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The Art and Science of Planning Your Major

College goes beyond choosing a major; it’s about exploring your abilities and passions.

What do you want to be when you grow up? The answer to the age-old question — often asked as early as preschool — likely changes with life experiences. But when it comes time for college applications, most students feel the pressure to have a definitive answer. Not so, says Jane Ellis, associate dean of academic services at Bentley University. In fact, not knowing may be just what you need to set you up for success.   

“We actually encourage first-year students to come in as undeclared majors,” Ellis explains. “We want them to use that time to explore, to really discover not only what their interests are, but also where their passion and their ability intersect. That is where they’re going to find career satisfaction.”

To figure that out, students are set up with an academic plan that looks at the big picture and avoids hasty decision-making. Mapping out a path extends beyond the walls of academic advising; Ellis and her team work closely with faculty, students and departments like Career Services, Student Affairs, Student Counseling and Study Abroad to open up the right doors.

“Gaining technical training is important, but it’s just a small piece of what a college education is all about and employers are looking for,” says Ellis. “Developing necessary building blocks like critical thinking, communication and quantitative skills along with a business foundation is what will lead students to a fulfilling career and give them a competitive edge in the job market.”

Age of Exploration

To help take out the sting of where to begin, academic advisers equip students with to-do lists by class year, covering aspects such as course selection, faculty and staff resources, and programs such as service-learning.

In addition to your academic adviser, it’s critical to meet with professors: a faculty adviser and also faculty mentors who have worked in different fields. Peer advisers share their experiences and knowledge about course selection and majors.

General education courses — often wrongly deemed unimportant by students — play a key role in revealing interests and developing core skills that are needed in most any profession. Business core courses during freshman and sophomore year expose students to a variety of fields such accounting and finance, marketing and management. Recently released fusion courses, which blend business with the arts and sciences (management and women in film, for example), open the door to bridging different disciplines.

“By midpoint of sophomore year, students have had a taste of most of the courses leading to major courses so they narrow down their interests,” Ellis notes. “The way the curriculum is built, there’s a lot of flexibility so you don’t get locked into a major until senior year. You can take some time to experiment.”

Experimenting also comes in the form of self-assessments and internships, as part of Bentley’s customized HIRE Education four-year career development program offered by Undergraduate Career Services. Once you choose a major sophomore year, you will work directly with a dedicated major career adviser.

Life Lessons

Still feeling worried about choosing the right major? You’re not alone, says Ellis. She sees a high percentage of college students who are unsure of their major selection and many more who change their majors. And that’s OK.

“With the exception of very specialized fields, our bachelor’s degree isn’t a training program, it’s an undergraduate education. Our goal is to create a plan that will help you discover your passions and abilities and see where those lead.”

If that steers you away from business: No problem. At Bentley there are options to major in a liberal arts discipline — Media and Culture, Spanish Studies or History, for example — with the added competitive advantage of a required business minor.   

“In addition to landing a job, our goal is for graduates to have what it takes to adapt to life’s shifting tides,” Ellis notes. “People change careers almost as many times as they change majors. Our job is to prepare you for careers and for life.”

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major choice

We still don't have a viable solution for those who are unsure of a career direction, specifically because students can waste an enormous amount of tuition money before making a choice. It doesn't seem as if liberal arts, which used to allow the most flexibility for career directions, is much use, but now only makes one a more interesting barista.