Choosing a College Major
Q: Hey Jessica! I am in my first semester of college and a little unsure of what I want to focus my studies in. How do I know what to major in at college?
Choosing a major is one of the most important decisions you'll make. Choosing the right major improves your grades, increases the chances for on-time degree completion, and enhances potential for career success.
As if you didn't feel enough pressure, right?
I was lucky. I always knew that reading and writing were my favorite subjects, and that I was best at them. My choice to major in English was a cinch.
But a lot of people aren't so lucky, or don't feel so sure. If you're one of them, keep reading.
Tips on How You Can Choose the Right Major
So here's my advice for anyone who asks me "How do I choose a major?":
People simply do better at things they enjoy. For example, if you're considering a liberal arts major, but have doubts about turning that into a career, consider this: Law and medical schools may actually prefer applicants with degrees in the liberal arts, because of those students' experience in research, critical thinking and communication. My point is that your passion, no matter what it is, might lead you someplace profitable, too.
There are dozens of quizzes out there that help you identify your passions and talents. I like the Holland personality types at The Career Key, which helps identify not only subject matter preferences but also the best fits for your personality.
Do your research.
Learn about any career that interests you. I recommend informational interviews, which are face-to-face conversations with professionals about working in a particular industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook provides detailed information about hundreds of careers. And, maybe most importantly, take classes in a wide variety of subjects. You won't know what you like until you try some things.
Explore your school's resources.
Many valuable resources are underutilized. Tutoring centers go unvisited, workshops unattended. You have advisors and, often, career centers (many of which even offer personality testing) who can help with your decision-making process. Talk to your teachers -- they know a few things about what you're going through. I can't stress enough how valuable these opportunities can be.
It's easy for me to say this now that I've just told you how important choosing your major is, but I really want to emphasize this: You have some time. Take some classes before deciding on a major. Usually you have at least a year. Plus, many people don't work in the fields they majored in. I like this information from Scott Keyes at the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Indeed, with the Department of Labor estimating that on average people switch careers (not just jobs) two or three times in their lives, relying on a college major as career preparation is misguided."
Remember that, while selecting a major is a big deal, it's also not an irreversible decision. Here are a few other great resources for pinpointing a major:
- U.S. News & World Report's "5 Ways to Pick the Right College Major"
- The New York Times' "Major Decisions"
- The College Board's "College Majors"
"Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018," cew.georgetown.edu, June 15, 2010, Anthony, P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Jeff Strohl
Additional Tips Courtesy of Online Colleges
Follow the money.
Money isn't everything, but it helps. If you want financial security, consider a degree that can lead to high earnings. Those in business, computers and mathematics, and engineering tend to earn the most, according to a 2011 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
Safeguard your future.
Job stability is an important consideration when choosing a major, especially in this economy. Consider pursuing a major that feeds into an in-demand career. Degree-holding professionals projected to be in the highest demand during the 2008-2018 decade include: biomedical engineers, dental hygienists, engineering technicians, financial examiners, network and data communications analysts, physical therapy assistants, physician assistants, veterinary technicians and more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Know your limits.
When choosing your major, decide how much time you are willing to invest in school. If you want a quick-entry career, for example, you might want to avoid pre-med (see How to Choose an Online College).
Location, location, location.
If you've always dreamed of going to a particular college, begin your search with its course catalog. If you live in a remote area, look to online colleges for options.
Do what you love.
Sometimes passion trumps all. If you know you want to be a chef and are willing to risk long hours and low pay to get there, then culinary arts could be your ticket.
If you just can't narrow down your career options, consider a major that provides a variety of career options like those in the liberal arts or in fields like history or psychology.
Maximize your time and budget.
College may be an investment, but it isn't cheap. If your budget is limited, consider majors with expedited programs that cut out that unnecessary coursework. Online colleges are ideal for those who want to go to school while working.
Choose the path less traveled.
Never sell yourself short. If you have the chops and drive to be a lawyer, don't settle for a major that offers a presumably simpler or quicker path to graduation.
Allow for mistakes.
Don't settle for a major that doesn't suit you. Most colleges allow students to change majors at least once, though some require you to meet certain criteria before applying for a transfer.
Signs You Chose the Right Major
Below are some signs to help you tell that you have chosen the right major for college.
You can see your future.
You don't have to be psychic, but being able to see your future career path clearly is a good sign that you've done your research and know where your degree will take you, which is an essential part of choosing the right major.
You're passionate about what you're doing.
Do you actually care about most of your lectures, or tell others about the neat things you've learned? If your major makes you gush, it's a good fit.
Your stress levels are in check.
College is stressful, but students who have chosen the wrong major often feel like they're lost and in way over their heads. If you feel like you're in control of your studies, you've likely made a wise choice.
You like your classes (mostly).
You don't have to love all of your classes, but you should find inspiration in some of them, particularly those closely related to your chosen career field.
Your grades are solid.
Some classes are tough, particularly general education courses that aren't geared toward your interests or talents, but if you're struggling to stay afloat in most of your courses, you may not have chosen a program that appeals to your passion and ability.
You're generally happy with your college experience.
College is full of ups and downs, but if your biggest problems revolve around your annoying roommate or sub-par dining options instead of your academic life, chances are you're right where you need to be.
Your coursework comes easily.
Every now and again a student will feel like their studies come so naturally that it almost feels like cheating, when in truth, they're just perfectly suited to their chosen major. This doesn't happen for everyone, even if you've made a solid choice, but when it does, it's a sure sign that you've picked the perfect program.
You're putting your natural aptitudes to good use.
If you have an uncanny ability to write, but have struggled tremendously to get through every math course you've ever taken, you probably should reconsider becoming a math theory major. If, on the other hand, your major feels like home to you, it probably is.
You aren't faking it.
Students who have chosen the wrong major often feel like they have to fake it until they make it, meaning they have to survive their courses just enough to progress. Students who have chosen the right major, on the other hand, excel in their studies and feel good about their coursework.
You just know it.
People have a tendency to over-analyze things to death, especially when it comes to really important decisions. Sometimes it's better to just trust yourself. If your gut is telling you that you've chosen the right major, you probably have.