Helping Students During a "Major" Crisis

By Mary E. Ghilani

Career counselors do not often see undergraduate students in crisis. However, an exception is when a student receives notification that they have been denied entry into their chosen major, usually in highly competitive programs such as engineering, business, nursing, education, pre-veterinary, and pre-medical.

While some students in this situation quickly realize they need to change their career plans, other students experience a career crisis due to a forced realization, e.g., a failing grade, probation, a rejection letter. I have observed that the degree of "crisis" depends on the competitiveness of the major, the amount of emotional energy invested in a career plan, the degree of parental involvement, and what the pending career loss means to the student.  As counselors, it is helpful to remember that the student in crisis is experiencing a grief reaction to the loss of their career dream.  Some students, especially those in health care majors, are very passionate about what they perceive as their life's "calling" and can be especially devastated by the prospect of abandoning their career goals.

For some students the situation becomes worse when they tell their parents.  (Substitute "spouse" or "significant other" if appropriate.)  Parents may not be directly involved in the crisis situation, but they can have a strong influence in the student's response to it, even if thousands of miles at a distance.  Although most parents react with sympathy and support, some react with anger, disappointment or blame.  First generation college students often carry the hopes and dreams of generations before them.  Others are expected to follow in their parents' footsteps or achieve their parents' unrealized goals or aspirations.  This places a tremendous amount of pressure on students to succeed.  To some students, loss of the major means loss of their parents' love and support.

When working with students in "major" crisis, the following are useful tools to guide them, and their parents, through this very difficult transition.

Steps for Helping the Student:

Calm down.  Attempt to minimize the drama and hysteria (without minimizing the student's feelings) by putting the situation into perspective and helping the student regain a sense of control.

Get the facts.  Verify the circumstances and their ramifications.  What are the student's options?  

Educate.  It is important that the student understand why they were not accepted into a program so they can use that knowledge to help them make sound future choices.  It may be difficult for a student to see the big picture and understand the incremental nature of skill acquisition or why academic standards are needed for certain professions.

Reframe negative self-statements.  Reframe the situation and don't permit the student to label him- or herself as "stupid" or a "failure."  There is no shame in trying something, even if the outcome was not successful.  Provide language that the student can use to describe the situation in a way that will retain self esteem and re-interpret failure in a way that facilitates success in the future.

Generate options.  Is it possible for the student to retake the course, retake an entrance exam, or reapply to the program?  Is there another academic route that would lead to the same career?  Does another institution offer the same program?  Is there another related major the student is interested in pursuing?

Deal with parents.  Discuss how the student believes their parent(s) will react.  Try to normalize parental concerns in simple language.  ("Your parents just want you to be able to support yourself.")  Give the student language to explain the situation to their parents.

Career counseling.  Help the student identify their interests and strengths and see how they can be applied to other career areas.  Many students inadvertently set themselves up for failure by not realistically assessing their abilities or following their true interests, or by underestimating the academic rigor of a program.  What factors initially attracted the student to this major?  Are there other majors that would be equally satisfying?

Create a plan of action.  Does the student need to drop a course?  Withdraw?  Reapply next year?  Register for different courses?  Change to a related, but less competitive, major?  Apply to a different institution?  Complete career counseling?  Is a family meeting necessary?

Allow time to process.  In my experience, some students are too emotionally devastated to be able to focus on choosing another major right away.  Part of the "crisis" arises from having to make immediate decisions about dropping courses, withdrawing from school, or applying to another program.  These students may benefit from taking some time off (holiday or summer break) to grieve, self-reflect, and consider other career options.

Steps for Helping Parents:

Calm down.  If parents are involved in dealing with the crisis, either directly or indirectly, encourage a supportive, problem-solving approach.  Minimize blame, labeling, over-generalization, and panic.

Validate.  Most parents are reacting out of concern for their child and are trying the best they know how to help their child be successful.  Keep in mind that parents may be making a significant financial investment in their child's education.

Educate.  Many parents are unfamiliar with the academic requirements of the program in question.  Educate parents about normal career development, the number of students who change their majors and take longer to graduate, the value of education, alternate majors, salary and employment prospects, and the process of changing majors while retaining core courses.

Reframe.  Avoid the terminology and perception of "failure" or "a wasted education."  A referral for family counseling may be appropriate if other issues begin to surface.

Generate hope.  Although it may feel like a hopeless situation to the parents (and the student), this is not the end of the world.  Help the parents (and the student) generate a new course of action that will be in the student's best interest.

Throughout this painful process, counselors can help students regain a sense of control and perspective, clarify interests, assess strengths, and brainstorm options.  Students who felt compelled to follow family career expectations may be relieved at the opportunity to explore other majors.  Finally, students who have been focused on only one career goal will benefit from learning that there is more than one "right" major and that many majors and career paths can lead to satisfying work.

Mary Ghilani Mary E. Ghilani, M.S., NCC, is the director of career services at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania. Previously she was an admissions counselor, financial aid coordinator, registrar, and academic advisor. She is the author of 10 Strategies for Reentering the Workforce: Career Advice for Anyone Who Needs a Good (or Better) Job Now.  She can be reached at mghilani@luzerne.edu.


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