Before we know it, the Class of 2016 will be sending in college applications, and anxiously awaiting the day that fat envelope arrives in the mailbox (in inbox, as the 21st century would have it). We have some advice for those future college students:

Congratulations! You have just been accepted in college and received your welcome packet. You fill out the questionnaire about your rooming preferences (hope you don’t get somebody smelly!), and you chose your meal plan option. Leafing through the papers you see another page asking you about your future major… eeeeeeek! You mean I have to choose what I’m going to do for the rest of my life RIGHT NOW?!

Before you start totally freaking out, hear this: you can always change your major. However, not all majors are created equal, so choosing IS a big decision. The selection of your college major is a decision that warrants personal reflection and research. It amounts to a delicate balance between pursuing that which you are passionate about, but also that which you can make money with. We all want to move out of mom’s basement eventually right? I know mom wants you to…

So how do you decide? You are young and surely have great hopes for not only your own future and success but also the way you personally can positively impact the world. You want to do your part to help humanity, sure, but it’s also important you pay the bills.

Here’s my advice: start with your interests – what do you think you will be happiest doing the rest of your life? Then do some research: what job opportunities are available to people graduating with that major? How much do people in those jobs make? Are you going to be satisfied making that salary? Is there room to grow? A great website to do this research is salary.com. Another great website to dive into career exploration is O*Net.

If you find you are not happy with the job outlook for individuals in your field, then it may be time to consider a different major. Even though something seems like your heart’s desire right now, keep in mind you are young, and making money is important as well.

One of the best ways to make an informed and purposeful decision related to your future career is to gain experience through networking and internships. When I advice my students about how to track down these opportunities, I almost always suggest they start locally. You’re interested in finance? Go ask the bank manager if you can treat him to a cup of coffee. You want to pursue graphic design? Try a Skype session with the lead designer of a local magazine. Journalism? Send an email to a local reporter. These people are almost always willing to take the time to chat with you, and are usually delighted to do so.

From there, the ball is in your court. Bring your resume along with you. See if the person on the other end of the table seems receptive to helping you, then, if don’t be afraid to ask about a shadowing experience or an internship. The best opportunities won’t be found by spending hours searching the web for “physical therapy internships”; instead you have to make those opportunities for yourself by putting yourself out there and talking with the people who have the experience and skill set you want to acquire.

Going through this process of career exploration early on will give you much more clarity as to what you do and do not want to do in your field of interest. It can save you time, money, and also add valuable skills to your resume, making you a more desirable applicant upon graduation. But it takes bravery and chutzpah to make it happen.

If you want to read more about choosing a college major, try these websites for different perspectives:
Does the College Major Matter – New York Times
5 Ways to Pick the Right College Major – US News and World Report
Why You Should Choose a Major You Love – US News and World Report
How to Pick Your Major – Chegg Blog