The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

The sheer number of choices isn’t Steve’s only problem: he’s also not sure how to pursue something he enjoys studying that will also result in plenty of worthwhile job offers after graduation.

Some high school students have a career path in mind from the day they apply to college: they know where they want to attend, what they want to major in and where they want to work. Most high schoolers are less sure though: many don’t know all of their options or don’t feel strongly about a particular field. In fact, as many as 50% of students enter college with an undeclared major. Picking the right program is hard, and to help you with your choice, we’ve created a guide to help you choose a major. Follow our model student, Steve, as he navigates you through the process.

Steve is a high school senior and he plans to attend college next fall. He’s a good student with a few academic interests, but he hasn’t given serious thought to what he’d like to study and, no surprise, choosing a major feels incredibly overwhelming. He’s looked at the degrees offered by a few schools and has no idea how to narrow the hundreds of options available to a more reasonable list of programs to consider.

The sheer number of choices isn’t Steve’s only problem: he’s also not sure how to pursue something he enjoys studying that will also result in plenty of worthwhile job offers upon graduation. Worse, he has teachers, friends and family members trying to push him into fields he has no interest in.

Steve’s problems are hardly unique. Around the country, students struggle to choose from the roughly 1,500 degree programs offered across American colleges. Many resources intended to simplify the process instead drown students with too much information, often without helping them evaluate their own needs and interests. Well-meaning parents and counselors further muddle the situation by placing their own values and beliefs before those of the students they try to assist.

To help you make a complex decision and find a good fit for your interests and educational priorities, we’ve created a manual to guide you to the perfect program. Here, you’ll learn to manage the scope of your search and how to research programs at various schools once you’ve identified a subject of interest. To show you how it works, we’ll follow Steve as he uses the guide to choose his major.

Before we get started though, it’s important to remember a couple of things.

First, it’s not unusual for students to change their mind once they start school. At college, you’ll have exposure to new people and fresh subjects, which can very well result in your interests changing dramatically. That’s fine: in most cases, you can start a program as late as your junior year and still graduate in four years.

Second, plenty of degree holders end up in fields unrelated to their major. A college degree helps you build employable skills, and the knowledge and expertise gained in school should prepare you to work in a variety of positions and industries. It’s important to study what you like; just remember that your choice of major only has so much impact on your career.

With that in mind, let’s follow Steve as he works his way through our guide.

Evaluate Your Academic Strengths

Self-examination is an important part of choosing your major. For students who aren’t sure which path is right for them, it helps to ask yourself some of the questions below; Steve’s sample answers should give you an idea of one way to think through those answers.

What do you value in college education?

I would like to become a better writer in college. I’m pretty sure I want to do some sort of writing after school, although I don’t think I’m cut out for journalism. Hopefully I can find a program that brings the best out of my writing ability. Philosophy and history are fascinating to me and I feel like my clearest writing comes when I have direction in one of those subjects.

Think about what matters most to you, and evaluate what kind of skills and abilities you want when you graduate. It may help to consider a few basic sub-questions: Do you want to make a lot of money? Are you interested in furthering research for the greater good? Do you want to create art? Your answers will separate potential interests from programs that won’t develop the skills you want.

  • What do you like to read?

    I’m an avid reader. In school, I love reading history books and novels in English classes. Outside of class, I read plenty of sports books and websites, and Buzzfeed is a guilty pleasure of mine.

    Your choice in reading material is a reflection of your interests. Think about the kinds of things you read regularly; perhaps there’s a clue in there somewhere.

  • What sort of activities do you enjoy?

    When I’m not with friends, I like to read and watch TV. I watch a lot of sports, but I also enjoy the History Channel and I’ll flip on the news once in a while.

    Pursue your passion. If you enjoy football, for example, sports administration may be perfect for you. If you like fundraising at campus events, perhaps a career in nonprofit development is in your future.

  • What are your academic strong points? Weaknesses?

    I do pretty well in classes where I can write an essay; social studies and english are my best subjects. I have little interest in science classes, and I started feeling lost in math back in Algebra I.

    If you’re in college, you probably have a handful of personal and academic strengths. Evaluate whether your interests align with your skills. If you are good at math, for instance, you may consider studying engineering. Most people like “playing to their strengths” and students usually pick a major that highlights their best academic traits. It almost always makes sense to avoid programs that rely on your weaker abilities.

  • What kind of studying would suit you?

