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.