Discerning one’s path in life is a very important task, but with so many possible options to choose from, it can be a challenging one. It is difficult for teachers to weigh in on specifics here because so much is personal application, but there are some general observations that may help inform decisions in this area. This page goes over some of these.
Q: What path of study should I undertake in college?
I’m going to be going into college soon, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what path I ought to take.
I wasn’t really expecting a direct “this is your mission in life” communique with God, but I still basically have zero clue what it is I’m supposed to do.
Patience in something like waiting for the right person to marry makes intuitive sense to me, but I’m having a harder time swallowing this unknown purpose feeling. I need to know, like soon, otherwise I’ll be wasting time and money!
What should I do?
-A concerned young person
This is a question where third parties can only speak in generalities
Weighing in on specific matters of application is always difficult, and this case is especially difficult, since this is not an area in which any accurate predictions can be made beforehand… even by the college-bound individuals themselves!
For example, some people know from a very young age that they want to do X, subsequently pursue X relentlessly, and are now in fact happily doing X. On the other hand, other people are dead-set on doing Y, spend some time in college studying Y, and then go off and end up graduating with a degree in Z, which wasn’t even on their radar before.
How then is a person giving advice supposed to know the first type of person from the second type of person? It really is not possible to know. The best we can do then is speak in terms of generalities. These generalities often seem somewhat unhelpful (“well no duh!”) and vague, but at least they aren’t likely to drastically mislead. In terms of these:
Many and perhaps even most people change their minds in college
If you go into college with one idea and leave with another, you are probably more the norm than the exception.
On a personal note, I changed my major three times in college, and eventually added another two majors (such that I ended up graduating with a total of three). If you had asked me after I graduated high school if I thought I would do what I am now in fact doing, I would have definitely said no… yet here we are. And while I do wish that perhaps I had not spent as much time as I did in college (5.5 years total, including multiple busy summer semesters without breaks), calling it a complete waste isn’t quite right either. We are shaped by our experiences, and can only try to learn from them as best we can. Worrying about hypotheticals is pointless anyway, because there will only ever be one reality, and one can never change the past.
So take it from someone who’s been there and done that. If you “guess wrong” and have to start over in a new field of study, your life isn’t over. A couple years out of college, and you’ll barely remember, I promise. It may seem like the most important thing in the world at the time, but God’s plans for you are not so easily ruined, so you don’t need to panic. Changing your mind some and figuring stuff out in your college years is 100% normal.
Why? College is broadening
This mind-changing business is at least partially explainable by the fact that college is broadening. You encounter things you had never seen or thought about before, some of which may interest you more than what you thought you wanted to do.
Why? Sometimes things aren’t what you thought they were
Perhaps you watched a drama on TV where cool-looking doctors do cool-looking doctor things. In your pre-med major, you then encounter weed-out organic chemistry, and decide that the boots-on-the-ground reality is not quite what you thought it would be.
Why? Humans grow and change a lot in the college years
At least in our culture, the age range that college spans (around 18-22) is about when most people grow up into adults, taking on progressively more responsibility and independence. Since there are a lot of changes that humans go through in this period, it is really not all that surprising that these wider changes in turn cause people to change their minds in college.
Put differently, is it really all that surprising that adult you doesn’t value exactly the same things as moody teenage you?
Even though there are pressures to graduate quickly, getting things right is important
College is proportionally more expensive today than ever before. Student loans are scary. Advisers will try and convince you to take all the core general requirements (the ones that almost no one is actually interested in and don’t help you narrow anything down) in your first couple semesters so that you can graduate according to “the proper schedule.” All of these things can put a lot of pressure on young people to get in and out of college as quickly as possible.
All this aside, rushing things willy-nilly is dangerous. Figuring out what you really feel called to do with the talents God has given you is about as important a task as any in your life, so it should not be given short shrift.
Strategies that may help in getting things right
In no particular order:
- Coming in with credit already in-the-bank helps a lot in easing time pressure. High school AP classes and dual-enrollment are two ways of getting this advantage. (Keep in mind that high school students who don’t dual-enroll during the public school year can still take classes at community colleges over summers).
- Try to take higher-level classes in your field(s) of interest as soon as possible. General and/or core-curriculum Math, Science, and English classes don’t help you narrow things down much. It is best to get a good idea of what a path is “really like” before you lay down a lot of track that you’ll have to pull up if you change your mind.
- Similarly, real-world work experience (as gained in internships, for example) is very useful in seeing “what things are really like” in your field of study. Oftentimes, the classroom environment is very different from the actual day-to-day job.
- Even if you end up taking some time to figure out what is right for you, taking summer classes can help you still graduate in a timely-manner (for example, in 4 years).
- See if you can knock out multiple degree requirements with the same class. If you are clever, you may be able to kill two or even three birds with the same stone, thereby reducing the overall number of classes you need to take to meet all requirements. (For example, if you have to take a literature class and a multicultural/diversity class, you might try taking a multicultural literature class to knock out both requirements at the same time). Although do keep in mind that interest is a rather crucial part of learning.
- Getting scholarships can help offset some of the financial pressure, which in turn can let you take your time more in figuring things out properly.
- Try to find older people of whom you can ask questions (both older students in your major and also much older mentors with lots of experience with the path you are interested in taking). These people can give you invaluable feedback. Ask lots and lots of questions if you have good opportunities to do so.
- Writing out lists of pros and cons for various paths can help you make decisions in a more measured and objective manner, and give you a degree of confidence and conviction so it doesn’t feel like you are guessing so much. Beware of rationalization though!