Should You Choose Your College Major Right Away? It May Be Smart to Pick By Age 16

Ask any kid at 16 what their college major will be and you'll be hard-pressed to find an answer. But Lydia Frank, editor at PayScale.com, tells TIME that choosing a major by age 16 could change the course of your life — and the state of your bank account. At first glance, this advice sounds a bit paranoid and unrealistic. When 80 percent of college students change their major at least once before they graduate, it seems highly unlikely that a decision made in high school will stand the test of time. But Frank suggests that this is because we are encouraging students to postpone thinking about the future and use college as a time to explore their interests. But with 9.3 million Americans unemployed, perhaps it's time to ask children to think about their majors sooner rather than later.

What it all boils down to is that college costs money, and flip-flopping majors can often lead to students requiring more than four years' time to complete their Bachelor's degree. For many, this causes greater debt come graduation, with Edvisor.com reporting an average education debt of $38,000 for most Bachelor's degree grads. As Lydia Frank puts it, "Big life decisions are scary, but mountains of debt (and the prospect of your college grad moving into your basement) are much scarier."

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There's also potential that choosing the wrong major can lead to choosing the wrong college, which is intensely problematic. Say, for instance, that you've elected for a liberal arts education at Williams or Vassar and then decide you actually want to be an engineer or investment banker. Or you realize late in the game, as many of my friends have, that your college doesn't even offer a major in the field you've decided to pursue. While no education is wasted, in today's financial climate it's a poor use of time and money to go to school for something in which you no longer have a professional interest.

What's missing from Lydia Frank's TIME article, however, is the realization that your choice of major isn't everything — a lot of your future professional and financial success hinges on what you do outside of the classroom. Failing to establish a career path at the beginning of college prevents you from pursuing the appropriate extracurricular activities that might even be necessary for securing a job come graduation. For me, discovering my love for journalism and publishing early on has allowed me to tailor my college experience to make me more marketable as a job applicant. I've interned at newspapers, publishing houses, and now this amazing online publication called Bustle (seriously, you should check it out). And I've done all this in the hope that, when jobs demand a candidate with experience, it's less likely that I'll have to spend my summer after college supporting myself on an internship salary just to break into my chosen field.

I also opted to attend a college that emphasized a Liberal Arts education. Throughout my time as a Harvard English major, I've been able to develop my skills of argumentation and critical examination in a way that may not have been possible at a primarily research-based institution. These are skills that will prove invaluable in any given field, but particularly in the journalistic settings that interest me. When considering colleges, I also made sure to find places that produced the sort of reputable publications for which I was interested in writing, such as The Harvard Crimson. For me, knowing what I wanted to do and what areas I wanted to study made my college experience that much more rewarding and valuable.

Still, I recognize that I'm the anomaly. I've been fortunate enough to realize my passions at an early age, but realistically, how can we expect most kids to decide their professional aspirations so soon in life? Lydia Frank's TIME article has some answers:

I bet if you asked the average 10th grader which careers will have to use algebra on a regular basis, they couldn’t tell you. We need to be showing them why the subjects they’re studying matter and how they apply to careers they may be interested in pursuing. We need to expose them to careers they might not even realize exist.

That is to say, although most high schools aren't pre-professional institutions, that doesn't necessarily mean that secondary schools should be career-blind. While there's beauty in education for education's sake, we also have an obligation to prepare students for self-sufficiency in the job market, even at the high school level. What is more, this preparation need not be extensive or daunting. It's simply a matter of exposing kids to a variety career options, figuring out where their interests lie, and then outlining the path to pursue these interests.

With that said, there are plenty of students who enter, or even graduate from, college without the slightest idea of what they want to do with their lives. In addition, there are many students who are willing to incur debt or take the extra time to pursue a major independent of their career aspirations. At the end of the day, it's an individual decision, and no amount of pressure or unemployment statistics can force someone into determining their life goals at 16. Still, the resources should be made available so that students are not overwhelmed by the possibilities upon arriving at college. There's certainly no shame for those who are still figuring it out, so long as they're not unsure about their life goals because no one took the time to ask them what they might be.