Using Aptitudes To Guide The Choice of a College Major

Choosing a major is tough. Not only are colleges asking a 17- or 18-year-old to decide what they want to study for the next four years, but the decision also has the potential to impact the rest of the student's life. Plus, if the student changes their mind—which happens about half the time—it can take longer to graduate, and thus become even more expensive.

Why do students tend to change their majors? The short of it: People change. Opportunities change. Society changes. Let's break it down:

Student interest is likely change over the course of four years. When a student begins their college journey, they're 17 or 18 years old. When they graduate, they've lived almost 25% more life than they had before. Teenagers' brains are still developing, and it's not a guarantee that a student's interests will remain the same throughout college. Anyone who was a math person in high school and ended up a college English major can speak to that.

Employment trends are constantly changing. As new technologies are introduced and new markets arise, job prospects for different majors change. A student who was focused on life sciences might decide to switch to programming to pursue a job in AI. It's also possible that a student will be swayed by the strength of their college's programs. Perhaps they entered college planning to major in sociology but then realized that the business program at the school was too strong to pass up. Only about half of all college students think their chosen major will help them get a job, so it's not unlikely for a student to switch to a major that they think has better prospects.

Perceptions of career links can change. That is to say, a student may declare a marketing major because they want to study marketing. But over the next few years, they may realize that marketing jobs are just as likely to come from a communications major as a marketing major, and a communications major may open even more career doors for them. That could lead them to switch majors.

So how can a student choose a major in a way that makes it less likely they'll want to change it down the road? One solution: go with aptitude.

A study by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation shows that students are less likely to change majors if they choose their major based on their aptitudes—that is, based on what they're naturally inclined toward.


The results are clear: aptitudes matter. It's great for a student to challenge themselves with their coursework, but if they're going to devote four years—and a future career—to a subject, they should feel confident in their ability to understand it and dig deep into it.

There are a number of reasons students tend not to follow their aptitudes.

  • In some cases, students go with what they know. For example, a student who (a) has two parents that are engineers, (b) attended a STEM charter school, and (c) believes career prospects are strongest in engineering is likely to choose an engineering major.

  • In other cases, students go with what they love or feel they are currently passionate about. Interest is important, for sure, but it isn't the same as aptitude. For example, a student who loves nature might select an environmental science major regardless of the fact that they struggled in Biology class.

  • Another issue is that there's a strong societal bias surrounding aptitudes. For instance, it's commonly believed that males have a stronger aptitude for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But YouScience has found that 64% of female students have the aptitudes for STEM careers, which means that if you're a female student, it's more than likely that you have that aptitude.

It's important to guide your students away from these biases and toward their aptitudes when selecting a major.

How To Use Your Aptitudes To Select A Major
The first step in using aptitudes to select a major is determining what those aptitudes are. Many sophomores we work with use aptitude tests like YouScience to discover what they are naturally good at. The information they discover can guide their choices in the classroom, help them pick extracurricular activities, and even assist in creating a college list.

Once students have discovered their aptitudes, it's time to start connecting their initiative with those aptitudes. Junior year is a great time to do that—students have had time to explore various activities, and now they can step up in them. Many students find that they develop greater skills and confidence by increasing the initiative they take within their activities and, in turn, strengthening the impact of their involvement.

Demonstrating initiative often involves starting with an idea and then taking steps to make it a reality. Traditionally, we might think of initiative as founding a club or starting a new school program. And while those and other formal leadership roles certainly do the trick, there are other ways to show initiative. The key is to turn ideas into actions, no matter the context. Here are a few examples:

  • Proposing a service project to fellow club members and then reaching out to the organization to coordinate student service

  • Making a new playlist and dance routine to add some fun into the daily team warm-up

  • Organizing a study group for a particularly tough AP exam and setting a weekly agenda to keep everyone on track

  • Moving from journal writing to starting a blog

  • Creating a neighborhood summer camp for kids

  • Stepping up to a leadership role in the church/synagogue youth group

  • Working with a teacher to create an independent study project in an area of interest

  • Coaching younger kids (or being a referee) in a sport you love

  • Organizing a cheek swabbing event for the local organ donation charity

By starting with their interests and aptitudes and then developing their involvement through initiative and impact, students will be more likely to thrive in their selected major.

