Help Your Child Use Decision Skills to Select a College Major

January 13th, 2020

Our decisions are the single most consequential way that we can improve (or undermine) our own lives. For example, selecting a college major is one decision that can be an especially stressful experience for adolescents and the family members who support them because it can have life-changing consequences. These decision skills can help you work with your child on a thoughtful approach to choosing a college major so their future is more likely to unfold in ways they prefer.

Recognizing the Need to Make a Decision

We’re more likely to recognize the need to make a decision when we’re aware of what distinguishes different types of choices from one another and learn skills that can help us manage them. Choosing a college major is a deliberative decision that can have lifechanging effects, so it’s wise to spend a significant amount of time analyzing the situation. Here's how three main decision types compare to one another:

Following a Skillful Decision Making Process

Uncertainty abounds when adolescents consider their college major. They may wonder: what outcomes could result from pursuing a certain degree program? What will the job market be like a few years from now? What kind of lifestyle will I want when I’m a working adult? Vague visions of the future can lead adolescents to make decisions based on emotional reactions and guesses (sometimes stemming from family members’ anecdotal advice) instead of well-reasoned predictions. Working through these main steps can help us think more rationally throughout any decision making process. The amount of effort we put into considering them will vary depending on the significance of the decision and our time constraints. For a decision like selecting a college major, we have the opportunity to work through each step carefully, and it’s worth it.

Three Decision Skills to Try

Carefully working through each step of a decision making process involves applying decision skills that calibrate our perspectives and push us to think more rationally. Encourage your child to try these three skills from Decision Education when they’re considering college majors.

Vanishing Options Test

When we’re generating alternatives, the Vanishing Options Test from Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath can push us to make sure we’re not overly committed to a favorite option at the expense of overlooking or undervaluing other worthy contenders. Here’s how to do the Vanishing Options Test while considering college majors:

  1. Identify the college major that’s the frontrunner in your mind right now.
  2. Imagine that major no longer exists.
  3. Now what are you going to do? Identify the major you think you’d pursue instead.

Repeat steps 1-3 a few times until you have a list of majors worth considering seriously. Try to give equal attention to explaining your reasoning before you get emotionally invested in one of them.

Weight & Rate Method

The Weight & Rate Method helps us reflect on our goals and values, determine the alternatives available to us, and imagine the consequences of choosing those alternatives.

1. At the top of the table, write four criteria you want your college major to satisfy. Examples could include:

  • Will promote financial stability
  • Related to my talents/abilities
  • Classes will be interesting to me
  • Could lead to multiple careers

2. Weight: Distribute 20 points amongst those criteria according to how much you value them.

3. Rate: Write 3 majors you’re considering on the left side of the table. For each major, rate out of 5 how well it meets each criteria.

4. Calculate: Multiply the numbers you assigned to each criteria’s weight by the criteria’s rating.

5. Evaluate: Although you should think more in-depth about the details and try to learn more about college majors at different schools and expectations for the job market, these numbers provide one way of understanding which alternative may suit you best. Consider doing this exercise again as you learn more about each major.

Note: You can add or subtract majors or criteria as you see fit. Take the total number of points you’re distributing for your weighting and add 5 points for any other criteria you include and subtract 5 points for each criteria you remove.

Conduct a Premortem

A premortem is a strategy from the business world that involves imagining a project has failed and identifying the factors that led to the failure. Immersing yourself in this hypothetical situation can encourage you to address risks and pitfalls. Before you settle on a college major, follow these steps to conduct a premortem for each one you’re considering:

  1. Imagine this version of the future: you graduated from college with a degree in ________________, but one year later you’re unhappy with your career status.
  2. Work backward and ask yourself what issues contributed to your unhappiness.
  3. Come back to the present: ask yourself how likely you think the issues you identified are to actually occur. If you chose this major, would there be anything you could during college to prevent them (like working on projects in the department, completing a summer internship, or attending job fairs)? Are the issues troublesome enough that you’re convinced you shouldn’t pursue that major or are you comfortable with the risks it may present?

Your child's thoughts about what to study in college are likely to be in flux for a few years, so as you offer your support, try to revisit these skills multiple times in your conversations. Download our handout of this post to keep it on your mind and please email us or reach out on social media to let us know how your child applied these and other decision skills to selecting a college major. We'd love to share your ideas with other parents, teachers, and students preparing for college.

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