Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Why Study Liberal Arts in College?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, higher education journalist, author of The College Solution, and expert on all things college and financial at the College Solution Blog and CBS Money Watch, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece called “8 Reasons Not to Get A Business Degree.”

I highly recommend Lynn’s post for high school students considering college major choices. In an economy with high unemployment, parents are concerned that their kids will graduate with no job prospects. Anxious parents might consequently suggest (not so subtly) that their kids major in something “practical, like business.”

As a college consultant, I am often privy to conflicts between teens, interested in pursuing an “artsy” major, and parents, who want to protect their children by guiding them to acquire a practical, saleable skill. Parents are not only anxious about their kids’ job prospects in the “real world,” but they are all too aware that they are about to invest as much as $200K (for a private education), and they don’t want to see it “wasted.”Good news for both parents and teens locked in this dilemma. Lynn O’Shaughnessy points out in her post that employers favor liberal arts majors because of their critical thinking, communications and teamwork skills.

I suggest three approaches for translating one’s liberal or fine arts study into a career. These approaches range from close-in, purist applications of one’s major to broader applications, which require thinking “outside the box.”

1. Prepare for a career in the same content area as your major. This is the purist approach for virtuosos. Example: a conservatory musician who lands a rarely available position in a big city symphony.

2. Translate your major into a more broadly saleable version of your content area. This approach requires technical content skills with an added talent, like a gift for teaching or mentoring. Example: a music major who takes the music education track and gains teaching certification.

3. Transfer the core skills required in your major to a more broadly salesable content area drawing upon the same fundamental competencies. This requires truly thinking outside the box. Example: a mathematics major who translates analytical capability into a career in intelligence cryptology or econometrics. This kind of translation often involves additional coursework or a graduate degree.

The translation of a major in the liberal or fine arts to a “real world” career is a journey your young adult will eventually need to embrace mid-way through college. However, your high school student is not ready for that. To discuss practicality now is getting the cart before the horse. At this stage, the adolescent’s pivotal task is to determine what he or she authentically loves.

My father, a second generation Italian immigrant, Depression survivor and WWII army officer, drove a truck to pay for his accounting degree and became a private practice CPA. When I broke the news to him that I wanted to major in psychology, Dad was horrified. “What are you going to do with that?” he queried. I felt ridiculed, but in retrospect, I know that Dad was simply worried that I would starve to death.

Psychology was a passion for me. In my mind, it was the foundation for all other disciplines. If I had been “forced” to study something God-awful like accounting (remember Monty Python’s Vocational Guidance Counselor?) I would have flunked out. But studying something I loved fueled my intensity and creativity; the “work” seemed like play. Afterward, I earned an MBA in marketing, the ultimate practical application of psychology. Marketing is all about human attitudes, decision-making and behavioral motivation. I was fully prepared for all of that through my undergraduate  major. (But I still hate accounting.)

I believe we all have callings in life. Sometimes they are vocations, sometimes avocations. Sometimes we need to take another path before we find our true calling. But choosing one’s life work is a very personal thing, and as parents, I believe we can best help by being deep listeners who encourage our children to follow their inner inclinations. A student’s undergraduate major may become his or her ultimate trade, or it may simply offer the opportunity to explore one’s talents and more deeply appreciate life. One thing is sure, becoming educated in one’s area of deepest passion is always worthwhile.

I once worked with a young interior designer whose father owned a successful furniture refinishing business. He had been a music major in college, but his career was one of artistic sublimation.

The designer and I were driving to a furniture showroom one day, and she asked if we could take a detour through the heavily wooded Watchung Reservation. As we drove through the forest on that fresh spring day, I heard the bright, clarion call of a solo trumpet, resurrecting Purcell’s Voluntary against the backdrop of breezes and birdsongs. “That’s my Dad,” she told me proudly. “Sometimes on his lunch hour, he sneaks out here to play. He thinks it’s a secret, but I know playing his trumpet in the forest is Dad’s great joy.” No matter what your child chooses to do in life, no education is ever wasted.