How To Navigate The Financial Aid Process

Getting acceptance letters from colleges is a thrilling time, but maybe more important are the financial aid offers that come around the same time.

We sat down with financial aid expert Jeff Levy, who talked about how financial aid offers should be read, common misconceptions about financial aid, and strategies for negotiating aid offers.

Watch the video or read on for a summary of his answers.

How To Read A Financial Aid Offer Letter

The financial aid offers you receive from colleges are not standardized forms. Each letter looks different, which means it's up to you to compare apples to apples. Jeff offers three important steps for doing so.

1. Determine your net price.

The net price is the amount of money you will pay—whether it's now or in the future—for your child's education. There won't be a line for net price on your offer letter: you'll need to do that math yourself. Here's how.

Take the total cost of attendance for one year (which should be listed on the offer letter) and subtract only the grants and scholarships offered per year (do not include loans in this calculation). This calculation will allow you to see how much free money you're getting and how much you'll have to pay yearly at each school.

2. Determine your out-of-pocket cost.

The out-of-pocket costs is the amount of money you will pay now—as in, what will you owe for your student's first year of college?

To do this calculation, take the total cost of attendance and subtract grants and scholarships as well as loans and student employment potential. Eventually you'll have to pay those loans back, but by then, your student should be earning some money on their own

3. Ignore the Parent PLUS loan.
If the school has added a parent plus loan, take it out of the equation. Anyone can get this kind of loan—it's just that some schools list it and others don't. To make a fair comparison, you'll want to remove that from the equation.

Common Misconceptions (AKA Bear Traps)

Jeff speaks about bear traps: those things that will catch you up (and maybe eat you alive). Here are the three most important things to remember:

1. Financial aid awards don't all look alike.

Be sure you're comparing apples to apples, comparing component parts and not just looking at the bottom line. Using the strategies suggested above, you should be able to do this without any trouble.

2. Make sure the total cost of attendance is accurate.

None of those calculations you've done will be useful if the data isn't accurate. Be sure to double check that the total cost of attendance listed on your offer letter (usually on page 1) includes everything: tuition, fees, room, board, books, and personal expenses.

3. Not all loans are created equal.

Federal student loans packaged in financial aid award are great. The Parent PLUS loan, on the other hand, shouldn't be part of the equation. If you eventually need to borrow to pay the parent portion, you can—but that will be the case at any school and shouldn't be part of the calculations when comparing offers.

3 Steps To Ensure A Successful Financial Aid Process

In order to find a school that fits your student academically, socially, and financially, it's crucial to have a plan. Here are the three steps Jeff suggest to make it happen:

1. Talk to your child about finances as early as possible. The last thing you want to happen is for them to get into the college of their dreams and then find out that they can't attend for financial reasons. It's best for everyone to understand the possibilities and be prepared.

2. Leave time to review your financial aid offers. Your child's financial aid offers should all come in by April 1 hopefully, which gives you one month to compare each of them before the national reply date of May 1. Make sure you schedule time to review the offers using the strategies above.

3. Call the college's financial aid office. If the financial aid offer from one of your child's top choices is not as competitive as a similar college they've been accepted to, talk to the financial aid office directly. You can be frank with them. Tell them that cost is an important factor for you, and ask them to explain why their offer is lower than a similar college and if there's anything they can do to adjust.

Bonus reading: Jeff and his colleague, Jennie Kent, do an annual analysis on the amount of need-based and merit-based aid provided by hundreds of colleges. You can see the 2018 numbers here. If your student is still deciding where to apply to school, this can help you narrow down the choices.

5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

The first step in the college application process is deciding which schools to apply to. There are hundreds of schools that might fit the bill—and even more factors to consider when creating the list—so we urge parents and students alike to keep an open mind and not to be swayed by name recognition alone.

A college may be perfect for one student and completely wrong for another. That's where college match comes in. College match refers to how well a school fits with a student. We're talking about things like academic and social fit, a geographic location that suits the student, and a financial aid package that works for the family. Students should determine what's important to them and then start to develop their college list based on those criteria.

Of course, students aren't the only ones looking for a good match. While academic match continues to be a core criteria for colleges, admissions committees are increasingly taking a holistic approach. This means admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person—not just his or her academic achievements—so "soft" factors may be given just as much consideration as the empirical data present in things like grades and test scores. When it comes down to it, colleges want to ensure that their entering first-year class consists of well-rounded students whose personalities, skills, and talents match the values of their institution.

