Steps to escaping the money trap when choosing your major

Why choosing your college major based on interest, not money, will bring you real success

“What the heck do you expect to do with a major in that?!”

This question has rolled around in the head of almost every college student at one point or another. With a slowly recovering national economy, growing prices of tuition, and intimidating job prospects out of school, it seems like choosing a major based on what will make you the most money is a smart choice

But it’s not.

Too many students make the mistake of falling into this “money trap”- thinking they must choose a major deemed practical, or useful, or some other term referring to the prospects of making good money outside of school. Sadly, students who commit this error often end up less successful, less engaged, and less happy than their peers. Fortunately, you can beat this trap. Follow these steps to choosing and completing your major, without worrying about your future income.

img_1552Step one: Recognize bad advice, and ignore it

Our society is brimming with bad advice, and for undergraduates choosing their field of study it is especially common. Everywhere you look there is pressure on students to pick majors that “will” make them money. In a country obsessed with wealth, maybe it isn’t a surprise studies show the number one deciding factor in major choice for students is predicted future income. From counselors’ offices, to numerous web articles, to presidential candidates, people constantly offer advice on major decision using money-based arguments. We want to make money, and we’ve been told it starts with what you study.

But it doesn’t!

The problem with these arguments is that they fail to connect your major choice to what really makes people money: just because you’re a business major does not mean you’ll become a CEO. People who are wealthy and successful do not get that way because they studied a particular subject, but rather because they found a niche in the world and filled it excellently. What matters more than your major is your ability to succeed in whatever career or occupation you decide to pursue. Your major actually matters little in determining if you have these abilities, so don’t listen to anyone who equates inevitable success with the title on your degree. Remember, Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs never even got one.

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Step two: Find your happy place

So how do you make sure you will develop the skills that can make you successful? Begin by studying something you are genuinely interested in. At the end of the day, you want to be confident that you are choosing your major based on a genuine interest of the material, because that will give you the best outcomes.

Though college is a time of mind-expansion and growth, schools often limit student’s abilities to investigate divergent areas of study by providing strict tracks of classes once a major has been chosen. Especially at public universities, students are given too little time to explore all of their academic interests, a tragic logistical problem with the modern educational system.

That said, it is very important that you take as many classes as possible that you find interesting, before deciding on a given major. Don’t be afraid to enter college undeclared, or even return your junior year in the same boat. Enroll in introductory classes from several different majors. Take time to talk with teachers and students you find compelling, regardless of what they teach. Pay attention to how you spend your time outside of the classroom, and be especially attentive to where those interests may intersect with academics. Ask yourself: what are the classes that excite me? What information am I learning that I think is important? What can I see myself becoming a part of, and what subject can take me there? Following these steps will help you discover what it is that truly makes you excited to learn.

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Step three: Succeed! (With Ease)

All of this soul searching does have a practical purpose. Intrinsic motivation is well documented as the most effective predictor of accomplishment: people will work harder, give up less quickly, set loftier goals, and generally do better if they are authentically compelled by what they are doing. For students, this translates to many measurable markers of success, including most notably higher GPAs. In and of itself this is an important fact, for higher GPAs can be a gateway to better graduate school and career options.

But more important is the idea that when you study something you are passionate about, you are much more likely to engage with your studies in dynamic ways that develop your professional and personal skill set.

Simply put, when you care, you push yourself in growth-oriented ways. Readings and class information become not just arbitrary facts to be tested on, but well integrated facts about the world. Group projects become opportunities to improve teamwork and leadership abilities while interacting with meaningful information. Talking with your professors takes on implications for career advice and networking with established professionals. Jobs relating to your major become intriguing and available to engrossed students. All of these things create a richer academic environment in which to learn and grow, having the ultimate result of producing dynamic and capable students.

img_1608Step four: Become Awesome

Ironically, by avoiding this “money trap” and electing to follow your heart, you will find that you are highly likely to become extremely successful! College should be a time when we discover where our passions, abilities and personalities collide with the needs of the world. If success and money come to those who are awesome at doing something, finding your true path should involve self-discovery, not adaptation to what skewed future-income data suggest your passions should be. Choosing a college major based on what compels you will lead to you becoming a warrior, well equipped to do battle in the field you love. And what is more awesome than that!

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UC Santa Barbara