The Ultimate Guide for Choosing the Right College Major
For countless people, the transition between high school and college is one of the biggest of their lives. While the newfound independence and the lifestyle of a college student can be very exciting, making this transition also comes with a lot of responsibilities. Even before starting college, there is already immense pressure associated with applications and the decisions that need to be made throughout this process.
Starting with choosing a college and picking a major, each decision can seem like an all-or-nothing situation – you either pick right and end up very happy with a great career or you pick wrong and ruin your entire future. Especially as you pick a major, you can easily feel like each choice will dictate your fate irreversibly.
In honesty, choosing your major (along with most other decisions) isn’t that earth-shattering but it is still important. As such, no matter how lost you may feel right now, there are a few steps that you can take to help you organize your ideas and thoughts and find the right major for you. And no matter what decision you make, as you’ll see, it won’t determine your entire life.
To start off, we need to understand how this process works and what options you have.
How do majors work?
In order to earn a bachelor’s degree, you need to complete a specific number of credits and some of these have to be earned through particular courses. How many specific credits you need and what courses are required depend on the college and major you select.
In general, there are three types of courses you’ll complete while at college – general education courses, major courses, and electives.
General education courses are a requirement for all students, independently of their major, and typically pertain to areas like writing, foreign languages, or math that the college feels all students should learn.
Electives, on the other hand, are classes you simply choose to take, even if not related to your major, whether because you have a specific interest, want to learn something new, or just need the credits.
Major courses allow students to learn about a specific area in depth and gain the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue a career related to it.
So, for example, if you were to declare a biology major at Stanford, you’d need to complete courses in that area like Genetics, Ecology, and Physiology.
In essence, a major makes up the core of a bachelor’s degree and, in theory, should be the field that you wish to pursue a career in. Taking the previous example, with a major in biology, you would probably end up pursuing a career in an area like biomedical research or habitat preservation.
Do I need to pick a major before entering college?
The short answer is no. While you can declare a major upon enrollment, in most cases you don’t have to make a decision until the end of your sophomore year. In fact, given that you need to complete not just your major courses, but also general education courses, some colleges even expect students to focus on the latter first and only then start their major courses.
Nevertheless, this is not always the case and for some majors, you need to decide earlier on so that you get enough time to complete all the requirements.
The key is to start thinking about majors as soon as possible and check the requirements for each area that interests you so that you’re prepared.
If you decide to enroll without declaring a major, it may seem stressful to see other people make their decision before you. It’s important to remember that the goal is to find the right path for you and more time for reflection can be extremely beneficial.
Plus, research shows that there isn’t a difference in persistence between those who declare a major at enrollment and those who do it later down the line, so you can be assured that taking extra time won’t harm your performance.
Will this choice determine my future?
Choosing a major in college obviously has implications for the future.
As indicated by research, in the short term, the major you pick will dictate some of the classes you take, and therefore impacts the skills and knowledge you gain, the people you meet, and your general college experience.
In the long term, as you graduate, the major you pick will impact your career path, as you’ll have a specific set of options that you’ll be qualified for. As a result, it will also affect your earning potential, your lifestyle, and your workplace environment. Depending on your major and your goals for the future you may also have to opt into graduate school.
Nevertheless, the choice of a major doesn’t need to define your future and you can eventually change your mind.
What happens if I change my mind?
It may not seem that way, but it’s common for students to reconsider their choice.
Research shows that more than a third of students end up switching majors while at college.
As Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin Speer put it in their research paper, a “major choice is best understood as a process”.
The fact of the matter is, when students start considering their future career path and try to decide on a major, there are several practical aspects they don’t know enough about to make the best decision.
One such aspect is the understanding of what it’s like to work in a given field in practice. Before starting a degree in a particular field and entering a career, it can be very hard to judge what our experience will be like. We’ve all been in situations in which the reality of an event just didn’t live up to our expectations.
The research that has been conducted in this area shows that students that switch majors usually do so because of a discrepancy between their expectations and reality.
Typically, this occurs because students may have a lower academic performance than expected or they may simply realize that the field was not what they expected or truly wanted. Even the environment and culture in a given field can drive students away as it may simply not fit in with their personality and values.
However, none of this means that students shouldn’t focus on making the best possible choice from the start. While it’s possible to reconsider your options and eventually change majors, it’s better to take more time and ensure you pick the best possible fit for you.
In general, you can consider 2 main reasons why choosing the right major is absolutely essential.
Firstly, picking the wrong major can cause unnecessary unhappiness and demotivation throughout your degree and also later during your career. Further, if you end up regretting your choice, and end up either changing your major or completing another degree, you’ll have to spend more time and money.
How do you choose the right major?
As we’ve seen, choosing a major is an important and complex decision. Each person has their own reasons for picking a particular area, but in general, there are a set of parameters we can look at that could help us decide. According to research, these are the factors people consciously and unconsciously use when making this decision.
The following infographic summarizes the main parameters use when picking a major. However, it’s very important to understand that the weight you place on each factor is entirely dependent on you and what you find to be most important. That is crucial when going through this process.
Past and Present Experiences
A piece of advice that you commonly hear when discussing the choice of a major and career path is to think about the classes you enjoyed most and about your interests and hobbies. While it is true that this is a good starting point, as individuals we can have so many different interests that it can become confusing to know how to then make a choice.
