At the age of eight, my sister boldly declared, “When I grow up, I want to be a go-go dancer or a nun!” My parents were quite surprised given our family’s well-known lack of dancing flair, never mind the fact that we weren’t Catholic. Fortunately, her professional aspirations matured over the years, and my sister eventually decided on a rewarding career as a geriatric social worker. (My parents now joke that she is professionally qualified to support them in their old age through the latent trauma of parenting her).
While some children may know early on that they are destined to be a veterinarian, or a doctor, or an architect, it’s much more common for them to “try on a number of hats” before landing on a path of post-secondary study. In fact, research shows that up to 50% of students enter university as “undecided”, and 75% change their major at least once (Gordon, 1995). Those students who are “decided” when they begin first year, aren’t necessarily selecting their program of study based on research. Influence from family and peers, and general assumptions about paths of study and future careers appear to play a greater role than does research into program specifics, understanding of learning preferences, or personal values. (Beggs, Bantham & Taylor, 2008).
It may be this lack of individual insight during the university application process that leads a majority of undergraduates to change their program of study. This was certainly my own experience. In first year, I found myself planning to study business, convinced it would lead to career success. That might have been true, but the required courses I took in first year left me uninspired while my electives – English Literature and History – captivated me. Once I changed my major, I not only felt happier but my grades improved.
My university experience is not unique. Canadian researchers followed more than 80,000 undergraduate students over a period of five years, and found that choosing a program of study that aligned with the student’s personality and interests resulted in higher grades. In fact, a well-aligned program was more predictive of overall academic success (GPA) than SAT scores (Jones, 2012).
As I talk with parents and senior students, I am aware of just how difficult the post-secondary selection process can be for some. In truth, many students do not yet have the life experience or personal insight needed to make the weighty career decisions they face, and the pressure they feel is compounded if they believe it’s an all or nothing moment with no room for error. Helping them work through the process thoughtfully, carefully and calmly, and providing reassurance during normal moments of angst is important.
Our school encourages students to discover their talents, interests and career opportunities, beginning formally in Grade 7. Curriculum, individualized assessment tools, creative programming, and connecting with Trafalgar graduates across the disciplines prepare our girls for the day when post-secondary applications are submitted. Academic counseling and support continues throughout the application process, right up to the day they accept an offer, and often beyond. We know from experience that our slow and thoughtful approach benefits our students.
My best advice to parents as their daughters begin to think about life after Trafalgar, is to enjoy the journey of exploration with them. Encourage them to research post-secondary options, discuss their ideas with their teachers, reach out to recent graduates for information about programs, connect with alumnae about career paths, and visit university campuses. But above all, help alleviate some of the normal stress caused by this exciting but sometimes overwhelming decision by reminding your daughter that first year is a time to discover more about herself as a learner. Her program of study should lead to a lifetime of joy, not a life sentence. So if she gets it wrong the first time, it can always be adjusted.
Beggs, J., Bantham, J., & Taylor, S. (2008). Distinguishing the factors influencing college students’ choice of major. College Student Journal, 42(2), 381–394.
Gordon, V. N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2nd. ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Jones, L. K., Jones, J. W. (2012). Personality-College Major Match and Student Success: A Guide for Professionals Helping Youth and Adults Who Are in College or Are College-Bound. Retrieved from http://www.careerkey.org/pdf/Personality-College_Major_Match_Guide_Professionals.pdf