While choosing a major should be done with more excitement than fear, it is definitely one of the more serious life decisions you’ll make in your early adult years. In fact, it may rank up there alongside your decision of where to actually go to college. Unfortunately for most college students, choosing a major is not always intuitive or simple. In fact, about 20-50% of college students start their college career without knowing what they want to do for a career.
Because your college major will determine what you’ll be studying in school and it may also, in large part, determine your future career-path, it is important to learn the basics of how to choose a major.
Two Types of Major Options
To start off, it’s good to understand the distinction between the two main types of undergraduate college majors. These two categories are Career-Oriented Majors and Liberal Arts Majors.
Most students that choose these types of majors do so because they are already decided on the career field that they want to work in. If this is you, do some research on the career field to be sure it’s what you like and that it will be fulfilling to you long-term. Then choose the most appealing major that will allow you to earn the degree required for that career. Some of the more common career-oriented majors include: business, engineering, nursing, or education.
Pros and Cons of Career-Oriented Majors
For those students who know exactly what they want to do for a career, selecting a career-oriented major makes sense as it teaches students the exact skills and knowledge needed to enter that specific job market. On the other hand, if you decide you want to change majors after you’ve gotten far into a career-oriented major, you may find that your learning has been very focused and may not be as applicable to unrelated majors. If you do decide to change majors after being in a career-oriented major for a while, you may want to choose a related major so that the undergraduate pre-requisite classes you’ve already taken can still benefit you.
Liberal Arts Majors
The other type of major is for those students who either know they want to be involved in the liberal arts or who are uncertain of what they want to do after they graduate. Liberal arts majors are typically chosen based on the fact that students find the subject matter of the classes to be interesting and broadly applicable to many career paths. These types of majors include: English, history, political science, psychology, and history.
Pros of Liberal Arts Majors
The pro for liberal arts majors is that these majors teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can apply to many careers. For example, students who major in philosophy do so because it allows them to gain a broad knowledge and skill base throughout the course of their program. This breadth helps them get jobs in occupations that may require an undergraduate degree, but are not specific as to which type of degree. It can also help in the pursuit of a master’s degree.
The main negative of liberal arts majors is that the careers directly tied to these majors typically have fewer job openings and are generally more competitive than other career fields. For example, students who major in philosophy rarely become professional philosophers or philosophy teachers because of the lack of demand and the difficulty of job competition.
Things to Consider When You Choose a Major
Regardless of where you are right now on your choosing a major timeline, we suggest you consider the following things:
When Do I Need to Choose My Major?
The answer to this question is, “it depends”. In most cases, you’ll have 1-2 years of general education and core curriculum courses to complete before you need to choose a major and officially declare it to your university. It is recommended that you make a firm decision by the beginning of your junior year since by this point you should be well into your major and taking advanced courses and electives. There are, however, advantages to declaring a major sooner.
Many majors, especially those career-oriented majors (e.g. engineering, business, nursing, etc.), have several prerequisites that must be completed in order to apply to and 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 be accepted into 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 decrease your options. The sooner you can decide on and choose a major that you are excited about, 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 Is 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 This Major’s Classes Involve?
Once you’ve decided on a major, schedule a time to meet with an academic advisor that works with the 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 this Major Offer?
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 This 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 PhDs 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 College 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 BS 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 Pre-Requisites and Graduation Requirements of the Major?
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.