Majors give students direction and allow them to map out their path to graduation. Some majors, such as engineering, information technology or accounting, also help prepare students to enter a specific career field.
Students who select a major that matches their interests are more likely to stick with it and finish their degree on time, but few high school graduates are choosing a major that suits them, a report released today by ACT, Inc. finds.
Almost 80 percent of ACT test-takers who graduated in 2013 said they knew which major they would pursue in college. Of those students, only 39 percent chose a major that fit their interests, according to the study. ACT used answers from the exam's Interest Inventory, which asks a series of questions to determine career areas where a student might excel.
This disconnect isn't exactly surprising, says Beth Heaton, senior director of educational consulting at College Coach, an advising firm.
A former regional director of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, Heaton has read thousands of college applications. She now advises teens trying to get into college.
"The vast majority of them have no idea what they really want to do when they grow up. Even the ones who claim that they do," she says. "How can you know? If you're 16, 17, 18, you know so little of the world."
Students shouldn't panic, Heaton says. Instead, they should use their first year or two of college to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
[Discover 11 hot college majors.]
Parents wary of sending their teen off to college without any direction can take a few steps to steer them down the right path.
High school students can take electives at their school or a local community college to gauge their interest and aptitude in fields like engineering or marketing, she says. They can also get a job or internship in an area that interests them.
"If you think, 'I think I would be great at event planning. That looks fun. I watch those shows on TV where they plan weddings and I think I would want to do that.' Get a job working for a catering company or an event planning firm where all you're doing is answering phones or cleaning up after an event," she says.
[Learn how to use high school to prepare for college.]
Teens shouldn't rule out an entire career field simply because they struggle in a specific subject, Heaton adds.
"Let's say you love the world of medicine, of helping people get better. Maybe you're not a science person so you're never going to be a doctor, but there are a lot of ways you can work in that industry without having to be on a science side of it," she says. "Take a broader look at things."