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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 12/20/2011

Are college students declaring majors too early?

This was written by Adam Turay, a sophomore at the University of Virginia. He attended South County Secondary School in Fairfax County, where he was editor-in-chief of his school paper and was a member of his school’s “It’s Academic” team.

By Adam Turay

Like many other new high school graduates, I entered college without a fully realized vision of what I would do once I left. That’s not to say I was clueless; I imagined I would travel, possibly go to grad school, and eventually start a career. I had a few ideas as to what that career would entail, but nothing concrete. Much to the chagrin of my family, I was content to take a variety of courses and let my interests guide me. As far as I was concerned, this was the way it should be.

I knew this was not a universal approach. I expected most people to have career trajectories that were more developed than my rough plans. But when I matriculated at the University of Virginia in the fall of last year, it was truly surprising how many freshmen I met that knew exactly what they wanted to do.

I noticed in particular that many of the students who hadn’t enrolled with a certain major (like the School of Engineering or the School of Nursing) described themselves as “pre-comm,” which meant that they were planning to apply for the business major at the end of sophomore year.

It made sense; UVA’s business school, the McIntire School of Commerce (or the Comm School as it is generally referred to) is consistently ranked among the top undergraduate programs in the country. This year it was second in BusinessWeek’s list of the best undergraduate business programs, trailing only Mendoza College at Notre Dame. So many fellow students regaled me with tales of McIntire graduates earning six figures right out of college that I had no trouble recognizing the draw of a business degree from UVA.

 Though I understood, I was still disheartened by the number of people who were committing so early to a major they might not like. Students must complete a litany of prerequisite classes by the end of sophomore year, at which point they send in an application. The prerequisites for the Comm School include accounting, calculus, statistics, and foreign language classes. There is some room for a McIntire hopeful to experiment, but it is a very decisive major. In 2011, 470 students applied to the Comm Schooll 67% were accepted, leaving a third of applicants to scramble for another major while two thirds continued on to a major that almost seems unnecessary.

As I was wont to say at parties during my first semester, “everyone and their mother are pre-Comm.” It seemed restrictive. I remained skeptical, (at times derisive) about the concept of an “undergraduate business major.” Is there maybe some foreseeable future in which the undergraduate business degree is accepted in place of an MBA? Or was this simply the path of least resistance for students who saw themselves destined for graduate business and simply wanted a leg up?

I remained excited about my liberal arts degree, which I saw as a springboard for a host of different careers. But as I met more and more people my year that already knew exactly what they wanted to do, I became less sure. I was forced to ask myself: In this economic climate with its shortage of work and disillusioned, jobless youths, is it still okay not to know what you want to do after college?

It is a question with a difficult answer if indeed it has an answer at all. Certainly the sooner one determines a career, the sooner he or she will be able to take the steps required to achieve that career. Once you have an idea, you can start talking to people in that field, applying for internships and fostering connections with people who have pull.

But there is an inherent risk in deciding too early or for the wrong reasons. It makes you more susceptible to getting trapped in a certain field, and you may not necessarily enjoy what you end up doing. The intrinsic motivation for working a certain job is separate from the amount of money that job will make you.

That’s not to say salary is not an important consideration; it is. But it is far from the only important aspect of a job. Something you can see yourself doing years down the road, something that would interest you even if you were doing it for free, something that puts you near the family and friends that will support you if things get too hard to manage alone.

I am watching more and more of my fellow classmates struggle through weed-out classes for a major that they hope will make them rich. There is no doubt that many of them will make a lot of money, but I must ascribe to the belief that there are several different kinds of wealth not all related to the money you make.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 12/20/2011

 
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