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How to Choose a Major: 5 Key Factors to Consider

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Aug 4, 2017 12:00:00 PM

College Info

 

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When it comes to choosing a college major, pithy truisms and conflicting advice abound. But whose advice can you trust? In this no-nonsense guide, we’ll help you figure out how to choose a major in college based on what’s important to you.

After a brief introduction to the dilemma of choosing a major we’ll reveal the most important part of choosing a major in college. Then we’ll go over what work you should be doing to help you pick a major in a variety of situations—before college, during college, and if any special circumstances arise. Finally, we’ll give some parting thoughts on major selection.

 

What Major Should I Choose? Help Me!

I imagine that if you are reading this article, you are feeling some level of uncertainty or anxiety about choosing a college major. This is completely understandable. As parents, teachers, and counselors have no doubt hammered into you, choosing a major in college is an important decision. It’s one of the first big independent decisions of your academic and professional life. In many ways, choosing a major functions as a rite of passage in the process of becoming an adult.

Some people know what to major in in college before they even start high school. However, most people don’t, so if you have no idea how to choose a college major, don’t panic. (Even if you’re a second-semester sophomore in college!)

With that said, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what major to choose. And if you do let someone else choose for you (like your parents), you’re likely to be miserable. The truth is that the process of thoughtfully selecting the best major for you takes work—work that you need to put in yourself.

While I can’t do that work for you, I can tell you the foundational principles of investigating and ultimately picking a college major.

 

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Or just major in kitty cuddling and call it a day.

 

The Most Important Task for Picking a Major

The most important task for choosing a major in college is deciding on your own priorities and goals. Too much of the advice out there on how to pick a major assumes you have particular goals or tells you what your priorities should be.

Even your own parents may be focused on particular priorities and goals that don’t match up with yours. Family conflict around major choice is a common issue. This may be especially salient for you if your parents are paying for part (or all) of your education.

It is reasonable to listen to your parents’ concerns and advice. However, it’s important to remember that it’s ultimately your major. You will have to do the work and ultimately leverage that major as you transition into the workforce. If you are studying something you are not really interested in, you may not be very motivated to succeed (or maybe even to attend class). So you need to ask, “Which college major is right for me?”

Here’s some advice on discussing any change in your major plans with your parents. If your parents are paying for your education and they want input into your plans, you can also consider compromises like majors that are agreeable to both of you, double majors, or minors.

For you to be able to choose a college major that makes sense for you, you first need to figure out what you want out of a college major. For some people, knowing they will almost always be able to find a job throughout their lives is most important. For others, being able to pursue a particular intellectual interest is the critical factor. Most people are motivated by some combination of factors that they weigh in balance.

These factors will guide you towards the answer to the question “What college major is right for me?”

Here are some factors you will probably want to consider when you go about choosing a major:

 

#1: Your Interests

Of course, your interests are an important part of picking a major. If you really dislike what you are studying, you will be miserable. Additionally, you won’t be particularly motivated to complete your coursework. So it is essential that you are actually interested in what you are studying. As part of that, you should be able to envision yourself using at least some of the skills you are learning in your major in the workforce.

With that said, people place differing premiums on how interested they need to be in their major. For some people, only studying their one true passion—be it Greek and Roman military history or tropical horticulture—will do. However, many people have several areas of interest that they could envision themselves pursuing. For example, I considered going to art school for a BFA. I also considered majoring in biology or in English. (I ended up majoring in folklore and mythology—more on that later.) The ultimate deciding factors in my major choice weren’t necessarily related to what I was most passionate about, because I was genuinely very interested in everything I considered. Other factors came into play when I made my final decision. So your interests will likely guide you, but they may not be the primary deciding factor when you choose a major.

You will also find that new interests arise when you get to college and you have access to more possible courses of study. When I arrived at college, I was able to take classes about religion and anthropology, which ultimately led me to the folklore and mythology program. So keep an open mind about your interests throughout the major selection process, especially once you arrive at school.

 

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Her intense love of potato chips led her to food science.

 

#2: Your Abilities

You should also consider what you’re good at when you think about how to choose your major.

