Choosing a College Major: Advice From Recent Grads
- Many students struggle with choosing a college major that's right for them.
- Recent graduates recommend staying open to possibilities and exploring your interests.
- Students should also remain flexible, as passions and pathways can change with experience.
Choosing a college major can be difficult, no matter your age or background. For some students, just narrowing the list of potential majors can prove tricky. But even if you enroll with a particular major or career in mind, the realities of coursework, the program length, and degree requirements could discourage you from pursuing your chosen path.
Regardless of how thoroughly you might've mapped out your academic and professional journey, college is an incredible opportunity to discover new interests and shape your career.
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Ready to start your journey?
For this post, we asked six recent college graduates how their experiences in school altered, reinforced, and influenced their pathways. Learn about their biggest tips for choosing a college major, as well as what they wish they knew before committing to their own areas of study.
The Recent Grad
"Be flexible and willing to learn. I think college is a great way to get the fundamentals of what you want to do, but being flexible is really how I got my job today. Be open to new experiences and be comfortable trying things even if it might not be the right fit."
I went to La Salle University in Philadelphia, where I planned to major in accounting or business because that's what my parents and family were interested in and I thought I could make some money. However, right before I got there, I switched to psychology because I was inspired by an AP psych class I took in high school. I eventually changed to digital art and multimedia design as my primary major, with psychology as my secondary major.
My junior year, I got a job on campus as a graphic designer. I also had an internship at La Salle for the entrepreneurship center doing graphic design.
Out of college, I started as Slice's graphic design intern, which turned into a freelance position for email marketing using a lot of graphic design. I ended up transitioning to full time just four months later and decided to stay with Slice because of how much I could learn.
A lot of what I learned in psychology applies toward the work I'm currently doing in marketing and has helped me understand some of the clients we work with.
The Career Changer
"Be open to different possibilities. Make sure to explore all your options and not just one that falls within your specialty."
I majored in criminal justice and minored in political science at Northeastern University in Boston. I was, and still am, a huge "Law and Order" fan, and while I knew it wasn't going to be like TV, I began really looking into working in criminal justice. I initially started on the legal track and then around my junior year switched to law enforcement.
At that time the economy was still down, so I had very limited job prospects. I even traveled to all the major cities on the East Coast and went to job fairs in New York and Washington, D.C., but couldn't find anything.
All the jobs I wanted that were related to my degree were extremely competitive, so I decided to enlist in the military. I had known about intelligence before through one of my internships in college; however, I had never really considered it until that point, so that ended up fitting into my enlistment contract.
I am actually changing careers again and am now going to school for a master's in dance movement therapy. I came a long way to get to that path: I had to go through my own cycle of mental health and well-being to realize that this was the path I needed to be on. I started my own dance company outside the military. My goal is to own a dance practice when I retire.
"It is never selfish to follow a path that you are gifted in, even if you can't see the practical way it will benefit the world at the time. The world needs people with confidence in their gifts who enjoy what they do. Do it for you rather than worrying about what others think."
I graduated from St. Ambrose University with a BA in psychology and a BS in biology. I attended graduate school for English at Western Illinois University, and for rhetorics, communication, and information design at Clemson University. When I started school, I was primarily interested in art and considered applying to art institutions.
Progressing through psychology courses aligned with my personal convictions regarding animal welfare, and I hoped to get involved in animal behavior. I was told that veterinary medicine was perhaps the more practical way to go for employment, so I decided to add a biology major and apply to veterinary medicine programs; however, veterinary medicine was hard to get into, and it seemed to be more of a stretch for me from my initial creative interests in art and English.
After working for several years as a vet tech, I returned to my initial academic interests and completed an MA in English with the hope of teaching. I was able to write a dissertation with faculty from English, biology, and art on my committee. It was really liberating and made this varied and meandering journey through my education culminate in a truly wonderful way.
The Major Changer
"I tell [my students], 'Start thinking about what you want to do.' In all my classes I give them career options. So hopefully by their junior year they're thinking about it, because I know I was privileged to be able to know from my junior year on that I wanted to be a professor. If I can get [my students] by junior year to at least have a decent idea of what kind of job they want, then they'll be much better off."
I went to the University of Illinois Springfield and majored in criminal justice before continuing on to Southern Illinois University. I am now an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Originally, I was a history major, but then I looked at my grades one year and realized I wasn't very good at studying history; however, I had all A's in my criminal justice classes.
I knew I wanted to be a professor — I wanted to teach and write. I went into an MA program and as I was finishing that, the school began developing a Ph.D. program, so I joined that program's first cohort.
I'm lucky I picked something I was good at. I love criminal justice, and I get to do what I love every day. I can totally understand getting a degree that might get you a good-paying job, but just not having your heart in it. So I really encourage students to think about what they like to study, what they're good at studying, the types of jobs their degree could lead to, and whether they think they'll enjoy that field.
Dr. Alyssa Gilston
"What I think is really important is that — whether you're a young adult or an older adult — everyone needs to understand there is more than one way to your goal. You don't need to keep going straight through; it's OK to take a break, it's OK to take time off. It can help you figure out if you're on the right path or, more importantly, if you're not on the right path. It's OK if your plans change — sometimes you need to change plans because it's necessary."
My doctorate is in clinical psychology, but that was not my plan at all. I went to George Washington University because I thought I wanted to go to law school, so I majored in political science. But when I took a political science class in an enormous auditorium with around 250 students, I hated it. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Then, I took a psychology course, also in one of those really big auditoriums, and really liked it.
I ended up transferring back to New Jersey. There, I graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University and switched my major to psychology. It just goes to show how you think you have a plan — you can know what you're going to do and be sure of it — and yet that's not always what happens.
I have a bachelor's in psychology, a master's in clinical psychology, another master's in clinical counseling, and a doctorate in psychology. It took me a while to complete my doctoral goal, and that wasn't even a goal in the beginning.
Now, I teach 99% online. I write courses and chapters in textbooks. I teach, review other courses, chair dissertations, and sit on many academic boards. I do so many different things — but nothing I had planned to do.
"You have to have passion, and you have to have ability. I tell students, 'Your life is going to work out.' I was very stressed about doing the wrong thing, and given all the different schooling and career changes I made, I would tell myself, 'Just relax and tell yourself things are going to work out.' You have to go for what you're passionate about."
I went to Providence College where I initially majored in education and minored in business. I became more interested in business classes, though, so I switched my major to business my sophomore year. Soon after, I came to the realization that if I decided to go back to teaching, I couldn't do it unless I had teaching certification. So I changed my major back to teaching and continued my minor in business.
After that I went into business for eight years, working for several small companies. The plan was to make money and get back into teaching someday. Eight years in, I was making a decent amount of money and thought, "If I don't leave now, I'll never be able to leave the money."
I went back to school and decided to major in counseling so that I could get a guidance degree. I was very fortunate and went to Harvard University for that degree, which was in risk and prevention counseling.
My original plan when I went to Harvard was to go for a year and then move to California. When I moved to California, I spent two years preparing to start my own business in test prep and admissions. Now, I own a company called Total Student Support.
Feature Image: Maskot / Maskot / Getty Images
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