How to Choose a College Major and Why it Matters
Choosing a college major is, well, a major decision!
Students may struggle with choosing a major, thinking that their future work life, income and happiness are closely tied to the choice. Combine that with the fact that there are now hundreds of majors to choose from as well, the decision can feel pretty daunting.
While there is a connection between college majors and careers and income potential, there’s more to the major story.
In the face of today’s astronomical college costs and potential for burdensome student and parent debt, getting a handle on the choice of major, and timing of choosing the major, can play a significant role in helping you better manage your costs.
What is a college major?
A major is a focused subject area that leads to a college degree. Students earn college degrees by completing courses in general studies combined with courses concentrated in the academic major. For most schools, approximately one-third to one-half of courses will be completed for the major.
College majors are typically divided into two categories: Arts and Sciences.
Art-based majors leading to Bachelor of Arts degrees prioritize broader studies – the humanities – art, writing and philosophy. Generally, more elective style classes are required to complete the B.A. degree.
Science-based majors leading to Bachelor of Science degrees prioritize more technical studies that are science and math oriented. Generally, more classes specific to the major may be required (instead of electives) to complete the B.S. degree.
Whether a major leads to a B.S. or B.A. is actually determined by each school, and there is variation between schools.
When do you choose a major?
Students can identify their major as early as during the application process, during enrollment or orientation. Most four-year institutions require students to officially choose or “declare” their major by the end of sophomore year.
But students can also change their minds and their majors. Changing majors is pretty common, with perhaps upwards of 80% of students making a change at least once. A couple of reasons cited for changing majors are students feeling like they rushed into making their choice or students not enjoying what they chose.
However, for families looking to curb their costs, the choice of major and changing a major late in the process, can significantly impact what you end-up paying for college.
- During your college planning phase, having students consider majors or at least expressing an interest in a general field of study can help narrow down your school search and selection. And school selection is ultimately the primary driver of your college costs. So, since schools are not uniformly great across all departments, choosing a college should start with a focus on the quality of the academic department for the student’s intended major or field of study. With this approach, hopefully you avoid choosing a school that doesn’t meet the academic needs of your student, as well as avoid paying for a more expensive school when a less expensive school would be a better financial choice, given the chosen major.
- Changing majors may require additional classes or earning more credits in the new major, which could put your student on the path to taking longer to graduate. Taking longer to graduate leads to higher college costs. Nearly 60% of all college students do not graduate on time. And, students delaying their decision on a major, may potentially lose valuable time from freshman and sophomore years that could otherwise be spent completing at least some prerequisite courses for the major, which could also lead to taking longer to graduate. It’s worth repeating…taking longer to graduate means more money out of your pocket.
While students do not have to lock-into a major right away, having some sense of direction, especially during the college search and selection process, can help keep you more in control of your college costs.
How to choose the right major
Today, there are hundreds of majors to choose from. As an example, MyMajors.com has a list of 1,800 of them. You can scroll through categories and then drill down into more specific majors and related majors. You can view the wide range of career choices available from the variety of majors.
Also, the Career Outlook information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics links college majors with careers. In this example, consider some of the career paths just for a biology major, spanning healthcare to management to financial operations and more.
No doubt, there is something out there for every student.
However, having so many choices may also feel overwhelming and lead to procrastination and indecision. An easier starting point, consider subjects and career fields that:
- Align with student strengths and interests; students are able to play to their strengths and focus on subjects they enjoy learning.
- Feel like a good personality fit; truly enjoying a subject and having it resonate with you as a person is a surefire way to become more engaged with what you’re learning.
- Have relevant earnings potential; improve the return on your college investment by considering future income opportunities. Using a tool like Payscale.com can provide insights about expected outcomes for different schools and majors. You can also search for and compare schools based on future income potential.
To help students dig deeper in uncovering more about themselves and matching to majors, here are examples of a few online tools:
- Holland Code Career Test from Truity: A free and fun tool, where after answering a few questions, it outlines career interest areas and then identifies sample jobs, career fields and areas of study.
- Career Finder from College Board: The Career Finder helps students see what careers are compatible with what they like and gives students freedom to explore different careers. Students can select various skills, work styles, and interests to further narrow down their options.
- College Major Quiz by ThoughtCo.: This is a quick, light-hearted personality-based quiz that suggests a few career ideas to consider and ones to avoid.
There are several online tools that can help students ease their angst around choosing a major. Students should also chat with parents, high school counselors and college academic advisors for additional insights.
Choosing a college major is an important step on the road to and through college.
From the school selection process and into jobs and careers, the major helps pave the way forward.
But, don’t let the process of choosing a major, or a late major declaration, stymie student progress and lead you to higher college costs.
Choosing a major does not have to limit student exploration and learning. Remember, upwards of half of college courses needed to earn a degree will not be related to the major, so there is time and opportunity to tryout other interests.
Additionally, an undergraduate degree is not the end-all, be-all to learning or success in life! Students can pursue graduate school or internships or certifications for more advanced learning and specializations. And while a college major can lead to a specific career, it can also lead to many different careers. There is more than one path to success.
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