This doesn’t mean that you should definitely major in whatever you are best at in high school. For one thing, you will probably discover new talents in college as you take courses in areas that weren’t available to you in high school. For another thing, the thing that you’re “best” at is not necessarily what aligns best with all your other priorities and goals.

The main principle here is that it’s probably not a great idea to major in something that you know you are pretty weak in. If you’ve barely pulled C’s in math all through high school, being a math major (or a similarly math-heavy major like engineering or physics) is probably not the best move.

The bottom line is that you should be confident that you will be able to do well in most of your coursework in your area of study.

 

#3: Future Employability

When you think about how to pick your major, it makes sense to consider what kind of job prospects you will have once you have your degree. Will you be able to find a job? How hard will it be? Will you have to move to where the jobs are, or are there jobs everywhere?

There are a few ways to approach these questions. You can research professions facing shortages to get an idea of areas where you would be likely to find employment. Professions facing shortages include nursing, engineering, various computer science disciplines, accounting and finance, and teaching.   

In addition to looking at shortages, you can look at growth industries. (Of course, there’s overlap here; if there aren’t enough skilled workers available to fill these growth industries, there will be a shortage! But it’s a slightly different angle). Some industries currently experiencing growth include nursing and other allied health professionals, finance, and data science. Within those groups, there are tons of different kinds of jobs available, and a variety of potential majors could lead you into those industries.

Note that there may or may not be a very clear link between a certain major and a certain job or industry. For some majors, it’s fairly clear what sort of job(s) the degree will lead to. A degree in teaching will lead to teaching, a degree in nursing to nursing, and so on. For others, it’s less clear. A degree in communications or sociology or public policy could lead to a variety of jobs.

Thus, in terms of future employability, don’t just think in terms of what job title you will be qualified for, because those things shift all the time. Think about the skills you will learn in your major, and how much those skills are in demand. For example, as data becomes a super-important part of the economy, skills related to data and data analysis are super-valuable. This includes skills in statistical analysis and database construction and architecture. Majors in statistics and computer science are good choices if you are hoping to meet that demand.

Note also that employability and salary aren’t one and the same. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, but if you do become a teacher, you will almost certainly be able to find a job.

What does all this mean for you? Research the employability prospects associated with a particular major. Think about the skills you will learn and the potential jobs you could have, and check out the employment prospects for those skills and jobs.

While this is far from foolproof—predicting job shortages and growth isn’t 100% accurate—it still provides valuable information that can give you at least a general idea of whether you are likely to find a job easily or whether it will take more work and require more flexibility in location etc. on your part.

The school you go to also plays somewhat into your general employability. At Ivy League and other top-ranked schools, most students are generally able to find jobs (even ones that are totally unrelated to what they studied) regardless of what they majored in. This is not as true at less selective schools, where graduates may struggle much more to find a job in some less marketable fields than in other more marketable ones.

 

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Job?! Where?

 

#4: Future Income Potential

You will probably also want to consider your future income potential at least somewhat when you think about how to pick a major. This is far from an exact science but still a valuable exercise. If having a high salary is important to you, you need to be realistic about your interests; professions like teaching and social work typically pay very poorly so those may not be the best bet for a major. By contrast, majors like computer science and engineering tend to have a sunny salary outlook.

You can find lots of data on the median salary of graduates with particular majors. This is a valuable starting place. As you can see from the PayScale data, engineering, computer science, mathematics and finance-focused degrees dominate the list of best-paying majors. But it also includes physician assistant studies and government. By contrast, the lowest-paid majors tend to be concentrated in education, service industries, pastoral and religious studies, and social work and counseling.

But the median and mid-career salary data here doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. For one thing, in some of these professions, there is a high degree of income variability: graphic designers, for example, are low-paid in general, but the highest paid graphic designers can easily command six-figure salaries. You certainly can’t assume that you will be among the highest-paid in your field, but you should know when higher salaries are at least possible.

Additionally, sometimes your ultimate income potential depends a lot on graduate school. Psychology majors are low-paid unless they get advanced degrees, in which case they get a huge salary bump. So if you’re already intending on graduate school, this is something to keep in mind as you choose a major.

You can use sites like PayScale and Glassdoor to investigate the income potential of various careers that might follow from majors that you are considering.

