How to Pick a Major?

Choosing a bachelor degree or a course very much boils down to choosing a career, with slight differences. If you end up with a suitable course, you career will take care of itself. On the other hand, if you make the wrong decision, you will likely have to make a career switch down the road, which results in loss of your precious youth. Therefore, taking the time to read this guide will certainly save you much headache in your later years. We have zoomed in to 3 factors and 3 pitfalls that you should consider in making this huge decision.

How to pick a major. Introduction

 

Factor #1 – Passion

We know it is almost a cliché to ask you to follow your passion by now, but given the importance of this factor, we shall put up with being a nagger for the moment. Following your passion is the best way to ensure that you cruise through your 3 or 4 years in university most gracefully. With the kind of duration that we go through in university, studying a subject that bores you will certainly be an agonizing pain. Life is short. Toiling through piles of textbooks and notes for the sake of taking exam and scoring well is a terrible allocation of your limited time on this planet. We are sounding like a pastor here, this is by no means a religious website by the way, but this reality that will strike you hard if you do not follow your passion. This is especially so with the difficulty level in university where it is almost impossible to pore through tons of study material without being interested about it. You will just feel like vomiting, we warned you. We have seen few friends who have quit school after realizing that they will not make it through the course. Instead of spending 1 or 2 years before throwing in the towel, why not pursue your passion early and minimize your wastage.

So much about following your passion, now for the million dollars question- how do you know what is your passion? Well, most people don’t, and it is normal. It is not going to be catastrophic if you are not fervent about something yet. Hardly anyone can figure out what they are going to do for the rest of their lives at a teenage age. As you encounter different experiences in life, your passion will begin to crystallize. Moreover, passion is fleeting and it changes over time. Something that you recognize as your no.1 passion now may be relegated in the future as you come across more life events. So don’t get too hung up about finding that something which you want to pour your heart and soul to till your very last breath.

Passion
photo: dr.matt.me

 

Passion doesn’t have always to be something you will live and die for. Something that you are at least slightly interested, or have a natural urge to learn more about should suffice as a cue for you to pursue a bachelor degree in that area.

Although we delve into the importance of passion here, our suggestion is not to spend too much time figuring this foggy thing out. It is not something that you fathom by sitting under an apple tree, unlike law of gravity.  Rather, if you can, take up some part time jobs or internship during your free time before school starts. Also, read up on different disciplines and see which one appeals to you most. It’s like falling in love, we can’t tell you when and how your passion unfolds, but all these activities will bring you one step closer to understanding who you are and finding your true love. The book, “Unique Ability” offers some insights, “Think back to your childhood: Was there anything you did endlessly that parents or other had to tear you away from for mundane activities like having meal or sleeping?”

Young Sylvester Stallone was passionate about becoming an actor and was sure that he is going to achieve his dreams one day, except that he is paralyzed on his face from birth and couldn’t get an acting job no matter how many auditions he went for. Seeing that he has run out of money, his wife and family members tried to dissuade him from pursuing his passion and look for a proper job instead. Not wanting to give up on his passion, he dismissed their suggestions and went the other way round of writing a manuscript for a movie. He went around trying to sell his script to movie-making companies, but to no avail. Finally, one company offered him compensation of USD75,000 for it and the rights to make the movie, but without him as an actor. Sylvester was adamant about being an actor in the movie that he wrote and refused the offer, famously saying “My dream is not for sale.” They increased their offer to USD255,000 and then to USD 1 million, but Sylvester wouldn’t relent.  The company eventually gave in and made him the actor of the movie that became an instant hit, Rocky. Today, Sylvester Stallone is one of the most highly paid stars in Hollywood, commanding a fee of USD20 million per movie.

Sylvester Stallone has showed us that following our passion is going to reap tremendous rewards for us if we stick to it.  If you already have that something that you are fanatical about, don’t hesitate to pursue it. More often than not, the monetary rewards will flow in once you delve deep enough and persist in the endeavor, but passion is what provides the fuel for you to continue going, in spite of all the challenges you face.