    I don’t like group projects. I mean, I like hanging out with my friends while we’re supposed to be working, but I can’t get anything done with a bunch of people around. When I read or do homework, I need to be alone.

    A student’s personality can help guide them to the right program. If you’re extroverted, you may enjoy the collaborative work you’ll find in business school. If you have a knack for methodically following directions, lab work in the natural sciences may appeal to you.

    For more help, you can try taking the Myers-Briggs personality assessment test, which may offer clues into your preferred work environment. Some students also find that resources like the College Board and Career Profiles have useful information on how personal interests can apply to certain fields. You can also read case studies about how students choose their major.

Self-assessment usually narrows your prospective choices considerably. Delving into the various majors still under consideration can help you further hone in on the right program.

Trimming the Field

Self-assessment usually narrows your prospective choices considerably. Delving into the various majors still under consideration can help you further hone in on the right program.

Take Steve: From what we learned about him above, we have a general idea of which majors he’d succeed in and which ones he shouldn’t consider. He enjoys reading and writing and prefers to study alone; he doesn’t like math or science and his personality isn’t geared for the business world.

Steve appears destined for a liberal arts degree. To help him pick between english, history, communications, political science and more, he’ll need to figure out what separates one department from another. It helps to look at the specific program offerings of the schools you may attend; this is easier to do when you’re looking at only one school, but you can cross-compare programs from different colleges if need be.

To illustrate how this works, let’s get back to Steve. Steve knows he’ll fit best in a liberal arts program and he’s limited his potential schools to two: the University of Washington and the University of Idaho. After browsing degree catalogs at both schools, he’s decided to pick four to explore further.

He’s interested in the history programs at both schools and also notices that Washington offers a boutique comparative history of ideas (CHID) major that offers several of the same courses history students will take while reviewing plenty of philosophy. Finally, the University of Idaho’s comparative/international politics department also caught his eye.

With these programs identified, Steve can see which one best matches his interests. To help, he’ll ask himself the following questions:

How many classes in a particular program are you excited to take?

I took a closer look into the course catalogs for each program, and that’s really helped me learn more about what I’ll be studying. The CHID program has a bunch of classes that blend philosophy and history, which is perfect for me. I also saw that Idaho’s International Policy program is just a minor and that I’d have to take a lot of economics classes, many of them pretty math heavy, not really what I want to do.

With a little research, a department chair can point you in the right direction if you need help, you can find credit requirements and course descriptions for most programs online. Here, you can preview what current students are studying and browse all the classes the department offers.

  • What kind of work will you do in and out of class?

    Both history programs and CHID require a lot of reading; I’ll be reading a few hundred pages during most weeks, but that’s fine. I like that I’ll be writing a bunch of essays in history, which I’m confident will help me develop my writing skills. I’m concerned that the CHID program will have a lot of art and music projects and requirements. I just don’t have the interest or talent in those subjects.

    This is an extension of the questions regarding your personality and preferred method of study. Communications and English majors develop common skills, but the former is a better fit for an extrovert who likes public speaking, while the latter may appeal more to a soft-spoken bookworm. Contact departmental chairs or faculty members for course syllabi to get a feel for the kind of work you will do in their classes.

I just don’t have the interest or talent in those subjects.

  • How rigorous is the program?

    Well, both history and CHID require 60 credits, which is about 10-12 classes. What’s cool is that the programs overlap some, so I can take one class and get credit towards both degrees. I could double major and still graduate in four years if I want. After all of this, I’m planning on going to the University of Washington to study history, but I’ll definitely take a few CHID classes. Maybe I’ll switch when I get there or maybe I’ll double major.

    Some majors, typically engineering programs, require more classes to complete the degree than other fields. This may require certain students to choose their major earlier than others and could prevent them from double-majoring or pursuing a minor. This isn’t a problem for students who know exactly what they want to do, but longer degrees may be a red flag for those with multiple interests.

If you can get comfortable with a program before you even arrive on campus, you’ll be prepared for success in the classroom.

The key to choosing the right major is to narrow your options until you feel comfortable pursuing one or two programs. It helps to start big, evaluating your career priorities and thinking about the kind of skills you want to graduate with. From there, you can focus on more specific interests until you find the right program at the right school. Along the way, talk to faculty members and school administrators about their programs. If you can get comfortable with a program before you even arrive on campus, you’ll be prepared for success in the classroom.