10 Things to Know About Choosing a College Major
Decide what to study as an undergraduate.
Choosing a major is one of the most important decisions a college student can make. Ideally, a college major can open doors into the workforce and help pave the way to a high-paying job and fulfilling career. As major life decisions go, choosing what to study in college isn’t to be taken lightly. Prospective students should be aware of how majors will position them for their desired industry and how earnings may vary by field over the course of a career. Read on for expert advice on how to decide on a college major.
Find your passion.
A student’s major will greatly influence his or her college experience. Many students join clubs related to their major and befriend classmates within their area of study. A college major has the potential to shape postgraduate life, too, as students enter the workforce. Considering how a major can affect a student’s life both during and after college, it’s optimal to choose an area of sustained interest. “Students should choose to focus their studies on topics they are interested in exploring and on skills they want to build,” Christine Cruzvergara, vice president of higher education.
Think about colleges when picking a major.
Students who are set on a specific major should consider how that subject is taught at their target schools. For example, does a college have a reputation for minting graduates who go on to successful careers in their chosen field? Or does a college even offer the major that an applicant is interested in? Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, says students should check college websites to learn more about available program offerings. Another source to learn more about quality programs is the U.S. News rankings, which include breakdowns of top schools in engineering, finance, marketing and various other fields of study.
Carefully consider career advice.
College applicants may gain a better understanding of the jobs in certain majors by speaking with industry professionals instead of family and friends, experts say. In a 2017 survey on students who sought advice on what to major in, 84% rated advice they received from people with experience in a field as helpful, and 82% rated advice from an employer or coworker as helpful. Ultimately, parents should step back and remember that choosing a major is not their decision. Let the child pick the major that he or she is most interested in.
Declare a major on college applications.
According to Rim, declaring a major when applying to college can help admissions officials better understand the candidate and how he or she may contribute to the incoming class. “You want the admissions officer to read your application and understand how you would fit into that campus community or into that class,” Rim says. “If you don’t know what you want to major in, pick something you think you might be interested in and have some experience in.” He adds that students can change their major at a later time. Another caveat: “Don’t pick a college major just based on what you think colleges want to see.”
Know how far your major will take you at the undergraduate level.
For many jobs, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient. But some professional roles require additional training. For example, aspiring doctors and lawyers should know that college is just the beginning. So while majoring in pre law or pre medicine may be the right step at the undergraduate level, those students should be aware that an additional degree will be required to practice law or medicine. Experts say that before declaring a major, students should look to their end goals to understand if they will need a graduate or professional degree to land the job they want.
Weigh a STEM discipline.
The salary and job prospects for college graduates who major in science, technology, engineering or math, collectively known as STEM, are promising, experts say. In fact, all 10 of the college majors with the highest starting salaries based on PayScale data are in STEM fields. But STEM isn’t for the faint of heart – or those with weak math skills. Bob Kolvoord, a professor and dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University in Virginia, told U.S. News that prospective STEM majors should possess strong analytical and problem-solving skills and an interest in how the world functions, how technology works and how it can develop and affect human life, health and well-being.
Pair your major with a useful minor.
Though a college major will make up a large portion of the courses a student takes, a minor is another avenue to learn useful skills. A useful major and minor combination can reinforce skills across disciplines and prepare students to work in more than one industry. “I think of a minor as an interdisciplinary link,” Micah Sadigh, a psychology professor and department chair at Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, told U.S. News. “It links you, connects you to another discipline and changes, expands how you think about disciplines, but also, expands how you think about life, people, working with people, creativity and how creativity can manifest itself differently.”
Calculate possible salaries.
It can be valuable for prospective and current college students to know which majors are more or less likely to lead to a high salary. Students who have an idea of what they’ll make after college can get a jump-start on budgeting for things like student loan payments or graduate school. The median starting salary for college grads out of school for three years and whose highest degree earned was a bachelor’s is $96,544 if they majored in petroleum engineering, according to the most recent PayScale data. On the other end of the spectrum, the median salary is just $37,035 for social work majors, per PayScale data.
Don’t overthink earnings.
While the financial gap between social work and engineering can be vast, students shouldn’t overthink the prospective salary of their chosen major. Graduates may leverage skills learned in one major and put those to use in an entirely different industry. “When thinking about salary, it’s more important to think about what the market will bear for particular roles or industries, more so than major,” Cruzvergara says. “Employers hire across many majors for their positions, so major isn’t the defining factor – a students’ choice in industry is. It’s okay if the first job isn’t their dream job, just as long as they are learning and being challenged.”
Know that majors can be changed in few countries.
As a student takes more college classes, his or her interests will likely expand alongside the knowledge gained. That could mean a student suddenly discovers a new passion that translates into a career. As long as the decision to change a major is made early on, it should be a smooth transition. However, if a student waits until late in college, changing majors may mean it takes longer to graduate. “Figure out the pros and cons of when you want to potentially change your major,” Rim says. Students should discuss the change with an academic adviser to make sure it works, but generally speaking, the earlier the better.