Selecting a College Major

Next to choosing a college itself, selecting a major is the one of the biggest educational decisions you’ll make. Unfortunately, most students have no idea how to go about selecting a major, or the significance of declaring a major. Figuring out what you’re going to major in can be a daunting and difficult decision�but it deserves your immediate attention. Not only will your major determine what you’ll be studying for most of the time you’re in college, it may determine your future career as well.

The reason that most students select a major is to prepare for a specific career. Some of the more common “career” majors include business, engineering, nursing or education. For those who know exactly what they want to do for a career, selecting a career-focused major makes sense as it equips them with skills and knowledge they’ll need post-graduation as they enter the job market.

However, many students�especially first year students fresh out of high school�really don’t know what it is they want to do after they graduate. More often than not these students end up in a major that has little to do with their future career. They choose their major simply because they find the subject matter interesting and stimulating. For example, students who major in philosophy don’t become professional philosophers, but they do acquire critical thinking, analytical, and problem solving skills that help prepare them for a number of occupations.

Whichever category you currently fall into, before selecting a major you should thoughtfully consider what it is that you like to study, what you hope to gain from your college education, and ultimately what career path you’ll pursue once you’ve graduated from college. Below we’ve provided answers to several questions that will help you evaluate your options.

When Do I Need to Decide?

The answer to this question is, “it depends”. In most cases you’ll have a few years of general education and core curriculum courses you’ll need to complete before you can even declare a major. It’s recommended that you make a firm decision at latest by the beginning of your junior year since by this point you should be well into your major and taking advanced courses and electives. However, there are advantages to declaring a major sooner. Many majors, especially those associated with a specific career path (e.g. engineering, business, nursing, etc.), have several prerequisites that must be completed in order to be accepted into the major. For example, at many colleges students are required to complete specific mathematics, statistics, and physical science courses before they can declare an engineering major. At some schools, engineering students are required to declare their major the first year to ensure they complete all prerequisite and major courses by the time they graduate. Deciding on a major at the last moment may drastically reduce your choices and opportunities. The sooner you can decide on and declare a major the better off you’ll be.

What Subjects Are You Interested In?

Before choosing a major, take some time to think about classes you have enjoyed in the past and consider your personal interests. Once you have identified what you’re really interested in, review the majors offered by the college or university you plan on attending and identify those majors that match your interests. If you’re struggling to find a particular major that’s in line with your interests, take some general education or self exploration courses to see what subjects you’d be interested in studying in more depth.

What’s the Subject Like?

If you have identified a major or subject area that interests you, take a few introductory courses. You may learn you are really interested in further study or the subject, or you may discover it’s not for you (and just saved yourself a lot of work). If you decide not to pursue the major, in most cases, you can apply the credits earned toward elective credits required to complete any major.

What Will the Study Program Involve?

Once you’ve decided on a major, schedule a time to meet with an academic advisor that works with department that oversees your major. An advisor can answer any questions you have and provide you with literature that will give you a more in-depth look at the major. You’ll also want to ask the advisor about any courses you’re required to complete in before applying to the program and what you should expect if you pursue the major.

What Career Opportunities Will it Provide?

If you’ve already decided on a career, make sure your major will enable you to reach your career goals. In some cases you may have to attend graduate school before entering your desired career. Career-focused majors provide students the ability to pursue specific careers upon completion of their undergraduate degree. Other majors are oriented toward providing students with general skills (critical thinking, writing, analytical, etc.) that can be applied across a variety of disciplines. Yet others are intended to prepare students for entry into a graduate program.

Is the College I’m Attending the Most Qualified for My Major?

While the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States are comprehensive in nature offering majors in hundreds of fields of study, not every college is going to be strong in every subject area. Just because a college offers 300 academic programs, doesn’t mean they’re strong in all 300 areas of study. Chances are, they’re not. Make sure you do your due diligence before you find out that the college you’re attending doesn’t offer a strong major in your career field. If a college only provides a few courses in a major, its professors don’t have Ph.D.s or terminal degrees in their academic discipline, or the department for your major is only represented by a few faculty members, chances are the major lacks quality and depth.

Do I Need to Choose a Traditional Major?

More colleges today are beginning to offer a larger selection of interdisciplinary majors and degree programs. Interdisciplinary majors offer students the ability and opportunity to focus their studies in two or more interrelated disciplines. For example, a B.S. in Computational Biology incorporates the study of computer science and biology into one undergraduate major. However, interdisciplinary majors can be a mixed bag. For students who have a clear career plan for what they want to do after college, interdisciplinary majors can be advantageous. For students who do not have a clear career path and simply want to study multiple subject areas, interdisciplinary majors may not be as beneficial as a more traditional or focused major. Some college will allow students to develop their own major�selecting those courses that either appeal to them or are in line with their career goals. These “self design” programs offer many of the same advantages and disadvantages as interdisciplinary programs.

What Are the Major Requirements?

As a child you may have enjoyed playing with an erector set or fiddling with a transistor radio, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy being a mechanical or electrical engineer. We’ve come across many would-be mechanical and electrical engineers who thought engineering was for them until the had to take three years of advanced mathematics, physics and statistics courses. At first glance a major may seem like a lot of fun, but with a closer look you may realize it’s either way too much work or just not what you thought it was. Granted, most majors are going to be challenging. It’s just important that you know what you’re getting into. That way you won’t be surprised and you’ll be emotionally and mentally prepared for the hard work ahead.


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