Again, it’s hard to predict exactly what your salary could be solely based on your major, especially long-term. But doing research can at least keep you in a realistic frame of mind.

 

#5: Particular Career Interests

You might also have a very specific goal, like becoming an astrophysicist, or a doctor, or a lawyer. Some (but not all) very specific career goals require specific majors, or at least specific courses and activities. For example, if you want to be an engineer, you have to get an engineering degree. If you want to be a doctor, you need to fulfill your med school prerequisites, or else you might have to complete an expensive post-baccalaureate pre-med program later. On the other hand, if you want to be a journalist, there are lots of majors that can accommodate that goal. And if you think you might want to go to business or law school, you have plenty of leeway in your choice of undergraduate major.

If you do have a very specific goal that requires a particular academic path, that probably needs to be your top priority in how to pick a college major.

 

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Heart set on designing airplanes? You probably need to major in aeronautical engineering.

 

How to Choose a Major: Before College

There’s a good chance that you will change your mind about your major at least once you get to college. You’ll be exposed to a lot of options you didn’t consider before. You’ll also grow and change. However, there are still some things you can do before college that will help you figure out how to pick a major.

 

Start Exploring Majors Early

Your high school schedule may be pretty rigid, filled up every year with math, science, English, history/social studies, gym, and maybe a foreign language. This often leaves you with very few electives. However, there are still things you can do to explore different academic and career areas:

  • Shadowing and interviewing: Shadowing and interviewing adults you know who have careers you are interested in is a great way to figure out what you might want to study. It can also help to learn how these people got to where they are now from their college days, since many people shift around throughout their careers until they are doing something quite different from what the originally studied!
  • Reading books and articles: Reading nonfiction books and articles on a variety of subjects can also help you figure out what excites you academically. What topics do you find super-engaging, and what topics bore you to tears? This can give you some clues as to what you might want to investigate further in college when you are choosing a college major. Podcasts are another great resource for exploring different topics, especially because you can listen to them while you do chores or other mundane tasks!
  • Summer activities: The summer is a great time to do a deeper dive on things you think you might be seriously interested in pursuing. Internships, camps, classes at community colleges, and volunteering opportunities are all excellent chances to become more immersed in subjects you may not regularly study at school. Volunteer at the arboretum! Take a photography class! Do a robotics camp! There are tons of possibilities.
  • Lectures and events at local colleges: If you do live near any colleges or universities, you can take advantage of their open-to-the-public lectures and events! It’s a good chance to hear professors talk about their work, which can help you consider if you might want to do similar academic work.

With all that said, don’t feel too panicked if you can only do mostly surface-level exploration into choosing a college major at this stage. High school is a high-pressure endeavor; you will be able to consider your interests as you get to college (and throughout your life!) Just do what you can and remain thoughtful and curious about possible courses of study.

 

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Major benefit to shadowing a vet: cute animals. 

 

Plan If You Have a Specific Long-Term Goal

If you do have a very specific long-term career goal that typically requires particular schooling at the bachelor level (like engineering, teaching, or nursing), you will have to be more mindful about choosing a major and school while you are still in high school.

If you already know you are interested in a particular major, it makes sense to apply to schools with strong programs in that area. Additionally, at many schools, you have to specifically apply to a certain major or academic area.

While you should certainly keep exploring and keep an open mind, it’s typically easier to transfer out of competitive divisions like engineering or nursing than to transfer into them. So it makes sense to apply to those divisions and then transfer out if you change your mind later.

 

Select Schools and Programs Wisely

Since we have tons of advice out there on choosing a college, I won’t belabor this point. But when you are choosing schools, you should keep the following principles related to choosing a college major in mind:

The less sure you are of your interests, the more flexibility you want at your school. If you have no idea what to major in, it’s not a great idea to go somewhere where you have to declare what you are studying going in. You’re better served going to a school where you can explore for at least two semesters before you have to declare.  

If you are very sure of your major, you should still consider what your situation will be if you change your mind. If you go to a school that is highly ranked for one program and poorly ranked for everything else, think about what you might do if you want to transfer out of that highly ranked program. Will you transfer schools? Or are you fine with the possibility of finishing in a less prestigious program than you started in? Or maybe you are just very, very confident that you won’t change your mind! This also applies to things like going to art school; if you get there and decide the whole thing is not for you, your only real option is typically to transfer (at least within University divisions, if not to a different school completely). This isn’t a reason not to do it, but it is something you should be aware of.

