April 01, 2010


The Princeton Review Guide to College Majors, 2010 Edition. Edited by Laura Braswell. Princeton Review/Random House. $21.

     “What the heck is a major, anyway?” Don’t laugh – not all high-school students really know, and it makes perfectly good sense that The Princeton Review Guide to College Majors asks the question straightforwardly. This is just one of the good questions in a more-than-800-page focus on college majors and how to come up with the best one for you. (Not to mention minors, double majors and even triple majors – although the book does mention them.)

     Most of The Princeton Review Guide to College Majors consists of two-page discussions about what a particular major includes, what other fields of study may be of interest to someone considering that major, and what to do in high school if you think this may be the major for you. The “high school prep” element may be worrisome to some students who think of the suggestions as mandates, and who are less than certain that they really want to try a particular major (40% of college students change majors at least once). Still, high-schoolers who have a pretty good idea of their future direction will find the “prep” ideas helpful, and others need not worry: these ideas are not mandatory.

     Each two-page focus also includes some truly useful real-world (as opposed to academic-world) elements: what percentage of schools responding to The Princeton Review surveys on which this book is based actually offer a given major; what career options each major opens up; and what starting salaries those careers generally command. Given the fact that the most popular major this academic year is business administration, it is reasonable to assume that many students have a genuine economic interest in where their chosen major fields of study will take them after graduation.

     One of the niceties of this book is the way it offers a touch of levity in what is, after all, a serious subject (although not the life-or-death decision that many students seem to fear the selection of a major to be). Each discussion of a major includes “Fun Facts,” which range from important dates in Bible history (for Biblical studies) to the story of the development of the paper chair (for furniture design) to “Top Ten Signs a Therapist Is Approaching Burnout” for clinical psychology (No. 7: “You are watching a rerun of The Wizard of Oz, and you start to categorize the types of delusions that Dorothy had”).

     The core of this book, though, is its descriptive nature. Kinesiology, for example, is offered at 16.1% to 20% of colleges; involves how the human body moves and why it moves the way it does; and usually includes courses in biomechanics, exercise physiology and statistics. Modern Greek, offered by no more than 4% of colleges, leads to career options including professor, teacher and translator; high-school courses in history, religion and philosophy can be helpful preparation. Business education, available at 12.1% to 16% of colleges, can be a good choice for people who are “fascinated by the business world, but not the business dress code and late hours at the office” – and usually includes courses in macroeconomics, marketing, financial accounting and entrepreneurship. A physics major, available at 48.1% to 52% of colleges, “requires a solid footing in mathematics,” can lead to such careers as aerospace engineer, architect or demolition expert, and produces graduates commanding starting salaries of $45,000 to $60,000 in private industry. And so on – and on. Whether you are considering becoming a financial planner, fish-conservation aide, hazardous-waste manager or florist, there are majors worth considering in this book – in fact, one of the neat features of The Princeton Review Guide to College Majors is a “Career Index” cross-referenced to suitable majors. The book is no substitute for a caring, well-informed high-school guidance counselor – but not all students have access to one, and even the best guidance counselors are responsible for so many students that it can be hard for them to individualize their recommendations for everyone. The great thing about The Princeton Review Guide to College Majors is that it gives high-schoolers (and college students dissatisfied with their current choice of a major) a once-over-lightly look at lots and lots of possibilities that they can then, if they wish, explore in more depth in other books, online or in face-to-face guidance meetings.

     The book has a high “serendipity quotient,” too. On the face of it, it offers logical extensions showing what “you may also like” if you are interested in a particular major (for example, those interested in jewelry and metalsmithing may also want to consider art, fashion design, floriculture or photography). But an even better way of finding interesting fields you have not previously considered is simply to thumb through the book, or open it at random. Students unsure of where they want to concentrate in college may come up with some intriguing possibilities simply by reading the brief overviews of cytotechnology, medical illustration, mortuary science, naval architecture, rehabilitation services, digital communications or logic. The possibilities are not quite endless, but there are far more of them than most high-schoolers will realize are out there – and that fact alone may make it easier for a student to decide just which of all those available majors will fit him or her most comfortably.

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