When I was in high school, I loved both biology and math. I also enjoyed other areas like writing, arts, and philosophy. I was involved in Chemistry after-school activities, participated in Biology and Math tournaments, mentored young children in science, and wrote personal essays regularly as a hobby. The point here is, my interests and passions were varied and so when people told me to make a decision based on these, I was completely lost.
In honesty, I eventually chose mostly based on my gut. I picked a field that I knew would be very flexible, in one of the many areas I was interested in. Eventually, I moved to the UK where I completed a bachelor’s degree in Biology and now, I’m a science communicator, which has allowed me to combine science with my long-standing love of writing.
For me this worked out, but for many people it doesn’t. This is because we often forget an important part – being interested in something does not mean that you can (or should) make a career out of it. Turning something you like into a career can be incredibly hard and many times takes the joy out of that interest.
➔ Make a list of your interests, but try to relate those to real jobs. For example, if you like biology think of jobs like research, preservation, or teaching.
It can be very hard to imagine yourself working a specific job, especially as you’ve never had that experience, so you need to focus on the experiences you have had, such as classes, school activities, outside-of-school programs, etc.
➔ What did you enjoy the most out of each experience and how does that fit into the jobs a major would lead you to?
➔ What did you feel the most confidence doing? What did you achieve best in?
This then leads us to two main areas of consideration: personal and practical.
A common denominator in all options that you can’t change is you. No matter what major (and eventually job) you choose, you’ll be the one that has to take the classes, complete the degree and work in that area.
As such it’s important that both the area you pick is a right fit for you, but also that you’re suited for that field.
On one hand, you need to think carefully about your identity. Think about your personality and your values. Be fully honest in your reflection and don’t be afraid to write it all out to have a visual guide. It may even be helpful to get some of the people closest to you to help you with this step.
Research points in the direction of orientations, which are cultural and personal ideas that unconsciously impact our decisions. These are essentially ideas rooted in all of us that we value without even being aware of them. Examples of these include satisfying other people’s desires, helping people, or accommodating a rich social life.
As hard as it may be, the more you reflect on these and essentially build a map of your individual personality, the easier it could be to make the right decision.
➔ Within the options you have found so far, what areas best fit in with your personality traits, values, and orientations? What areas do you identify with the most?
On the other hand, you need to consider how you’d fit into these fields. You want to find a major (and in the future a career) that not only brings you satisfaction but that you can also succeed in.
➔ In what fields could you see your traits become assets as you study and work? Reversely, where could your traits deter you from succeeding?
Considering the weight that this decision could ultimately have on your future, it’s also important to consider more practical aspects. As such, you need to decide on your goals for college and, as much as possible, for the future. This doesn’t mean you need to create a detailed outline of the next 10 years. Just consider what you’d generally like your time in college and adult life to be like.
Just consider what you’d generally like your time in college and adult life to be like.
In regard to college objectives, you can think about aspects like your desired lifestyle while in college.
➔ Do you want to focus more on the social or academic components of college? How would that fit in with the requirements for each major you are considering?
➔ What expectations do you have, academically, for yourself and your major?
Further, depending on the field you pick you may need to consider attending graduate school as well. Is that something you’d be willing to do, or would you rather opt for a major that would give you the opportunity to enter the job market immediately upon graduation?
When you start considering a major and career, you can opt to first select a college and major and pick a career after, according to your experience throughout college. That was my personal choice but, of course, some people prefer to first choose a career to work towards and decide on a college and major depending on that.
Both options involve risks as none gives you a guarantee that you won’t change your mind and later decide you want to pursue something else. However, if you choose to select a major first rather than a career, you may want to consider the flexibility of the degree.
Essentially, different majors will give you different opportunities at the end as the skills and knowledge you gain throughout your degree also vary. So, you may want to opt for a major that gives you a wider range of options in terms of job opportunities upon graduation.
When selecting a specific field, there are also career goals you need to set early on.
➔ How does each career option fit into your desired lifestyle for the future? How much money and what benefits can you expect to earn in each field?
➔ What type of workplace environment are you looking for? For example, do you prefer to work alone or as a team? What areas can offer you that work environment?
➔ If you’re considering a career in specific, what is the demand for people in this area?
➔ When looking into the future, and the development of new technologies, can you expect this to be a lasting field?
How can the STEAM in AI College Prep Program help?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress because of these decisions and college applications, read our article on that topic here.
Perhaps at the end of this process, you’re still not completely sure of what major to pursue. Maybe you’re finding it hard to understand what it would really be like to study and work in a particular field. If that’s the case, the STEAM in AI mentoring program could be very helpful for you.
In this program, you’ll be matched with a mentor working in the field that you are interested in within STEAM. While completing a series of mentoring sessions, you have the chance to create an original and unique project of your own choosing.
So, by connecting with someone already in the field you’re interested in, you can find out more about that area, specific colleges, and majors, as well as discover what conventional and non-conventional career paths may be available and how they function.
You’ll also receive important guidance that will help you as you develop your project. One of the main goals of this would be to give you a more realistic experience of what working in a particular field is like. As research shows, it can be extremely beneficial for students to participate in activities and programs that allow them to freely explore an area with limited risk.
Further, the STEAM in AI Research and Build Program can provide you with skills and knowledge that you can use down the line. For example, you can use your experience in the program to stand out as you apply to college.