 

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Choices here, there, and everywhere.

 

How to Choose a Major: During College

Once you get to college, here’s our six recommendations for how to pick a major:

 

Find Out Your School’s Process

The first thing to do is to determine what is your school’s process and timeline for declaring a major. You need to be aware of how much time you have to consider your options, and how to make it happen once you’ve made a choice.

Note that at some schools, different majors may even have different deadlines for officially choosing a major, so be sure to look into this.

Of course, if you had to declare a major going in, you’ve already done that process. In that case you should find out what the process is for switching majors in case you need to use it.

 

Keep Exploring

Now that you are actually at college, you will have even more chances to explore different potential areas of study. Your coursework can help you investigate subjects and departments of interest, of course. But you will also have opportunities to explore through on-campus events, lectures, and speakers. Many departments specifically host open houses and other events for prospective majors. Go to anything that seems intriguing, and try to keep an open mind.

Note as you explore that there are lots of college major quizzes on the internet. Some universities even have their own “how to choose a major” quizzes, like this college major quiz from Marquette or this one from Loyala University in Chicago. While a how-to-choose-a-major quiz can definitely be a useful way to get some ideas, you’ll need to do additional research on any majors you uncover this way. You’ll want to make sure that the information from any “What major should I choose?” quiz is accurate and that the major ideas you get from it really align with your priorities and goals. So the bottom line on college major quizzes is that they are definitely a useful tool but hardly the be-all end-all of the major selection process.

 

Make Your Schedule Multi-Task

Many students spend their first semesters fulfilling some of their general education requirements. If you can, try to use those requirements to explore academic areas you may be interested in. If you have flexibility in the classes you can take to fulfill requirements, try to take ones taught by professors in departments you are interested in. Classes with a multidisciplinary focus are great for this, too. When I was a freshman I took a combination gender studies and English class about romance literature, and another combination East Asian studies and religion class about Buddhism. Both of these multidisciplinary courses helped me refine my interests—efficiently.

Even if you don’t have much control over your general requirements, try to view your requirements as an opportunity to explore academic areas you haven’t examined before instead of just something to slog through. This will help you narrow possibilities when choosing a college major.

 

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Simon's class in botanical illustration let him explore his interests in art and biology at the same time!

 

Meet With Advisors

I’m using the term “advisors” broadly here. There are lots of people you can meet with who might have valuable insights about choosing a major. You probably have at least one school-assigned advisor. They can definitely be helpful, but you’ll also want to seek out advice from people with more specialized knowledge about the programs you are most interested in.

This includes:

  • Department advisors: Most departments have advisors available to meet with prospective students in that major. Of course, they will probably try to sell you on their department, so they may be a little biased. But you can still get valuable information from them, like info on course requirements, advising structures, research opportunities, and so on.
  • Current students in the program: Current students in majors that you are interested in can provide valuable information. They will give you the truth about the pros and cons of the program. They can tell you what you can expect from the major in terms of course load, advising, class sizes, teaching quality, and other things that can impact your experience. Additionally, you should speak with seniors in the program about their goals and what’s next for them. This can help you get an idea of the possibilities available to recent graduates.
  • Alumni: Take advantage of your school’s alumni network. You can talk to alumni who have careers you find interesting and ask them what they studied and how they got where they are. You can also talk to recent alumni who majored in programs you are considering and ask them for their thoughts on the program. Most schools have alumni directory sites with contact information. While some graduates may be too busy to talk to you, many will be receptive. Some schools even have mentoring programs where you can get an alumni mentor who is a working professional in a field that you are interested in.

 

Keep Refining Your Priorities

Keep thinking about what you are looking for in a major. It’s likely that your priorities will shift over time, especially as you get more information and experience in college. So continue doing research about potential industries, careers, skills, and so on that you might want to pursue, and keep thinking about what’s most important to you. It might be helpful to keep some kind of journal with all of your thoughts on potential majors and careers, as well as your goals.

