What Is a Major in College?

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What Is a Major in College?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on August 5, 2021

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When I was a first-year college student, every adult in my life asked me the same question: "What's your major?" I didn't have an answer. I started out college planning to major in the natural sciences but ended up graduating with a degree in history and political science.

Many students launch their college careers with an undeclared major. They start by taking general education courses and gravitate toward certain fields based on their interests, strengths, and career goals. Then — often in their sophomore year — they declare a major.

But what is a major in college? And does your major matter?

What Is a Major?

A major is the focus area for a two- or four-year degree. Undergraduates choose a major in order to specialize their degree in a particular field. Whether they're a business major or a biology major, undergrads take coursework related to their major to graduate.

However, a major doesn't determine every class you take in college. A bachelor's degree typically requires around 120 credits. Most majors require 30-36 credits of coursework. The other credits are dedicated to gen ed requirements, minor coursework, and electives. Some students also choose to double major, or earn majors in two different departments.

Large universities often offer 100 or more different majors. Even many small liberal arts colleges offer a few dozen options.

Major Disciplines

Majors fall into disciplinary categories. Nearly 60% of bachelor's degrees fall into one of six disciplines:

Within those disciplines, undergrads can specialize in particular majors. For example, within business, students might choose an accounting or finance major. In engineering, majors may be dedicated to fields like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and aerospace engineering.

Even beyond disciplines, most colleges organize majors according to their broad field. Universities often have a college of arts and sciences, which offers liberal arts majors in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Colleges and universities also operate schools devoted to business, education, and engineering.

Choosing a Major

At many colleges, incoming students do not declare a major. Instead, they take classes as an undeclared student.

Departments typically set prerequisite courses that students must pass before they can declare a major. For example, prospective psychology majors take introductory-level courses in psychology. These prerequisites give undergrads a chance to learn more about a field and make sure it's a good fit.

While a majority of undergrads choose one of the most popular majors, many colleges offer unique majors that stand out on a resume. Uncommon majors, like fashion consulting or paper science, aren't available at every school. Instead, they provide specialized training in a rare field.

Many colleges also let students design their own interdisciplinary major. A general studies or liberal arts major, for example, allows undergrads to take courses across many departments.

Students can also switch their major. According to U.S. Department of Education data, around 1 in 3 undergrads changes their major on the way to earning a bachelor's degree. And 1 in 10 switches majors more than once.

Completing a Major

After declaring a major, undergrads must meet departmental requirements to earn their degree. Every department sets its own requirements. For instance, many history departments expect majors to take at least some ancient history courses and some non-Western history courses.

Departments also set a minimum number of upper-division courses in the major. That might include a senior seminar or capstone course. During these classes, students look back at their major coursework and complete a paper, research project, or culminating assignment.

Does Your Major Matter?

While every graduate receives a diploma, those diplomas list all kinds of majors. But does your major matter? Do employers care about your major?

For many students, their specific major won't have the single biggest impact on their career or job prospects. When The Atlantic looked into hiring practices, it found that employers cared more about work experience and internships than college majors.

The importance of your major depends largely on your target industry. For example, The Atlantic reported that the healthcare industry cared more about people's majors than other fields did. Alternatively, STEM jobs ranked lower in caring about majors, likely because job skills matter more than a specific major in those positions.

In some cases, your major matters a lot. If you're planning to enroll in a graduate program, you should probably major in the same field or one that's closely related. For me, my history major helped me get into grad school and earn a Ph.D. in history.

Similarly, if you have clear professional goals, consider a major that can lead to that career. Most students should choose a major that blends their interests and strengths. Additionally, whether you study archaeology or accounting, focus on developing transferable soft skills, like critical thinking, analysis, and communication.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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