17. Pick A Winner! How to Choose the Right Major for You

One of your developmental milestones in college is to declare your major and choose a course of study. Because it’s such a major stepping-stone, choosing a major can feel like one of the most stressful decisions that you make in college—if not in life. Students often wonder, “if I choose the wrong path, am I doomed for a life of work that I hate? What if I make the wrong decision and I’ve wasted a year of time and money? What if I change my mind again? What if I can’t pass the pre-requisites just to get into the major?” Keep reading. We’ve got you covered. 

If those worries play like a loop on repeat in your head, take a deep breath.  Trust us: It is OK to change your mind about your major—in fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a whopping 80% of students change their major during college.

It’s a good idea to make a thoughtful, well-informed choice when you pick a major, rather than just agreeing to study what your parents think you should, or signing up for all your roommates classes (and yes, we’ve seen students do both of these!). A lot of people head down the path of trying to hedge the future and figure out which major will help them find a job after college. This is a fine strategy—unless you don’t really like the subject area that you’ve decided is a smart career move. Hating what you are doing is a clear formula for living a miserable life, whereas finding what excites you and makes you happy leads to a successful career. So we always advise students that the best place to begin in trying to figure out what to major in is to think about what interests you.

At most four-year colleges, you won’t have to pick a major until the end of your sophomore year so this gives you time to check out different areas of study and see which ones interest you. That being said, the sooner you find your passion, the sooner you can start studying it and forging your path, so it’s never too early to start thinking about what to major in. Many campuses offer courses to help you learn more about majors or careers, and the Office of Career Services may have assessments you can take to help provide a starting point in your exploration. Check with your advisor or Office of Career Services to see what options they may have for you. This is an exciting, important decision, and it’s not one you have to make alone. Along with the assessments, courses, and suggestions your advisors can provide, follow our guidelines below for making the right pick.

It’s raining possibilities—get under an umbrella!

When students seek help in choosing a major, we suggest that they consider the umbrella approach…To do this, identify a general cluster area of interest which excites you (business, engineering, agriculture, education, psychology, or health sciences).Within each of those “umbrella” areas are a multitude of possible professions and majors. For example, an education umbrella could include primary education, secondary education, corporate training, web content development, instructional design, and educational policy, among others. Each one of these courses of study could require a different set of classes, but all would fall under the umbrella of education. So, if education was your passion, you might declare yourself an education major, and take a variety of courses before narrowing in on the part of that major you want to concentrate in—teacher training, for example, or educational policy development.

What if you can’t identify even a general area of interest? Don’t worry, it’s not a crisis. College is about exploration so if you truly don’t know what you would like to study, use your first several semesters to explore what majors your school offers. Look at the key departments of your school and ask which ones pique your curiosity. Experiment with taking courses in areas that are interesting to you, and then think about which subjects will motivate you to attend class and do research. Browse the online course catalog, talk to your friends about their classes, meet with professors from different departments, a career counselor, or academic advisor, or attend a class as a guest to see if you might like to learn more. Sometimes just taking a class for fun could end up helping you identify your general area of interest, and then narrow that down and choose your major.

Next, consider your personality and style.

Remember the umbrellas? A general business administration umbrella could cover a number of different majors and careers, such as economics, accounting, finance, marketing, information systems, and entrepreneurship.  Similar personality types and styles are attracted to different aspects of each of these. Someone who is more comfortable with risk might really be intrigued by entrepreneurship, while someone who is fascinated by patterns of research could lean more toward economics. So when trying to pick your major, use this formula: Umbrella ÷ personality type = major.

For example, Maddie, a college sophomore, began school as a business major (her umbrella) but, after taking a range of different classes within her major, she realized that she didn’t like accounting; her interests fell more in Marketing and Advertising.  She really liked the idea of taking products to market but wasn’t that interested in managing the financial specifics that the accounting courses offered. Her broad interest area of business still worked for her but she found that she had more interest in certain aspects of business and was able to redirect her major in that direction.

Also ask yourself: What kind of people do you like to hang out with?

Michael was a music industry business major because his father told him that he needed to study business in order to get a job out of college. He plugged along and did OK in school, but never felt like he fit in. Then one day he started to look at how he spent time outside of class—and with whom—and noticed that all of his close friends were studying education or psychology. This pattern even followed him when he went abroad as an exchange student to Scotland his junior year. He came back from his semester abroad determined to take his interest in music and his training in business, and go to graduate school to study music therapy. Now he hopes to one day work as a music therapist and, with his training in business, be able to manage his own practice. So his choice of major wasn’t necessarily a misstep—but if he had gone straight into becoming a studio executive, because that’s what he was trained to do, he likely wouldn’t have felt the professional fulfillment he now looks forward to as a music therapist. Putting together his training with his personal tendency to spend time with educators and therapists helped him identify the perfect career for him—and if he’d done so sooner, who knows, maybe he would have been an education major with a business minor?

Think of your college major as a jumping off point for your future—a compass, not a road map.

As you consider specific majors within your umbrella area of interest, keep in mind that there’s no one right answer that will guarantee you an easy career and happy life. Don’t put added pressure on yourself by believing that you have to find THE ONE major which will prepare you for your dream job. The truth is that several majors might work in establishing a path to the career of your choice. A major that is the perfect preparation for your career may not even exist—yet! Given the fact that just a few decades ago, most schools didn’t even have computer science majors, it’s clear that the world of work is changing so rapidly that there may not be a major that can specifically prepare you for the career that you will pursue in the future.  And some people would argue that getting you workplace-ready isn’t your major’s job—the liberal arts model of education says school should prepare you to think critically, not be a pre-professional program for a specific career.

Whatever your own point of view or preference—whether you want a pre-professional program or a liberal arts education—no major is going to necessarily prepare you 100 percent for your day-to-day life on the job. So ask yourself, which major can offer me a solid foundation of skills that I will need in the future? Whatever field you enter career wise, your studies need to serve as a foundation for critical thinking, solving problems, managing a project, writing a story, or understanding the science behind an issue. Each career calls for a different set of skills in order to succeed. Ask yourself, will the major you choose give you those skills?

Finally, consider your future plans–what about graduate school?

We often come across students who aren’t sure what they want to study in college, but think they want to go to law school, med school, or another graduate program after they finish their undergraduate education. If you are considering going onto graduate school, then the stakes are a little higher when you choose your major, as most graduate programs have requirements you need to have fulfilled in order to be accepted for enrollment. Do some homework to find out if your graduate course of study has any pre-requisites, and meet with your academic advisor to discuss what those classes might be; you don’t want to guess and find out as a second semester senior that you don’t have the pre-reqs to get into your desired program. Studying psychology might be a perfect fit while you are in college but if you focus on psychology courses and don’t take any bio, physics, or chem, you most likely won’t have the prerequisites to get into medical school. Think ahead about what you will need for the long term, and ask for guidance from your school’s advisors and Office of Career Services—it’s what they’re there for!

Whether your plans include graduate school or not, you’ll enjoy college much more—and get more out of it—if you’re studying a major that interests and excites you and prepares you for several potential futures you’d enjoy. On the next page are a few suggestions as to how to answer that question and pick the right major for you.

Module 17 | Pick A Winner! How to Choose the Right Major for You