 

Be Realistic About Downsides

Every major does have some downsides, and it’s important to be realistic about the negative things about any potential major. Here are some things to consider:

  • How large are most classes? If you have a preference for small courses but you’ll be required to take many large lectures, it may be hard for you to get the most out of that course of study.
  • How robust is advising support? Are advisors accessible and receptive, or hard to reach?
  • How is job placement for the department? Is there adequate support for students trying to find jobs or go to graduate school?
  • How prestigious is the program? At some universities, there’s lots of variation between departments in prestige.

You can most likely get lots of this information by talking to current and former students of a given department. You can also do your own research into things like program prestige and job placement.

Downsides certainly don’t have to be deal-breakers—they are just things to be mindful of as you go about choosing a major in college. After all, no major is all upside.

 

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Lots of early classes in your department? You may need to hit the coffee hard.

 

Special Situations for Choosing a College Major

In this section, we’ll discuss some special situations about picking a major, including changing majors in college, double majoring (and minoring), and creating your own major.

 

Switching Majors

How do you know when switching majors in college is a good idea? There’s no hard and fast rule as to when changing majors is a good move, but here are three things to consider:

 

How Sure You Are

If you know that you aren’t happy in your current major but you aren’t sure what you want to switch into, it may be best to take some time off. During that time off, you can figure out what you want to study through things like internships, shadowing, MOOCs, reading, and other exploratory activities. Otherwise, you risk spending some very expensive semesters dithering around on campus while you try to figure out what you’re really interested in. It doesn’t make sense to spend seven years getting your bachelor’s degree because you switch majors every semester.

 

How Close You Are to Finishing

If you are a senior and/or very close to finishing your program, it may make the most sense to finish out your degree and pursue graduate studies in whatever your new interest is. In other words, switching majors late in college is not always the best choice.

It’s usually better to spend six years in school and end up with a bachelor’s and a master’s than to spend six years in school and just end up with a bachelor’s. Most fields do have graduate degrees for people who are just entering into the field, and you can typically (though not always) command a slightly higher salary with a Master’s degree as compared to just a bachelor’s. So do your research into your prospects with respect to graduate school.

 

How Expensive It Will Be

Remember that no matter what, you can’t recoup the cost of what you’ve already completed. Acting to try to protect what you’ve already spent is known as the sunk-cost fallacy. So if it won’t cost you much more going forward to change degrees, there’s not really much downside.

But as we mentioned above, if it will be as expensive to finish a different bachelor’s as it would be to get your current bachelor’s and then a master’s in what you really want, it may be a better use of your money to finish out the bachelor’s and then get the master’s. But, again, do your research on the relative return-on-investment of a bachelor’s vs. an entry-level master’s in your new desired field.

 

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Your education is a valuable diamond. And possibly as expensive as one.

 

Double Majors and Minors

Are you torn between two pretty different fields? Double majoring may be the answer. If you’re interested in investigating this possibility, here are some things to find out:

  • Do you have to integrate the majors in any way? Some schools that allow double majoring require students to integrate the two courses of study in some way, often through a thesis or other project. If you are really interested in both majors, you may consider this a feature, not a bug. Of course, some majors may be harder to integrate than others: Religion and history? Great! Math and English? More of a stretch.
  • Can you waive or double-dip on requirements? Can you count classes towards both majors? Depending on how different the majors are, this might be difficult anyways, but it’s worth finding out. Also, sometimes departments will let you waive some requirements if you are a double-major (typically departmental electives). That makes double-majoring less difficult.
  • Can you make the schedule work? Because of the increased burden of requirements, you’ll need to pay close attention to your schedule. You’ll also need to do a lot of advance planning to make sure that you can actually fit in all of your requirements for both majors. It’s not uncommon for people who double-major to spend an extra semester on campus to finish everything up. So if spending an extra semester of tuition is a concern, it’s extra-important to make sure you can fit in everything in time.

If double-majoring is too onerous or impractical, another way to accommodate multiple interests is to minor in something. A minor typically requires 4-6 classes in a given academic area and typically shows up on your diploma. It’s a good way to get some grounding in a different field without the commitment and rigidity of double-majoring.