Lastly, We would like to echo the advice of the late Steve Jobs here: “
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Factor #2 – Proficiency

Everyone of us are born with unique skill-sets and no one person is good at everything. Collaboration and synergy by combining one another’s strengths and offsetting weaknesses has been the cornerstone of mankind’s dominance for centuries. If you have played role-playing games such as Diablo before, you know that each and every character has their own strengths and weaknesses. The wizard is not as physically endowed as the warrior but beats him hands down in magical prowess. You want to train the wizard in its strengths to be the best magic wielder, not a pseudo-warrior who can never be as good as the original. Same principle applies in your life as well.

photo: The University of Hong Kong
photo: The University of Hong Kong

Yes, you can always hone your skills by practicing, but on a scale of 1-10, the most you can improve in a certain area is by 2 points. For people who are bad at singing, they can never go beyond a proficiency scale of 4. The wiser thing to do would be to work on your strengths and bring it up from 6 or 7 to a 9 or 10 where you can be world class and the best ‘wizard’, not trying to win the warrior at their game. According to this article from Harvard Business Review, the most successful managers are those who play to their strengths while avoiding their areas of weakness. The benefits of choosing a course in university based on your proficiency are tremendous; you will have an easier time outperforming the competition in class and school will be a breeze for you. More importantly, you develop your proficiency further to an unprecedented level and become exceptionally good at your area of expertise, instead of wasting your precious university years covering up your weaknesses. Playing at your strengths zone prepares you adequately for a fulfilling career where you will be ahead of competition immediately upon graduation.

The easiest way to find out your proficiency is to look at your strongest subject in school, whether it could be physics, humanities, language, art etc. Of course, the grade that you have gotten automatically precludes you from certain courses and you can check out our list for the courses you can apply for based on your score.  Click here to find out the IGP for Alevel student or Polytechnic student

However, some of us are average in all subjects or even do not perform particularly well in any subject in school. This is not a cause for worry, as the pre-university subjects are too general, mainstream and limited for us to truly find out our strengths.  Alternatively, check with the people around you whom you are closest to and ask them what is the area in which you have shown talent in. We are often terrible judges of our own work and seeking other people’s opinion will be of great help in tracing our strength zone.  Next try taking on personality tests such as the widely utilized MBTI test or Strengths finder to explore the diverse strengths that are known to human beings and where do you fit in.  What are possibly the strengths that you possess?

There are various models and frameworks we can look at to determine our strengths. One that is highly recognized worldwide is the theory of multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner, a Harvard Professor.

When Gillian Lynne was in school, her teachers labeled her as a problem student as she could never sit down quietly and pay attention in class, unlike her classmates. She fared badly in school, lagged behind her peers and was deemed hopeless. The school phoned her parents and they send her to a psychiatrist to have her ‘condition’ treated. While she was there, the psychiatrist left Gillian alone in a room and switched on the music. Surprisingly, she started dancing to the tune and they found out that Gillian is kinesthetically inclined and not strong on her logical intelligence.

Her parents then send her to dance school, and they never looked back. She was extremely talented and was spotted by luminaries to be a soloist and eventually, a star dancer. She then became a choreographer and director. She is most well known for her on the world renowned musicals, the Cats and Phantom of the Opera. As a result of following her proficiency, albeit an unconventional one in the 30s, she has been wildly successful, even in conventional terms. She is a multimillionaire who owns her own dance company today and the subject of envy of many people.

Imagine where Gillian Lynne is today if not for her doctor’s identification of her strengths zone. She could have been working in a bank as an ordinary employee and be mediocre all her life until she passes on. She would never have built on her talent and become such a stellar achiever. The world would have missed out on her wonderful work and production. Likewise, you should strive to discover your talent and bank on your proficiency to be tremendously successful in whichever undertaking you embark on.

Sometimes, you find that your area of proficiency coinciding with your area of passion. If that’s the case for you, congratulations! Some people take a lifetime to find out their calling and discover it only when it’s too late.  You should pursue the field and most likely will enjoy satisfying success in it. However, it is totally possible that you are good in something that you don’t have the slightest passion for. This is often a trap for people who are unhappy as they continue to stay in that area due to their proficiency in it.