Here are five important factors to consider when building a college list.

5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

1. Major & Academic Interest

One of the most exciting parts of college is deciding what you want to study or what your major will be. If you already know what you want to study, make sure the colleges on your list offer that major, and also be sure to research those specific programs at each school. If you're still relatively undecided—and that’s okay!—take some time to be sure the colleges on your list have a wide enough variety of offerings that you're not pigeonholed into a major you don't love.

2. Location

Where in the country—or world—do you want to be? Do you want to live close to home or far away? Do you want to be in the hustle and bustle of an urban setting, or do you prefer a more rural area? Just remember to distinguish between what you're used to and what you want for the next four years. While it's absolutely okay to stay within your comfort zone if you love the environment you grew up in, don't let that be the default—it should be an active decision.

3. Size

Do you want to be a large fish in a small pond? Or do you love big communities where you never stop meeting new people? There are advantages to both a large and a small campus, and what might be an advantage for some could be a disadvantage for others. For example, at a small college, you may know nearly all of the students in your graduating class. For some students, that's a great thing: a sense of community. For others, it might overwhelming. You need to think about what works best for you.

4. Off-Campus Community

The college experience doesn’t end at the edge of campus, and it's important to think about the surrounding community. For example, if you’re an aspiring artist or music producer, it makes sense to consider colleges in areas that are rich with the arts. If you’re interested in politics, perhaps expand your options in Washington, D.C. Not only will location affect your broader college experience, but it will also affect your opportunities to find internships or part-time jobs that are aligned with your academic major.

5. Cost & Affordability

Given the already high cost of a college education, families should consider the differences between the sticker price and the actual net price of any school. The sticker price is the advertised cost of attendance, whereas the net price is the final cost after scholarships, grants, and other financial aid sources have been deducted. As you make your college list, consider the historical data for financial aid to each school, and be sure you're only including schools that might offer what you need. Once you've been accepted, compare all financial aid packages to be sure you’re making an informed decision that fits with your family’s finances.

There are infinite factors to consider when building your college list, but these five criteria should at least help you begin the process of elimination. Take the time to identify other criteria that are important to you, and you'll be sure to end with a list of schools where you can thrive.

College Spotlight: Georgetown University

Jack, Georgetown’s bulldog mascot, doesn’t like to sit on command on Fridays. At least that was what his student handler told me when he wouldn’t sit for a photo with a prospective freshman before the admissions information session during my visit to campus.

My two tour guides, Aneesh ‘19 and Charlotte ‘20, had several things in common. First, they had lived in the same freshman dorm. Second, they had both spent time at Georgetown’s famed villa outside of Florence, Italy, where students can spend anywhere from a semester to a few weeks in the summer. But their paths to Georgetown were very different. Charlotte’s parents both attended Georgetown and met while living in the same freshman dorm Charlotte had lived in. Aneesh, on the other hand, attended a large public school in Tallahassee, Florida and expected to attend a public university in Florida. His college counselor encouraged him to apply to Georgetown and he says that he was so glad he did. He had completed internships at the Department of Defense and the FBI. Next year he is heading to medical school.

As the oldest Catholic university in America, you might think that you’d feel out of place if you’re not Catholic. But my tour guides assured me that it’s quite the opposite. Actually, John Carrol founded Georgetown in 1789 because he wasn’t allowed to attend a U.S. college since he was Catholic so he had to be educated in Europe. He came back to America and started his own college, which is Catholic but “pluralistic.” In fact, Georgetown was the first Catholic university in the U.S. to hire Jewish and Hindu chaplains.

According to Aneesh, “Students here are intersectional. That makes them more accepting. We can engage and have discussions on anything.” He and Charlotte both said that they recommend to prospective freshman that if they come to Georgetown, they should attend different religious services each week to gain new perspectives.

Located right on the Potomac a few miles from the National Mall, Georgetown’s campus feels stately and traditional. Traditions abound on campus, including pranks. A tall clock tower on Healy Hall often falls prey to student “creativity”, such as the 2017 incident where two students stole the clock tower hands and replaced them with an inflatable unicorn head. Shops and restaurants on nearby M street are a major draw for students, locals and tourists. Georgetown Cupcake is a popular student destination.