As with double majors, however, it’s important to plan carefully if you want a minor to make sure you can meet all the requirements you need to. I was actually one class away from two different minors, but because I didn’t plan very well, I didn’t end up getting either. One of my final classes in my major conflicted with my remaining requirements for each of the minors.

 

Creating Your Own Major

Some schools allow you to design your own major. At most schools that allow this, you need to have a pretty specific, cohesive plan about what that major will be. So you can’t just use this option to avoid actually selecting a course of study. On the contrary, this option is the best for people who have a very clear idea of what they want to study and want to closely hone in on a topic. I knew people who designed their own majors in things like global migration and climate change. These are very particular topics that lend themselves to a create-your-own major situation.

Some schools do allow you to major in something very vague like “liberal arts” or “humanities.” These courses of study often have few requirements and offer lots of flexibility in coursework. While this may be appealing, you do run somewhat of a risk of seeming like an aimless dilettante (both to employers and graduate schools).

 

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Daphne wants to major in the interpretation of oracles.

 

Parting Thoughts: Your Major Choice Is Not Your Destiny

While you should not take choosing a college major lightly, don’t allow the weight of the decision to keep you frozen in place.

It’s great to ponder questions like “What college major is right for me?” or “Which major should I choose?” But if you’re thinking anything like “What if I change my mind later and I’m stuck forever??” or “Will choosing the wrong major ruin my life??” take some deep breaths.

Your choice of major will have some repercussions for your professional life, and pretending otherwise is unrealistic. However, it absolutely will not lock you into a particular destiny for your entire life.

As a point of personal experience, I majored in Folklore and Mythology, worked in the health insurance industry after graduation, and then got a Master’s degree in Public Health. I don’t regret my choice of major at all, and I still think I made the right choice. But it was also pretty clearly not the defining decision of my academic and professional life. It did not set me on one fixed path forever.

The truth is that it’s often hard to predict exactly where a particular degree will lead. New jobs will exist when you graduate that didn’t exist when you started college. (Of course, lots of old jobs—like teacher—will still exist, too.)  

The bottom line is that while you should choose a major thoughtfully, you shouldn’t be worried that your choice of major will lock you onto a particular life track that you can never deviate from.

Don’t be trapped by the idea that you might make the “wrong” decision. You’ll learn valuable skills in college—and beyond—no matter what your major.

 

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Your major is not a trap!

 

Key Takeaways: How to Choose Your Major

If you’ve been asking yourself “What should I major in in college?” we’ve got the advice that you need.

The truth is that there’s no one foolproof method for how to choose a major in college. The most important thing is to figure out your own priorities and go from there.

Here are some factors you might want to consider when you go about choosing a college major:

  • Your interests: what do you find enjoyable and interesting?
  • Your abilities: what are you good at?
  • Future employability: How easy (or hard) will it be for you to find a job?
  • Future income potential: Are you aiming for a particular income bracket
  • Particular career interests: Do you have a specific professional interest that requires particular coursework or a particular major, or do your career interests allow for more flexibility in your major?

Here are some things you can do while you are still in high school to prepare for choosing a college major:

  • Start exploring majors early: use your free time, extracurriculars, and summer activities as a chance to explore subject areas you are interested in.
  • Plan if you have a specific long-term goal: if you know you have a specific career goal, plan your major and program choice in advance.
  • Select schools and programs wisely: if you are less sure of your major, look for more flexibility in declaring a major at your schools of choice.

And here’s how to pick a major in college in six steps:

  • Find out your school’s process for declaring a major (and any deadlines!)
  • Keep exploring potential majors and departments.
  • Make your schedule multi-task by using requirements to investigate potential majors.
  • Meet with advisors, current students, and alumni to get the scoop on the departments you are most interested in.
  • Keep refining your priorities and doing research to make sure the majors that you are considering align with your goals.
  • Be realistic about the downsides of potential majors—no major is all upside.

We also discussed switching majors, double majors and minors, and creating your own major! You’re all prepared for this major decision now.

 

What's Next?

We have more information on the best-paying college majors and the majors with the worst financial and employment outlook

Interested in becoming a doctor? Want to study law? Or is teaching more your style? We have guides to help you pursue your interests!

Need help choosing colleges? We have a guide to making a college list. We can also recommend the three best college finders and which college ranking lists you should read

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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