The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

October 5, 2021

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Choosing a major can be tricky, especially if you have multiple interests or don't know what kind of career you want to pursue. According to a 2020 BestColleges study, 3 in 5 college graduates would change their majors if they could go back.

There are many factors you should consider before committing to a major, including the program cost, salary expectations, and employment rates in that field. In addition, you should think about your personality, personal and professional goals, and interests.

Including these variables in your decision process can help ensure you choose a major that resonates with your personal mission, values, and passions.

6 Key Factors to Consider When Choosing a Major

Choosing a major represents a significant step in the college process, and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Here are six factors to consider before committing to a major.

1. What Are Your Biggest Priorities?

Some students pursue certain majors primarily based upon salary potential and job demand. Alternatively, other students choose majors they're passionate about and/or highly skilled in. Before you choose a major, think about which of these three factors — economic advantage, interest level, and ability — are most important and relevant to you and your future goals.

2. What Are You Interested In?

Studies have found that students tend to perform better in school when they can focus on their interests. Unfortunately, it's not always easy for a student to identify their interests.

To get help with this, consider taking a personality quiz. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire can help you determine subjects that closely align with your personality and interests.

This popular assessment uses your habits and attitudes to generate one of 16 personality types, written as a combination of four letters. Examples include ISFJ (introverted, sensing, feeling, and judging) and ENTP (extroverted, intuitive, thinking, and perceiving).

You can also explore potential areas of study and career paths by joining student clubs, volunteering, working a part-time job on campus, managing a side hustle, or completing internships.

3. What Are You Good At?

Understanding your natural skills and talents can go a long way in helping you make an informed and confident decision when choosing a major. It may be your parents' dream for you to be an artist, but what if you skew more toward business or the sciences? Just because someone else has a degree path in mind doesn't mean it's right for you.

One way of determining which academic fields best suit you is to take a close look at your class grades in high school, as well as your ACT or SAT scores. Doing this can highlight your strengths in specific academic areas.

4. What Are the Highest-Paying Fields?

When considering which major to pursue, determine how important salary and salary potential weigh into your decision-making process. If you're motivated by high earnings, pursuing a degree in a STEM-related field may appeal to you.

That said, some students care more about the importance of their work than the salary offered; they don't want a job just for the money. Non-STEM degrees that students are often passionate about relate to human services, education, and visual/performing arts.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a regularly updated list of positions offering the highest wages. Psychiatrists rank high on this list, as do oral and maxillofacial surgeons, obstetricians and gynecologists, and general internal medicine physicians.

If you want a job outside of medicine and healthcare, other positions with high salaries include chief executive, airline pilot, computer and information systems manager, architectural and engineering manager, and marketing manager.

5. How Rigorous Will the Coursework Be?

Some majors may feel harder than others based on factors like typical homework load, course expectations, and frequency of exams. Your core classes (i.e., classes specifically related to your major) will make up a significant portion of your college course load. So, before you declare a major, make sure you understand how rigorous your weekly workload will be.

Indiana University Bloomington's National Survey of Student Engagement, carried out in 2016, determined the most difficult majors based on the average time students spent per week preparing for classes. The hardest majors included architecture, chemical engineering, and aeronautical engineering.

Easier majors, which typically required less prep time, included fields like criminal justice, communication, and public relations.

6. What Does Your Academic Advisor Say?

Checking in with your academic advisor is one of the most important steps you can take when deciding on a major. They've had similar conversations with hundreds of students and can provide insightful wisdom into picking a major. Your advisor may even propose a major you hadn't previously considered that meets your academic and career goals.

When speaking with an academic advisor, remember that their time is valuable and limited. Come to the meeting with a list of thoughtful questions to ask.

Should You Double Major in College?

Undergraduates aren't necessarily limited to one field of study. Most colleges and universities allow students to double major or even triple major. Normally, students who double major choose two academic fields that complement each other, though you're not required to do this.

For example, students hoping to establish careers in international business might double major in business management and a foreign language. Other popular major combinations include accounting and finance, engineering and math, political science and philosophy, and criminal justice and psychology.

If you don't have enough room in your class schedule to pursue two majors, you can also declare a minor in a secondary subject that interests you.

What If You Want to Design Your Own Major?

Recognizing that many learners have specific interests and career aspirations, several colleges now allow learners to design their own interdisciplinary majors. If you're considering this path, it's important to carefully review existing majors to ensure no existing option meets your needs.

Next, you should consider whether your proposed individual major meets current and future career requirements.

Lastly, you should speak with your advisor to get their input on important classes to include in your curriculum. You can also speak to other students who created their own majors to learn about the pros and cons of this decision.

Some examples of student-created majors include music and technology, public education history, and psychology of marketing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing a Major

When do you have to declare a major? true

It depends on the school. Some students enter their first year with a declared major, while others can wait until their junior year. Individual departments may set their own rules, so make sure you ask.

What should you do if you can't decide on a major? true

If you can't decide on a major, you have several options. Taking classes from different disciplines can help narrow your choices, as can meeting with your academic advisor to review the pros and cons of the options you're considering.

Can you change your major? true

Yes, you can always change your major. That said, if you complete a significant number of classes related to one major and then switch to another, you may need to stay in school longer to meet the credit requirements of your new major.

Does it look bad to colleges if you apply with an undecided major? true

Definitely not. Colleges want students to think carefully about their decisions and not rush into any major if they're unsure.

Feature Image: exdez / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

Some college majors are more popular than others due to their high earning potential and strong job prospects. Learn what the top 10 majors are in this guide. Choosing a college major is a decision many students agonize over. Here, recent grads offer new students advice they wish they'd heard earlier. Many students flock to just a handful of popular majors, leading to crowded fields. A well-chosen major and minor can give you a competitive edge for jobs.