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Thursday, August 2, 2012

The biggest mistake made by college-bound kids

By Ron Brackin
Special Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

DALLAS, TX (ANS) -- For many parents, back-to-school means shopping lists for everything from laptops, backpacks, and calculators, to paperbacks, pens, and protractors.

For parents of most high school seniors, that which they dreaded most has finally come upon them.

Picking colleges. Selecting majors. SATs. PSATs. ACTs. FAFSAs. And essays, essays, essays.

And of course the obligatory bumper sticker that declares: My daughter and my money go to [College Name], which isn’t really all that funny when you consider that:

  • Fewer than 40 percent of college students actually graduate in four years (only 25 percent in Texas ). The grim reality is that it takes most students five or six years to earn a degree, which means tens of thousands of dollars of additional debt (US Department of Education, 2008, National Center for Education Statistics).
  • Nearly than half the students who start college quit without ever walking the stage, giving America the highest dropout rate in the industrialized world! ("Education at a Glance," Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). 
  • At more than $1 trillion, student loan debt today is higher than the nation’s entire credit card debt ("Student loan debt exceeds credit card debt in USA," Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press, September 10, 2010).
  • And once they graduate, 64 percent of workers, 25 and under, say they’re unhappy with their jobs—which locks them into a cycle of low performance, low pay, and more dissatisfaction (The Conference Board research group annual job satisfaction survey, released January 5, 2010).

One reason for all the gloom and doom is found in an innocuous little question on most college application forms. It’s that part where students are asked to pick a major (first, second, and third choice).

How on earth can teenagers be expected to know what they want to do the rest of their lives when most don’t know what they want for dinner or how they plan to spend the weekend?

And here’s where we blow it as their parents.

“No big deal,” we say. “They can always change their major later.”

Not necessarily.

People Right Careers
Mike McCormack

“When students apply to a large state school, they go into a general application pool, and depending on the criteria, the top 7 or 10 percent get accepted,” explained Mike McCormack, president of People Right Careers ( “Then the college looks at the major they chose. If there are still openings, that’s where they’re placed. If it’s full, the university tries to fit them into their second choice. Fine, so far.

“But between mailing the application and attending new student orientation, or during the first or second year, students often decide that their chosen major is too hard, too boring, won’t pay enough, or they want to be in class with that hot guy or gal. So they try to switch majors.

“Many, however, discover that the college or department they want is already full. And even if there are any openings left, students may have to compete to get in.”


Texas A&M Mays Business School, for example, admits 1,200 students. Top priority goes to qualified incoming freshmen who declared Mays Business School as first choice on their application. Next priority goes to students who transfer from other colleges. Whatever is left over is for Aggies changing majors—and they need a 3.0 GPA in 30 graded hours just to apply. To actually get accepted, they may need a 3.5 or better.

Like many other universities, A&M still has a General Studies program where students can “park” until space becomes available in their desired college or department or until they can get their GPA high enough to qualify. But this, warns McCormack, is being phased out.

“Last year, A&M said they’re doing away with General Studies because they don’t want it as a ‘holding tank’ for students. And that’s creating challenges for the 8,000 or so students who will enter this fall, more than a third of whom typically try to change majors during their freshman year.”

In case you’re beginning to wonder whether there’s any point to filling out the application in the first place, consider that the typical college graduate earns about $650,000 more than the typical high school graduate over the course of a 40-year work life ("Graduation: Weighing the Cost...and the Payoff," May 18, 2012, Pew Research Center). 

Also, experts predict that, by 2022, more than 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education. Today, only 31 percent of Texans, 25-34, have a degree, compared with a high of 53 percent in Massachusetts and a low of 26 percent in Arkansas (Complete College America).

So what’s a parent to do? How can you maximize your child’s college education and minimize the cost?

One of the most important things you can do is to pick the right major in the first place, something few parents give much attention because they don’t have a clue how to go about it.

“As parents,” McCormack says, “we do everything exactly backwards. We try to pick a college for our children before finding careers that match the way they’re wired, which is a little like shooting an arrow without a target.

Mike McCormack knows what it’s like to be a square peg in a series of round holes.

After earning his Civil Engineering degree, he spent the next quarter century working his way through 10 job titles at 5 companies in 4 industries. By 2001, he realized there must be a better way to match people with jobs. So he started over. Again. But by this time, he had figured out how to leverage his skills, behaviors, and gifts into the career he was wired for and passionate about.

Since then, he has helped hundreds of high school and college students, as well as young professionals, find success and satisfaction in the career for which they were created.

“Nobody expects students to have their whole life mapped out when they leave high school. But they should have a pretty good idea who they are, what they like, and what they’re already good at. Then, parents can sit down with their son or daughter and a knowledgeable consultant and compare all of that to the personalities, preferences, and talents of the highest-paid guys in a couple hundred different careers. Their student can to say, ‘Hey, I like that. I can do that.” And they’ll be on track to pick the right college, select the right major, and make the right decisions that will get them there.”

The first step, finding out how your child is wired, is accomplished at People Right Careers through a state-of-the-art career assessment that examines 27 characteristics in 4 key areas: behavioral traits, occupational interests, spiritual gifts, and analytical styles. This information is then compared with similar information collected from top-performing professionals in more than 200 careers.

Finally, Mike sits down with student and parents and explains how to use this “wiring diagram” to get to and through college and into a successful and fulfilling career.

The trick is to flip the traditional paradigm, he says, to choose a career first and college and a major second.

In the words of Mark Twain, “I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.”

The writer of the NYT bestseller, "Son of Hamas", Ron Brackin has traveled extensively in the Middle East as an investigative journalist. He was in the West Bank and Gaza during the Al-Aqsa Intifada; on assignment in Baghdad and Mosul after the fall of Iraq; and more recently with the rebels and refugees of Southern Sudan and Darfur. Ron is the author of other books and has contributed articles and columns to many publications, including USA Today and The Washington Times. He was a broadcast journalist with WTOP-AM, Post-Newsweek’s all-news radio station in Washington D.C. and weekend news anchor on Metromedia’s WASH-FM. And he served as a congressional press secretary under the Reagan Administration. Visit his website at or his blog at

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