Choosing a Major in College: What to Know
Students should weigh their passion versus potential earnings, experts say.
By Cole Claybourn | August 18, 2022, at 11:24 a.m.
Choosing a major is one of the most important decisions a college student can make. The choice can have a lasting effect on a student’s life, shaping work experiences, earnings and professional skills down the line.
When trying to find the best fit for their primary area of study, students should keep in mind their passions, earning potential and career goals, among other things.
It’s important to take advice from teachers, counselors and family members who have gone through the process, but students should treat them as their “advisory board” and understand it’s ultimately each student’s decision, says Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, an education and admissions consulting company.
Here are four tips from experts on what to consider when choosing a major.
Find Your Passion
A major can greatly influence the activities and clubs students are involved with, the people they become friends with and the connections they make.
Many students will weigh potential earnings when deciding a major. While there’s merit to that, experts say students should first consider what they’re passionate about and what skills they want to build for success after college.
“Consider your strengths and preferences,” Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, a job platform for college students, wrote in an email. “Where do you thrive and do your best? Figuring out your unique skill set can help inform what areas of study may be of interest to you.”
Whether students discover their passion before or after they start college will vary, but getting involved in extracurricular activities, clubs or other school-based organizations at the high school or college level can help students figure out what they’re interested in.
A bachelor’s degree typically requires four years of full-time study, with a portion of that coursework dedicated to the student’s chosen major. The number of credit hours required for a major in college can vary depending on the program. Students may also choose to double major in college, studying two disciplines simultaneously, which requires coursework for both.
General education classes often fill the first year of college and sometimes the second. This is a good time to figure out your passion and explore potential majors, experts say.
“Figure out what you want to do in life,” says Fabián Álvarez, assistant English professor at Western Kentucky University. He also recommends attending club and job fairs to connect with people and discover potential interests. “Figure out where your heart is and where it’s going, then explore.”
Do Your Research on What Schools Offer
Students who are set on a specific major should consider how that subject is taught at their target schools. Does that college have a track record of success with graduates from that major? Does that college even offer that major?
While students might have certain schools they’re interested in due to prestige, family ties or geographic location, they should keep an open mind when considering colleges, Rim says.
Yale University in Connecticut, for instance, doesn’t offer a business major, Rim points out. Just because a school is a renowned institution doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best fit for every student and intended major.
“You really want to research the school and pick the school that is aligned with your interests, if you know what they are, and your goals,” he says.
Students should research different career paths that map to their major, Cruzvergara says.
“But be careful not to single out one specific job or company that you could see yourself working at,” she wrote in an email. “Rather, take the time to dig below the surface and find out what kinds of industries past graduates of said major have gone on to work in and whether or not those broader industries are of interest to you.”
Calculate Possible Salaries
Once students have determined a passion, it can be valuable 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.
Starting salaries for those who graduate with certain bachelor’s degrees, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, can be particularly high. In fact, all 10 of the college majors with the highest starting salaries based on PayScale data are in STEM fields, with computer engineering and computer science the top-paid.
STEM is “for the curious and those who want to figure out how the world works,” says Bob Kolvoord, a professor and dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at James Madison University in Virginia. “Prospective STEM majors should possess an inquiring mind, good analytical and problem-solving skills.”
On the other end of the starting-salary spectrum are liberal arts fields like anthropology, interior design and graphic design, as well as public health and animal science, which ranked lowest with a median starting salary of $40,500.
It’s important to know that majors can be changed after a student has started college. As students take more college classes, their interests will likely expand alongside the knowledge gained. That could mean a student suddenly discovers a new passion that translates into a career.
Students are also not limited to jobs related to their major. Employers want different perspectives from a wide range of people, Rim says, and it’s common for graduates to get jobs in fields outside what they studied. He referenced how one student he worked with majored in art history at Yale but took a job at Goldman Sachs, an investment banking company.
“I think as you navigate college and learn more about yourself and what you are passionate about, you will end up making the right decision,” Rim says. “Your major will not define who you are for the rest of your life and I think it’s important that students know this.”
Consider Declaring a Major When Applying
Declaring a major when applying to college can signal to an admissions office that an applicant is focused.
Rim recommends declaring one even if a student is undecided or it might change down the road.
“You have to really review the application as a whole, and if everything just seems a little bit messy or unorganized,” he says, admissions officers may think a student is unfocused.
“But why even give them that? Just declare it,” Rim advises. “It’s very simple to declare; you just click a button. Obviously, you want to click the right button that you’re truly interested in.”
Originally published on U.S. News & World Report on August 18, 2022