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How to Choose a College Major

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Choosing a college major is an important decision — and for some students it’s a difficult one. Here are some things to remember and steps to follow that might make it easier — or at least less stressful.

Choosing a major or changing a major can be stressful for many students. That's not surprising it can feel daunting to commit to a single field of study in our rapidly-changing world. Today, there are more than 1,800 fields of study recorded with the U.S. Department of Education. And many popular majors such as data science, nanotechnology, and sustainable agriculture didn’t even exist 50 years ago.

In this post, we’ll try to ease your anxiety about choosing a college major and help you see it as an exciting opportunity. We’ll help you frame what a major is and isn’t, guide you through a step-by-step process for exploring majors, and review factors and resources to consider when digging deeper into majors that interest you.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT COLLEGE MAJORS

  • A major is not the same as a career. A history major might enter many career fields, from teaching to law. Future attorneys can enter law school with any number of majors, including history. Many majors can help you develop skills that apply to multiple careers and internships.

  • Your major is not necessarily what you will do for the rest of your life. You will have plenty of time to sort out your career choices as your interests and goals evolve during your college years -- and even after you graduate and start working in the real world.

  • It is okay to change your major. A major doesn’t have to be forever. About one-third of students who enter college with a declared major changed that major at least once within the first three years of college. In fact, some colleges don’t allow students to declare a major until their junior year so they have time to explore different academic areas.

THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE TO LEARN AND DO

As a first step, identify what you enjoy learning — and what you enjoy doing outside class. Here are some questions to ask yourself to hone in on a college major.

  • What subjects and activities fascinate me at school? Outside school?
  • What do I tend to work really hard on because I enjoy it?
  • What am I naturally good at?
  • What careers interest me, if any?

For more questions, visit Wellesley College’s list of 20 questions that can help you explore careers and majors.

CONNECT Your interests to WHat YOU CAN STUDY IN COLLEGE

  • Explore majors on college websites. Most colleges have online catalogs that present the majors they offer and the courses that make up each major. You can find these catalogs on most colleges’ websites. You can also find links to college catalogs in many of CollegeData’s college profiles.

  • Identify some majors that seem promising. Do they focus on what you like to learn and do? Drill down to the descriptions of the courses in that major. Do the course titles and class descriptions sound interesting? What are the required courses, and do you think you could do well in them? Make a note of any majors that stand out.

  • Keep your options open if you are still not sure what to study. If you need to include an intended major on your college application, choose a broad field of study of interest to you, such as biology or English. You can choose a more specific major later. If your college does not require you to declare a major as a freshman, you can always enter as "undeclared" and spend your freshman and sophomore years investigating your options.

WHAT ELSE TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A COLLEGE MAJOR OR CAREER

  • Salary. While money shouldn’t be the only consideration when choosing a career, it’s a good idea to look into the average salaries for different careers to make sure they are in line with your expectations. Will this major lead to a career with a salary that will enable you to make your student loan payments and reach other financial goals? To get a preview of how your future salary can affect your student loan payments, see 1st Financial Bank USA’s Student Loan Repayment and Affordability Calculator.

  • Future Employment Outlook. Does the major or career have a promising future? Check out the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for salary and job outlook statistics. As you will likely see, certain careers are in decline, while others are booming and expected to grow for years to come. Careers with high growth potential include financial managers, nurse practitioners, and market research analysts, just to name a few.

  • Does a career in the major require more than a bachelor’s degree? It’s also helpful to know which careers will require education beyond a bachelor’s degree. For example, students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology may qualify for entry- level jobs in the mental health field but will likely need a master’s or doctorate degree to be a social worker or psychologist.

Does Your COLLEGE Major Affect Your Admission Chances?

Some colleges consider majors when admitting students and some do not. Students hoping to get admitted to programs in the most popular college majors, such as business or engineering, will sometimes declare a less popular major on their application with the intention of transferring into their desired program later. Some college admissions advisors don’t recommend this strategy for several reasons.

“Choosing an ‘unpopular’ major doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have an easier time getting accepted,” writes Christine Sarikas in the Prep Scholar blog. “You’re much better off strengthening other areas of your application, such as your grades, test scores, and personal statement.”

This application strategy can also can backfire if you declare a less competitive major that you’re not truly interested in, or a major to which you haven’t shown much commitment. If your ultimate goal is to be admitted to a college’s engineering school, and you apply as a British literature major simply because you think it will give you an admissions advantage, you may be seen as a less competitive applicant. The college may wonder why your high school transcript shows many AP math and science classes, but no advanced courses in literature, or why you participated in robotics instead of the school’s literary magazine.

It's important to understand how colleges weigh your major in the admissions decision and once admitted, how easy it will be to change majors. At some colleges, changing majors will require applying to a difference college within the university or taking additional coursework. See this summary of various colleges’ transfer policies.

CHANGING MAJORS ISN’T ALWAYS EASY

Even if you enter college with a major you are excited about and plan to pursue, you still might decide to change majors after a year or two in college. Keep in mind that, depending on the major and your school’s transfer policies, it may not be so easy to change your major.

Camilla, a student profiled in CollegeData’s student stories, entered NYU as an education major in its Steinhardt School of Education. When she later decided she wanted to study economics, she had to apply to NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences, with no guarantee that she would be admitted. Although she eventually did get in, the process took an emotional toll. “For most of the year, I was really stressed out.”

RESOURCES FOR CHOOSING College MAJORS

Take advantage of your college’s career center. These centers can usually connect you with an advisor who can help you identify your interests and strengths, find job shadowing opportunities and internships, and explore careers.

Check out career-oriented websites and books designed to help you identify your skills and interests. What Can I Do with This Major? is an online database some colleges subscribe to that lists common career areas by major. It can give you a good idea of the types of majors that exist and the types of careers those majors might prepare you for.

Take personality and skills tests. You can also take tests that help you assess your strengths and personality and how they might translate into potential majors and careers. The Department of Labor’s O*NET Interest Profiler scores students in six interest areas and provides career suggestions in each area.

To Find Your College Major, Pay Attention To your INNER VOICE

Most likely, you’ll be taking a variety of courses in college. Pay attention to how you feel about these classes. Which ones fill you with dread? Which ones do you enjoy? Which ones spark your curiosity and get you excited about learning? These feelings can be the best clues to your future college major.

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