S/N Passion and/or ProficiencyCourse in University
1 Meeting, talking and interacting with many peopleBusiness(Marketing), Project facilities, Management, Communication studies
2 Analysis and problem solvingEconomics, Engineering, Banking & finance, Mathematics, Science
3 DrawingDesign and Environment, Arts, Design and Media
4 Teaching Education
5 Logical thinking or Critical thinkingEngineering, Philosophy, Computing / IT, Law, Science, Mathematics
6 Language Linguistics
7Physical Sports ( Motor functions )Sports Science, Sports Management
8 Conceptualization of ideas (Creative thinking)Business(marketing), Design and Environment, Arts, Design and MediaCommunication studies
9 Communicating and speakingLaw, Communication studies
10Meticulous and detail-oriented Accounting, Pharmacy
11 Deep thinkingHumanities and Social Science, Psychology, Philosophy
12 MusicalMusic
13 AltruismMedicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy

*The Passion and/or proficiency areas are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible and even likely for you to belong to more than one of these areas.

**Please use the information in this table with discretion as this is not a foolproof guide for course selection and merely represents opinion of Digital Senior

 

Factor #3 – Prospects

photo:tweakyourbiz.com
photo:tweakyourbiz.com

 

So much for the high- level stuff, it is also paramount for us to be down-to-earth in the selection of courses. One of the main goals of investing heaps of money and time into getting an undergraduate degree is to hopefully realize a decent level of monetary return upon graduation. Moreover, you may be saddled with student debt, which heightens the necessity to choose a practical course with high potential payouts.  Therefore, the last thing you want is to graduate jobless due to impracticality of the course selected. Suffice to say, it is safe to claim that in Singapore, you can land a job no matter what bachelor degree you have. The bigger question would be the job prospects that your intended course of study avails you of.  Three of the matrices we have identified in suggesting job prospects of any course include:

Click to know more about employment rate & average salary of graduates from NUSNTU & SMU

  • Cohort size

Cohort size is proportional to the level of competition you face in applying for jobs upon graduation. A smaller cohort size translates to better job prospects as demand for graduates outstrips supply.

  • Employment rate of graduates

High employment rate indicates that it is easy to get a job upon graduation which indicates better job prospects.

  • Average monthly salary of graduates

High pay means a good life upon graduation. Of course, it depends on what you want. Lots of money doesn’t always equate to a good life.

The above 3 matrices are by no means exhaustive in determining the prospects of a course but you can safely refer to it to have a rough idea. Importantly, seek out the advice of seniors who have treaded the path before you to find out how they are faring upon graduation from the courses that you are considering. There are many other things to look at beyond statistics such as career advancement opportunities, jobs available upon graduation and economy conditions which seniors will be in a better position to advise you on. We will be bringing in seniors to share their experiences on this platform, be sure to stay tuned.

Courses fall on different points in the practicality spectrum, from being extremely practical and safe to being obscured and outlandish. Ideally, you want to choose a course that you are passionate and proficient in, but also a course that is practical enough to get you a job that pays you well enough to sustain a lifestyle that you seek.

A lot depends on your risk appetite as well. If you are comfortable with stomaching a high level of uncertainty, you can consider courses that are narrower in scope, with a smaller range of career choices available, usually the artsy courses.  If you value job security and stability, then hit for general and common degrees such as business or engineering. However, the average cohort sizes of these courses are usually large which translates to intense competition upon graduation for jobs.

Since young, playing soccer is Ricky’s passion. He was the Captain in his high school soccer team which is somewhat indicative of his proficiency in soccer. Yet, he yearn a high living standard which can only be supported by a decent payout from his profession. He decided that being a fulltime soccer player will not help him to achieve his goals and gave up on it, instead pursuing a career in engineering where the prospects are better. He is now a scholar in Panasonic and commands a handsome salary as an engineer, while kicking football during his free time.

Likewise, if you are looking at a comfortable life, prospects is a factor that you want to take into serious consideration. Who knows, you may even find your proficiency and passion in that practical course that you choose.

Short Note

Nonetheless, you may wish to note that there are many people who ended up working in an industry totally unrelated to the genre of their undergraduate degrees.  For example, there is an increasing trend of engineering graduates landing high-flying jobs in banks where their analytical skills and logical thinking abilities are highly valued. Many high-tech companies such as tech giant Google places a premium on innovativeness and are taking in arts or design students by the haul due to their creativity flair. Reason being is that engineers are trained to think in a systematic manner and employees who are more right-brain centric balances them up in the fast moving technology world.  The lesson to learn here is not for you to register for a design course right away, but to pursue a course which you are most likely to flourish in. This is because talents across all disciplines are highly sought-after in this well-balanced world.   So, practicality in terms of job prospects may be obsolete as a factor in deciding which course to take after all.  Rather, you want to consider practicality in terms of the skills that you will develop in the course and whether it can shape you into a valuable person in society. So there is no avoiding the effort of putting in the due diligence into researching the coursework of the bachelor degrees you are interested in and asking yourself if they are your cup of tea.