Georgetown does things differently than many universities. Here are a few examples of how:

  • To match freshman roommates, the university uses a app called Charms, where students connect with each other to find a roommate

  • Freshman have the opportunity to go on an overnight retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains in small groups

  • Students are required to live on campus for three years; some upper classman dorms have views overlooking the Potomac

  • Students run The Corp, which owns and operate charitable businesses on campus that give profits back to the school for scholarships, generating annual revenues over $5 million

  • Georgetown offers early assurance programs for medical and law school, meaning you can apply to medical school after your sophomore year without having to take the MCAT and you can apply to law school at the end of your junior year without having to take the LSAT

  • Students can minor in Turkish or Persian

As for applying to Georgetown, here’s important information you need to know:

  • Georgetown doesn’t offer merit aid - all financial grants are based solely on need

  • There is no ED option, only EA and RD; All EA applicants are either accepted or deferred

  • Alumni interviews are requried of all applicants

  • You must send ALL standardized tests you’ve taken (both ACT and SAT) - it is not a score choice college

  • Three SAT subject tests are required

  • Goergetown does not use the Common Application

College Spotlight: George Washington University

If you think you want to go to a medium-sized college in the middle of a city, you might want George Washington University (GWU) on your list. The Foggy Bottom Metro stop, which is right in the center of campus, is your quick link to anywhere in D.C.

But what you might not know is that there is also another, smaller campus - the Mt. Vernon Campus - which is a quick shuttle ride away from the main campus. It has a smaller, liberal arts feel with a lot of green space that appeals to many GWU students, some of whom choose to live in dorms there. Some smaller classes are held there and that’s also where the athletic fields are.

My tour guide, Tina, is a junior from China studying international affairs and social and cultural anthropology. She was upbeat about her experience at GWU. She said the hardest part of the adjustment was getting used to peculiarities in the language. For example, after moving into her dorm (by herself, since her parents didn’t travel with her) she went to a local restaurant and was mystified by why her beefsteak tomato burger had no beef in it. Turns out it was a vegetarian restaurant and beefsteak is a type of tomato.

Since there’s no cafeteria at GWU, students have a debit-like card for meals that they buy from 120 local restaurants and from the Whole Foods in the middle of campus. And yes, rest assured there’s a Chick-Fil-A in the campus food court. While some might find it strange that there’s not a centralized cafeteria, students have plenty of options to choose from and seem to delight in their choices and their ability to “eat out” for every meal.

What stood out most to me at GWU were the unique and innovative programs and facilities offered, including:

  • A new study abroad option in Antarctica spearheaded by a professor

  • A global BA degree where you spend three semesters abroad

  • Amazing research opportunities since it is a Tier 1 research institution. Professors invite first and second-year students to research with them, and students are encouraged to pursue their own research.

  • The ability to help staff the annual World Bank conference held at GWU

  • A Knowledge in Action fund that covers costs for students’ unpaid internships

  • Community Service opportunities at orientation and during spring break

  • Fixed tuition for five years

  • A 7-year BA/MD fast-track program

  • A 4-year honors program for students who are “intellectual audtitors” who love applying what they’re learning and finding intersectional points of their classes

  • Lisner Auditorium, the second biggest performing arts space in D.C. behind The Kennedy Center (lots of speakers come to campus and students enter a lottery to get tickets. Recent examples include a presidential debate between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders)

  • The impressive new science and engineering building

Tina mentioned that her freshman classes were large, and she struggled with a 200-person world history class in her first semester. When she went to her professor’s office hours, she broke down in tears. Her professor reassured her and remembered her name, often checking in with her when he saw her to ask how she was doing. “I guess crying is a good way to make your professors remember your name,” she said, laughing. Her classes now are more in the 20-40 range and she said GWU students typically take 5 classes per semester. She thought she was going to minor in art, and talked about a drawing class she took where the professor brought 🐶 his dog to class. It delighted everyone except for her because she’s scared of dogs. Ultimately she decided there weren’t enough art classes she was interested in so she switched her minor to anthropology. She raved about her mandatory university writing class called Feminist Filmmakers.

Other fun facts about GWU: most of the campus is in a no-fly zone because of its proximity to the White House and the chemical engineering department is located on the Mt. Vernon Campus for the same reason. A statue of a hippo named Martha resides outside Lisner Auditorium and students rub her nose and sacrifice burritos in her mouth for good luck on exams.