they expect their students to prepare early, starting well before the end of their junior years. Many students take the SAT as sophomores to establish benchmark scores.

Many high schools expect students to have the application process well under way before the end of summer of their junior years. By then, applications should be finished in draft form. This helps assure that early application deadlines will be met.

You do not need a counselor to hold your hand. Do not let others do your thinking. On the other hand, this is an area where parents are justifiably strict in making sure their son or daughter stays on schedule.

Know what you're getting into. If you don't have copies of university prospectuses, go online or order them from the admissions office. Also, ask colleges for a copy of alternative prospectuses or class supplemental material in your major.

University catalogues are filled with classes and course descriptions that may not be offered when you get there. Look at the main catalogue and compare offerings to the supplemental materials.

Finally, it is time to compare schools. Which one is best? Only you can make that call. If you have done your research, trust your judgment.




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