The Third Year of College: A Parents' Guide

The junior year is when college turns serious. Most colleges require your child to choose a major and stake a claim in a future career. For some of you, declaring a major will be an obvious step for your child, one you hope to agree with. But for too many others, you will suffer along with the inability of your children to decide on something you think is substantial -- or even to decide on anything. Know that many students change their majors, and some more than once. It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong, just that there are so many choices, making it difficult for a generalist to narrow down the list. Don't panic.

Majors are tricky, often more trendy than talent-based. Think back: many of you chose English in the 60's, anthropology in the 70's, psychology in the 80's, business in the 90's, and film and communications in the 00's. What you chose is, I bet, typically not what you're involved in now. It was just a starting place, a marker.

When you think hard about it, picking one major might mean precluding another that might well lead to more interesting and pertinent opportunities. Only a few colleges offer a rigid curriculum without majors, knowing that a general education is a great education for a career or one that requires further study. One financial firm, for example, hired an anthropology major in favor of a business major because he had the patience and practice to study the patterns of mental characteristics, customs, and social relationships in cultures and institutions over time. Not a bad choice, either.

Know that it is critical for your kid to build a relationship with professors in the major. They can, if asked, help guide work habits such as writing papers and project proposals and reports. They can serve as direction-finders to specific fields and connectors to other professors and employers. They can offer research or access to jobs that are usually hidden. Explain that professors expect students to come to them during office hours, and that they must be approached at the end of a course to write letters of recommendation that should be kept safe over the next few years.

To test out the chosen major is at the core of this third year. Encourage your child to begin looking for an internship in a field that ties in with the major. Paid or unpaid, this experience will expose your kid to the world that he or she thinks about. There will be lists from professors, on departmental bulletin boards on websites, and in the career center. It matters that your child land the best opportunity and not wait too long. Then, when you hear complaints about not being able to do serious work in the internship, explain that it's a chance to observe, get a toe in, build a relationship, but not begrudge the menial assigned tasks. Encourage a second internship later in the year, one that more closely ties to their dream job, just for fun. Your kid, like many others, will choose what is expected to be safe rather than one that is closer to the heart. The best course is to experiment: the real opportunity of college.

The junior year also offers the chance for a semester abroad for the very same tuition. Your child can have a unique experience in nearly anyplace in the world not only to study but to learn the language and culture on another country, providing a great lens to see our own as well as to forge relationships that may last forever. There is an office on campus that offers these rich experiences. All that's required is to inquire in time for the second semester.

The junior year is also a time to develop leadership skills in any of the co-curricular activities on campus. No longer called extra-curricular, they offer skill-building in development that classes don't. There is the chance to experience risk-taking, coming through, time and people management, working with a sponsor -- faculty and administrators who can provide great access for careers. Most of our leaders were active in student government and volunteer work, beginning to hone their social skills.

While you can't insist that your child become involved, you can encourage his or her meeting with advisors. Often other people's guidance is more acceptable. And, even though you no longer get report cards or transcripts, a deep conversation along the way from you asking questions as guidelines can work miracles.