Potential pitfalls to avoid

In the selection of a course, there are many things and/or people that will trip you up and sabotage your best effort in choosing the most ideal course for yourself. Sometimes, they are so insidious that you are not even aware that you are falling into it. This section list down some of the potential pitfalls so that you do not make the same mistakes that your seniors did.

Pitfall #1 – Herd mentality

“I’m choosing this course because all my friends are in there !” This is a remark that we so commonly hear. For goodness sake, don’t choose a course because your friends chose it; this is the surest way to a university life that entails regret down the road. How likely can it be that your friend has exactly the same passion, proficiency and risk appetite(3 major factors of course selection) as you ? If you think that they do, your friends may have exerted an unconscious influence on you in shaping your perception of your own passion, proficiency and risk appetite. Therefore, think twice and be brutally honest with yourself if you are exclaiming the same remark.

photo: flicker IamnotUnique
photo: flicker IamnotUnique

 

One of the secrets of success of legendary investor, Warren Buffett is that he listened to his gut instinct and never wavered in the sea of opinions from the herd. In 2000, when the whole world was relishing in the euphoria of the prosperous market, he predicted that the market will crash to the dismay of other investors. He turned out to be right, propelling him to be one of the richest man in the world, at a time when other people are becoming bankrupt by the masses. Likewise, listening to the opinion of other people and following their footstep may not only be a blueprint for a wrong decision in choosing stock, but also in selecting course.

Pitfall #2 – False Prestige

If prestige is a sole factor in which you determine the course to enter, then it should raise a red flag for you. Prestige typically surrounds a course that has high cut-off points and the mention of being in that course rouses cries of envies. If you are in it for the flattery that people pour on you, then you are better off being a piece of painting. Think about it, you may earn the admiration of friends and relatives for the duration of the course, but you have to put up with the suffering of not following your passion and proficiency for the rest of your life, which is clearly not worthwhile.

False Imperssion

 

What’s more, the prestige will soon dissipate if you are not thriving in your course of selection and are getting trounced by your classmates who are more talented in it. Not everyone is suitable for everything.  Aim to be a brilliant sergeant, rather than a mediocre general. Being in a prestigious position does not always mean a better life.

Pitfall #3 – Fast is not always good

Relax! You are not in a race. Many of us fall in the trap of wanting to compete with others to be the first to graduate, not realizing that the hastiness will ultimately result in our downfall when we regret our decision. Pressure from parents for us to start earning money quickly is another reason for this pitfall.   Many students in US and European countries take a long break before embarking on their university studies to decide on what the next course of action is. Some of them go on bag-packing trip, start a business or simply work in a temporary job. The experience gained allows them to better understand themselves which in turn enables them to make a more informed decision in selecting a course.  After all, we are choosing a course that requires substantial investment of time, money and effort. Choosing a course that you are happy with will certainly make your life easier down the road and warrants the time spent in making the decision.

Final words from Digital Senior

Let’s recap the 3Ps- Passion, Proficiency & Prospects. In short, passion drives you through the university journey, proficiency smoothen the path and prospects ensure that your destination is worthy. However, we have to recognize that nothing is perfect. Few people are able to find a course that achieves the best of 3 worlds. The trick is to strike a fine balance between these 3 factors in the process of course selection. You need to decide which is the factor that is most important to you is and prioritize accordingly. Some form of trade-off is usually inevitable.

Choose your path

Last but not least, the single most important tip you need to bear in mind in choosing a course is to make your own decision. Seek the advice and opinion of others around you and listen genuinely, taking in only what you feel is useful, even those nuggets mentioned in this guide. Ultimately, no one knows you better than yourself to make a crucial decision that will have an impact on the rest of your life.  After all, you live with the consequences or reap the rewards of the decision made, not your parents, your friends or your teacher.

Take responsibility over your own life and make a well-informed decision. We wish you the best of luck.

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