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Why is choosing a college major so fraught with anxiety?

This is the time of year when college majors probably garner the most attention — from high school seniors who often need to pick one to complete their admissions applications and from undergraduates returning home after the fall semester wondering if they made the wrong choice.

Plenty of guidebooks and websites exist for picking a college, but by comparison, relatively few resources exist to guide students in choosing a major. Several reports about majors that landed in my email inbox recently highlight why the decision is so fraught for so many students who see it as tantamount to choosing a career. The data about majors are often confusing and sometimes contradictory. Here’s some of what I learned from reading these studies.

Men and women segregate themselves by major. Men major in engineering and computer science; women major in nursing, education, social work. That’s the conclusion from a forthcoming study to be published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Women constitute just 10 percent of electrical engineering majors, 8 percent of mechanical engineering majors and 20 percent of computer science majors. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of nursing majors are men, and men represent 14 percent of majors in social work and 4 percent in early-childhood education.

Anthony P. Carnevale, the Georgetown center’s director, says segregation by major partly explains the gender gap when it comes to pay after college because men tend to choose majors that pay more.

“The shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy has benefited women generally, but college-educated women not so much,” Carnevale said. “Men chase the money, while women chase their passions even in the same field.”

College officials who see these trends play out on their campuses are reluctant to talk about them out of fear their comments might come off as sexist. Women, they say, pursue their passions — whether it pays off or not — while men go for the money. “We really narrowly define passion,” said Laurel Kennedy, vice president for student development at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where within six months after graduation, women are three times as likely as men to be employed in service fields, such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America. “We don’t talk about the ability to care for your family as a laudable goal.”

Majors are changeable. For all the anxiety around picking a major among high school students, it’s very likely they will change their mind. Some 52 percent of students change their intended major between the time they first take the SAT or ACT and the time they apply for college, according to Royall & Co., a firm that assists colleges with their student recruitment.

If students don’t change their major before they get to college, they might once they are there. A report released this month by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics found that nearly one-third of first-time college students change their majors at least once within three years. Students who chose education or humanities as their first majors were more likely to switch than those who selected business or engineering. The major most likely to switch: math.

Students change majors for a variety of reasons. In the case of math, it might be it turns out to be more difficult in college than it was in high school. In other cases, students see jobs up close as interns and decide a field is not for them. Or they succumb to pressure to pick a practical major their parents think will lead to a job.

Despite conventional wisdom, choosing a major early on — even before arriving on campus — and sticking with it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll get out of college any faster, or even on time. Indeed, students who settle on a major the first semester of freshman year graduate at slightly lower rates than those who decide on one their second semester, according to research by EAB, a higher education consulting company, based on six years of data involving more than 78,000 students. After that, it doesn’t much matter.

Watch where you get advice about choosing a major. More than half of students turn to their family and friends for counseling on picking a major, according to a survey released this fall from Gallup and the Strada Education Network. But the study found that those most common sources of advice were also the least useful.

When asked what advice was most helpful, 83 percent of students cited advice from employers or co-workers, or from people with experience in an intriguing line of work. That’s well above the scores of 66 percent for college counselors and 61 percent for high school counselors.

The problem is few students turned to those more formal sources of advice. Only 20 percent said they got advice from informal work sources; 11 percent had sought guidance from a high school counselor; and 28 percent from a college adviser.

Students today are commonly told they should follow their passions and find a mission in life, but very few 18-year-olds or even 22-year-olds have enough experience in the world to know what truly excites them. Pick a major that interests you, but allow it and external experiences to help shape, not dictate, your mission in life. While you should consider different majors, and you should keep your options open for a while, don’t think you can do anything you want. Talent and drive matter to success in most majors, of course. You can’t major in physics, after all, if you’re terrible at math.