Choosing your major is an anxious time in college. All throughout high school, you had to deal with people asking, “Where are you going to college?” Now that you’ve entered college, the question has immediately changed to, “What are you majoring in?”
While I can’t do anything to prevent these questions, I can give you some guidance on how to choose your major. Below, I’ll look at the five-step process you can use to find the right major, as well as explore some common questions that come up during the process.
Let’s get something out of the way: in most cases, your major doesn’t matter.
At least, it doesn’t matter when getting a job. Most companies just care that you have a degree; what your degree is in matters less. Indeed, many companies don’t even care if you have a college degree at all, particularly as it becomes easier to teach yourself high-value skills online.
So if you don’t have a particular career in mind, then the best approach is to pick a major that lets you explore a wide variety of topics while also giving you enough free time for personal projects.
English (my own major) was great for this, as are most humanities majors. A general business major is also perfect for this, and it has the added bonus of teaching you how business works (valuable knowledge to have in any job).
Of course, there are some cases where your major does matter. If you’re planning to go to law school or med school, for instance, then some majors tend to better prepare you.
Many pre-med students will choose biology or chemistry, which is a smart way to prepare for med school course work. In a similar vein, many pre-law students will major in philosophy, history, or English to prepare for the course work of law school.
Now that you have some general thoughts about whether or not your specific major matters, let’s take a look at how to choose your major.
As I see it, the process has five basic steps:
1. Figure Out Your Goals
Your first task is to answer a larger question than, “What do I want to major in?” You first need to answer, “Why am I in college?”
This is something that a lot of students don’t even think about. College is just the “next step” for many. But when choosing your major, you need to articulate what your goals are for attending college.
If it’s to get a specific job (or just to improve your odds of getting a job), then that’s a place to start. If your goal is more along the lines of, “Figure out what I want to do in life,” then that’s cool too.
Once you have a general goal in mind, you can take steps from there to figure out the specific major that will help you achieve that goal.
2. Take a Wide Variety of Classes Your First Year
If at all possible, you should take as many different classes as possible during your first couple of semesters. There’s no better way to explore a variety of fields and dip your toe into the things that interest you.
More than likely, a few classes or professors will stand out to you as particularly interesting. For some students, this will be enough to decide. That was the case with me; I declared my English major at the end of my freshman year of college. Other students, however, will need more time and guidance, which brings us to the next step.
3. Talk to Older Students and Professors
Picking a major is kind of like a job interview. You’re talking to a lot of different companies (departments) to find one that suits you, while the companies are also trying to decide if you’re a good fit for them.
Part of this process comes from taking a variety of classes, but it’s also essential to meet students and professors from departments that interest you. After all, if you don’t enjoy hanging around the professors and students from a department, you probably shouldn’t major in the subject.
Plus, talking to students from a particular major will give you an unfiltered view of what that major is like. Professors will tend to promote their own departments (after all, more students can mean more funding), so be skeptical about what they say. But older students will give you the unglamorous truth.
Finally, don’t forget to talk to consult your advisor. Helping you choose a major is part of their job, so be sure to take advantage of their experience. Even if your advisor doesn’t know much about a subject that interests you, they can still introduce you to professors who do.
4. Don’t Wait Too Long to Declare Your Major
As important as it is to take time to learn about different subjects and departments, don’t wait too long to declare your major. Some colleges even have requirements in place to prevent this (mine required you to declare by the second semester of your sophomore year).
But regardless, declaring later just makes it less likely that you’ll graduate within four years. Remember: your major doesn’t define the rest of your life. It’s just one of many decisions you have to make in college, and it will matter less and less once you graduate and start your career.
5. Avoid Majors That Take Up Tons of Time
This last recommendation comes from me witnessing friends take way too many classes in an attempt to either double major or complete a major with an excessive amount of course work.
Unless you have a very good reason for doing so, avoid majors that require you to overload or complete hours of homework each day. While the challenge of this workload will teach you a lot about time management, there are better things you can do with your time.
These kinds of activities are essential to your broader “education” as well, and they can also boost your chances of getting a great job once you graduate. So don’t neglect them unless your life calling is to double major in music and computer science.
Want more tips on how not to choose a major? Be sure to avoid these 10 mistakes.
Now that you have the basics of how to choose your major, I want to cover a couple of common issues that can come up during the process. The first of these is what to do when your parents want you to major in one thing, but you really want to major in something else.
To start, this is a tricky topic that can get emotional and messy quite quickly. I never want to advise you to do something that will create a rift in your family, and every situation is different. Having said that, I have two main thoughts on this topic.
First, if you’re paying for college entirely yourself, then you’re perfectly within your rights to major in whatever you want.
The result may still be tension with your parents, but this isn’t a case where your parents have any real power over what you do. You still have to decide if it’s worth the strife, but the decision is ultimately up to you.
It’s Tough to Argue When Your Parents Pay the Bills
More likely, however, it’s a situation in which your parents are the ones paying for college, and they therefore feel like they should have some say. If this is the case, you can always try to convince your parents of the merits of the field you want to study.
But even then, some parents will insist that you major in a certain field or fields. If it’s a case of your parents refusing to pay for college if you don’t major in the thing they want, then you have to decide if it’s worthing majoring in something you dislike in exchange for getting a degree (any degree).
I can’t answer that question for you, but I can say this:
- For the vast majority of jobs, the specific degree doesn’t matter. Which is a compelling argument for sticking it out through a degree you don’t love in exchange for boosting your employment prospects.
- On the other hand, it could be that college isn’t the right way for you to achieve your goals. In this case, you have to decide if it’s even worth sticking through.
The other thing that comes up when students are choosing a major is whether or not they should change their major. After all, it’s possible to pick a major, take a few classes, and then decide that the major isn’t what you had signed up for.
What should you do in these cases? Generally, I’d discourage changing your major unless there’s an urgent need. For instance, if you’re completely failing the coursework, then changing majors is a good idea — otherwise, you’re just hurting your GPA for no reason.
But don’t switch majors just because you dislike a specific class or are bored when doing certain homework.
Not every class is going to be the most exciting, stimulating thing in the world. Indeed, no matter what major (and job) you choose, there will always be days where you have to do boring work.
For further perspective on this question, have a listen to this podcast episode about when to change your major.
To conclude this guide, I want to reassure you one more time: your major does not define you.
It feels like the most important thing in the world now. But once you leave college and start working or pursuing further education, your major begins to matter much less. After you get a few years into your career, it won’t matter at all.
So pick something that interests you (that preferably doesn’t require too much coursework), and know that while your major is part of the path, it doesn’t determine your destination.
Image Credits: stack of books