The College Conversation: The don'ts of choosing a college

We hear so much about how to pick a college, so let's address how not to pick a college.

When we ask our students if they have a particular major or career interest, one of three things happens. Usually, we get a blank stare. Sometimes, the student whips out a detailed résumé illustrating his undying love for, say, architecture. And then, there are those students who want to major in pre-med, pre-law, pre-education, pre-everything.

Rule No. 1: Don't narrow the field based on the availability of a pre-anything major. These are really hard to find. Why? They don't exist. All of the above are pre-professional pathways, and most colleges offer advising in these areas. It's true that some colleges have stronger pre-professional advising than others, and if your child is leaning toward graduate school, identifying a college's undergraduate preparation for grad school is essential.

What also might be surprising is the reality that you don't even need to major in biology or any other science to be competitive for medical school. Rather, there are a handful of courses that an undergraduate must take to be considered for medical school. Outside of those, students are free to major in whatever they please, even humanities-based majors.

Future teachers — at most California colleges and universities — there are no education majors. Elementary teachers often major in liberal studies in order to achieve a broad-based education in a variety of subjects. Secondary teachers major in whatever they please, more often than not in the area most adored by them in high school. The training to teach comes in graduate school credential programs.

Same goes for medicine, law, physical therapy, dentistry and education. To achieve those careers, one needs graduate school.

Maybe it's due to our proximity to Los Angeles, but there are too many aspiring 17-year-old film producers in Orange County. Many industry professionals would agree that you shouldn't study film production if you want to be a cinematographer. They'll tell you to get a life first or analyze the lives of others. An excellent start for this investigation is to major in psychology, anthropology or even animal behavior. If the film thing doesn't pan out, you'll be thankful for your bachelor's degree in a different area.

Rule No. 2: Be careful about selecting a college solely based on the availability of a narrow major. If you select a college due to its strong film, nursing, fashion or architecture program, you better be certain about that path. If you decide to change majors, you may not have many options.

Most high school graduates really only know about a handful of majors offered in college. And, believe it or not, it's rare for students to really know what they want to do with their lives. Often, I feel like students tell me what they want to major in because they feel like they have to. The mentality is that if they don't know what they want to be when they grow up, how are they supposed to pick a college?

Rule No. 3: Allow your child's major to pick them and not the other way around. Parents, consider your own college experience. Are you what you intended to "be" upon high school graduation? Is your career even connected to your college major? In college, they'll be forced to peruse the course catalogue to find subjects that interest them. They'll most likely follow the professors they adore and feel connected to subject areas they never knew existed.

If they take advantage of part-time employment, internships and their college career center, something should pop out to them. Knowing that 75% of students change their majors after the first year of college, I err on the side of caution when families are overly focused on selecting a college solely due to the child's interest in a specific major or career path.

While it might sound like fluff to hear that a well-rounded education will teach your child how to think critically and thoughtfully, is that mindset really so bad? From where I sit, this is a sure way for your child to find a career that is fulfilling. And if his or her current career aspirations don't pan out, at least you'll know that the colleges you're helping to pay for fit your child in other ways as well.

LISA McLAUGHLIN is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Please send college admissions questions to

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