Selecting a College Major

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The Savvy Student's Guide to College Education---Chapter Two

The Big Picture

One of the most exciting parts of applying to college is thinking about what the major focus of your studies will be once you get there. In choosing a major, students will want to get a good understanding of all the possible majors that are out there, since most high schools don't offer classes in every single major. After doing that research, students may want to think about what they'd like to do as a job or career, since many jobs require students to complete some kind of training in a specific major. By completing interest inventories and aptitude tests, students will get a sense of the careers they may like, and what careers they have special talents in. Once these are complete, students will want to visit college campuses to get a better understanding of what it's like to study that major on a regular basis.

Many students who begin college with one major will change to another major—in fact, most students will change their major at least three times. These changes can be made for a number of reasons, but with each change, it is important that the student understand how many of the classes they've already completed will apply to their new major, and how many additional classes they may have to take. Students who start college without a major may want to consider attending a liberal arts college, where programs are designed for students to investigate different majors in the first two years. Other students who are undecided in their major may want to design their own major, an option that is available at most colleges. Attending other colleges as an Undecided major is always an option, but students will want to work closely with an advisor once they do choose a major, so they can understand how many of their classes will transfer into that major, and know what classes to take to complete their degree on time.

“So, what's your major?”

When you're heading for college, it seems like everyone asks you this, along with “Where are you going to college?” It's also the question you'll be asked the most once you get to college, as your fellow freshmen try to get to know you better.

Since you hear this question so often, it's understandable that you want to have an answer—and a really good one. But how do you know what you want to major in? What if you change your mind? What if you don't know what major is right for you—can you still go to college?

These are all great questions, and they all have more than one answer. Let's take a look.

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Researching Majors

Check the College Catalog

The first step towards doing a really strong search for majors is realizing there are lots of majors out there you don't know about. Too many high school students use the subjects offered in high school as their only guide to choosing a major, when colleges offer so many more academic regions to explore. Consider this partial list of majors that aren't covered in most high schools:

And more are being created every year.

If you really want to get a good idea of what's out there, spend about 15 minutes looking at the list of majors of any large university. I pulled most of these from Michigan State University, but the majors list of your local state university will be just as interesting. Once your 15 minutes is up, write down the names of every major you remember. You've just seen a lot of majors, but some are staying with you, and there's a reason for that. Pick a couple, and do a Google search of them, to see what that field is all about, and whether it might be of interest to you.

Consider Your Career Options

Another way to create a list of possible majors is to think about the careers you might be interested in. Getting some ideas about jobs that might interest you is as easy as taking an interest inventory, which doesn't take long, and can offer some great ideas on careers you might like, and might not like.

There are quite a few interest inventories out there for you to use. If you're in high school, there's a very good chance your school will give you an interest inventory of some kind in ninth or tenth grade. If they don't offer one, take a look at programs like Assessment.com or College Board's My Road program. These results give you some ideas about possible careers, but remember: these aren't the careers you have to pursue. They're just some possibilities.

It's important to remember that these interest inventories don't cover all careers, and the results they give are based on the kinds of activities you like to do. Some of the careers you find may require some level of skill, or aptitude, that make it more challenging for you. Aptitude tests also exist online, but the results of these tests aren't always reliable. Many aptitude tests ask you to rate your own abilities, which means the results are based on how you see yourself—they don't actually measure your skills. For example, you may see your physical strength as very low, compared to your friends—but if your friends are all football players, you might actually be very strong compared to most people.

A nice beginning, self-evaluating aptitude test can be found here, but if you're looking for an aptitude test that actually measures your skills, it's tough to beat the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. The ASVAB is often given by high schools, or by a local armed services recruiter, and since the test is required of everyone applying to join the military, it's very likely you will be getting a lot of phone calls and email from recruiters once you take the test. You can certainly take other aptitude tests, but they will likely require a fee. Check with your school counselor.

Once you have a sense of the kind of careers that might interest you, it's time to look at the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The OOH gives you an outline of the kinds of education experience you need to have, including what you may need to study in college.

This is a very important piece of information, since many people assume that a career has just one or two majors associated with it, when there are usually many majors associated with a career. This is especially true for students interested in becoming doctors and lawyers, where they think they have to be a pre-med major or a pre-law major. Where that used to be true, most medical schools and law schools are now interested in students from all kinds of backgrounds. It will still be important to study organic chemistry and anatomy before applying to medical school, but many programs will now accept medical students who majored in Engineering, Business, History, and even Music. The same is true for law schools, where they're looking for good thinkers and good writers—and what major doesn't help you do both of these things?

