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Decisions, Decisions: 3 ways to help your child choose a university program

In your student's final year of high school, at a relatively young age, they will make some important decisions.

For many students, the biggest decision is where they will attend university and what they'll take when they get there. For some students the "What will I take?" question is harder to answer than the "Where will I go?" one. There's a lot of pressure on young people to make this decision, and often many competing influences involved in the decision making process.

But here's some good news: if your student is undecided, he or she is completely normal. Most students don't know exactly what they want to do when they apply for university. And here's more good news: universities recognize this fact and many programs are structured accordingly. Students are not required to choose a major in Arts and Science degrees (or a concentration in Business, or a discipline in Engineering, etc.) until at least the second term of year 1 - and often later than that - after they've had some exposure to courses and university life.

Also, universities are much better now than they were in the past at providing academic advising and other related services to help students decide on a major. And students can usually move relatively easily from one major to another within the same degree program without incurring much of an academic or financial loss. However, a big change, such as changing degrees e.g. from a degree in Arts to one in Science or Business, will usually set you back both in time and money.

So how can you help?

1. Your role as parent can be to provide balance by gently nudging your child towards making a decision while also acting as a voice of reason, conveying the message that you don't expect him or her, at 17 or 18 years old, to know what it is they want to do for their rest of their life. That it's okay not to know exactly, but that you expect them to spend a reasonable amount of time and effort to narrow the field and make an educated decision on a degree program. If done properly this is a process and it takes time, so if it's over and done in half an hour I'd be skeptical any real effort was made.

2. If your student hasn't participated in some career exploration activities recently, now is the time to do so. For example, they can do an online quiz. You can help them set up information interviews and job-shadowing with people who work in their area of interest. These activities are great for self-reflection - an important skill few young people have - and can be very helpful to narrow focus and dig deeper into what kind of career best suits your child's interests, aptitudes and skills. It also helps your child to think more about the kind of work/life balance they want.

3. Another parental role is to help provide current and factual information upon which to base decisions. Unfortunately, students can be supplied with incorrect information, or they can misinterpret information, and sometimes they hear rumors and believe they're true without checking facts. You can help them to research and compare programs, and provide links to information on careers and economic forecasts for their fields of choice. You can also provide a non-judgmental listening ear when they want to discuss potential options.

Once one or two programs have been selected, you might also want to throw in a little hint that you'd be OK if, at some point and if need be, your student were to change programs or majors. Although you certainly don't want them to make that decision lightly, your child needs to know that they can turn to you if they feel stuck in something they really dislike, or if they have found something different they want to do. They won't always hit the bulls eye with the first arrow, and a lot can change once they get to university and discover all of the options they have. It's better for them to change when they discover this, rather than aimlessly drifting through a program wasting time and money.

Dare I give you even more good news? If your student is having a tough time making this decision, it shows they care about the outcome and are interested in making their future a success. And although it may be difficult for you to see them struggle, they must be the one to make the final decision.

After all, it is him or her who will have to take the courses, do the work, and ultimately begin to manage their own career.

Need help planning for university? Please check out my services.

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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