Seeing the major in action

Once you develop a list of possible majors, it's time to take a campus tour. In addition to talking to people in the admissions office, you'll want to make sure you have time to sit in on a class in the major you're interested in, or talk with the academic advisor in the department where your major is offered. Conversations with advisors are a great way to get the latest information about the major, including new career fields where the major is popular, and new classes being offered in the major. Academic advisors are often the experts in connecting majors with jobs, so they are good people to know!

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Changing a Major

So you've investigated the options, done some research on majors, looked into some of the career options related to the major, and decided on your major.

And then it happens. You're in the middle of an economics class you're taking as a Business major, and it makes no sense to you. You're about to dissect your first frog as a pre-Med major, and you faint at the sight of blood. You talk to a visiting professor as a Music major, and find out they really don't make any money. What now?

It's important to know that people change majors all the time. There aren't any formal studies on this issue, but the general rule in college is that most people will change their major at least three times once they're in college—and that doesn't even include the major you choose before you start. Some will find the subject too easy, others will find it too hard, and many will find it uninteresting, but there are other reasons why people change majors that they have control over. Keep these in mind as you research possible majors.

You don't want to think about the subject all the time

Many people begin studying a subject they like, only to discover they don't really want to talk about it every single day of the week. Just like people who will watch only one baseball game a year, there's a limit to how interested some people are in Biology, or Accounting—but they don't really know that until they've studied it past their comfort zone.

It isn't what you thought it was

It isn't unusual for college students to change their major after an internship, or job shadowing experience, where they came to understand just what it means to work in this field on a full-time basis. Sometimes, this is due to having to think about the subject all of the time; sometimes, it's about the kinds of people you work with in the field; sometimes, it's just not as exciting as you thought it would be.

You have to study a related field you really don't like

Most Business majors can relate to this, since they have to study Economics for at least a year to earn their Business degree, and Economics can really drive people crazy. It's also true with Political Science majors who have to take History, and Journalism majors who have to memorize parts of speech. Writing about exciting things sounds great, but committing gerunds to memory is a different story.

The career path in that major changes

We saw this ten years ago, when the demand for lawyers dried up overnight, and lots of students who were History majors decided they needed to find something else to study.

You find something else you'd rather study

Not all students who change their majors are running away from something they don't like—sometimes, they're running towards something they like more. It's easy for this to happen, especially in a large college, where students may discover by literally walking into it, by taking a wrong turn in a hallway, or taking a shortcut to a class.

A new major is invented

This also happens more often than people realize. Colleges are developing new majors to meet research and employment demands, creating niche majors that can give students a huge advantage when it's time to look for a job—as long as it's in that specialty field.

Whatever the reason you change your major in college, students will want to keep a close eye on the graduation requirements of the new degree. If the student is changing their major to a new area that's closely related to the field they are currently studying—say, from Chemistry to Biology—there's a good chance the first few courses they have to take in both of those fields will be similar, if not identical. In this case, changing majors won't affect how long it will take the student to complete their degree, since the credits in one major will transfer to another.

On the other hand, students making a big change in majors—say, from Chemistry to Business—may find that many of the classes they took, even in the first year of college, aren't required for a Business degree. If that's the case, it's going to take longer to earn a degree in your new field, which will take more time, and more money.

Students thinking about changing their major will want to spend some time with the advisor in the new field they want to study, to find out just how many of the classes they've already completed will transfer, and how much longer they will need to be in college to complete their degree. Asking your current advisor these questions won't do you any good, since they won't be as familiar with the graduation requirements of your new major. This is especially true if you are transferring in or out of a specialty program like Art, Engineering, or Music. Most of the first year classes in these fields usually apply only to that major, so any change means you will likely be starting college over.

It's also important to think about when you will change majors. Since most students change their majors several times in the first two years of college, many colleges make sure students take classes in their first and second years that will apply to all majors. These core courses are in fields like English, Math, Social Science, and the Humanities, and taking them allows the student to change majors without losing as many credits.

Students changing majors after two years in college will probably be looking at needing to take at least one additional year of college, depending on the major they have, and the major they are going into. Even if the fields are closely related, most majors want college juniors to take courses that focus in on that subject, which means the courses would only count as elective credit in another major. Since elective credits are pretty easy to find, juniors changing majors will end up with far more elective credits than they need, which means more years of college are likely. That isn't a bad thing, especially if you like learning, but it is important to understand that if you're changing majors later in your college career.

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Not Having a Major

There are an incredible number of high school students who don't know what they want to study in college. After completing an interest inventory and looking through college categories, they either find too many majors they'd like to study, or they have no idea what they'd like to look at in college on an in-depth basis.

If that sounds remarkable, it really shouldn't. An incredible number of adults are working in a job that has nothing to do with what they majored in while they were in college. It may have been an unexpected job opening where they needed someone at the last minute; it may be a career opportunity they were introduced to by a friend who knew them well, and didn't really care what they had studied in college; it may be a brand new career path that doesn't have a traditional college major associated with it. No matter what the case may be, the major-career connection isn't always clear cut, especially as people get older.

What's really remarkable is the way many high school students who don't have a major in mind just make one up. When a relative asks them, “What's your major?”, they really don't want to say “I don't know”, since they worry the relative might be worried by that response—or, worse yet, criticize the student. As a result, the student responds by saying “Astrophysics” in the hopes that answer will keep the relative happy. (Just to let you know, it usually doesn't. They'll ask what astrophysics is, and when it's clear you can't tell them, they'll get nervous anyway.)

If you're thinking about college and you have no idea what you want to study, that's actually pretty great—as long as you choose the right college. Many colleges are designed to make sure students take core courses in the first two years that will count towards every degree the college offers, as well as some survey courses that give students some idea of what it would be like to major in a particular field. Known as liberal arts colleges, these four-year schools are usually attended by students who want to keep their options open as far as majors go—so much so that, in many cases, most students graduating from liberal arts colleges go on to graduate school, now that they know what they want to study, to earn an advanced degree.

Of course, not everyone who attends a liberal arts college is looking at six (or more) years of college. There are a number of business leaders who believe that liberal arts students make the best employees in business, since the business world requires creativity, flexibility, and innovation, skills that are a key part of the liberal arts experience. To these employers, there's nothing better than to have a brand-new college graduate as part of your team, as your company trains them in the essentials of business, making the most of the critical skills their new employee has learned in college.

Since liberal arts colleges aren't for every student who is undecided about their major, you'll want to also look at the options many colleges have for self-directed majors, or degree programs where the student designs their own major. The most famous of these colleges is Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where every student is required to design their own major. This may sound like fun, and it is—but it's also serious business. Students work closely with advisors to develop a plan of study that outlines every class they'll take, and the student must present this plan to a board of review for approval. Students completing their programs are rightfully proud of their work, not only because they designed their own program, but because Hampshire has very high academic standards. If you graduate with a Hampshire degree, it's clear you have an impressive set of skills.

Hampshire may be the most famous “do it yourself” school, but it isn't the only one. While they don't advertise it, most colleges allow some students to design their own major, using the same framework as Hampshire. This includes some of the largest public institutions in the United States—it's just that, unlike Hampshire, you have to ask about the program.

Other students will attend other colleges as well, and use the college's resources to select a major. In this case, students need to keep in mind the same rules as students who change majors—make sure you take core courses in your first year, and be prepared to sacrifice some credits if you start a major in junior year. College degrees are designed to address a specific set of skills, so even going from Undecided to, say Business, requires the student to complete a set of courses they might not have had access to. Again, the key is working with an advisor, and working with them early.

Getting ready for college is an exciting time because college offers so many opportunities for students to try out new things, learn new ideas, and learn more about themselves and their relationship to parts of the world that are completely new to them. Many high school students may have a good idea what they want to focus in on in their college studies, but a good number of them that do will change that focus many times in college. As students think about college, it's good to keep a major in mind, but don't feel like you have to have a major before you go to college, since many college like it when you have no idea what you want to study, since that leaves your future wide open.

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More Resources

List of Majors from Michigan State University

Interest Inventory

Interest Inventory

Aptitude test

Occupational Outlook Handbook

Choosing a College Major

5 Ways to Pick the Right College Major

Choosing a Major Based on Your Personality

Why Getting a Liberal Arts Education Is Not a Mistake

Six Reasons Why Your College Major Doesn't Matter

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