How to Choose a College Major

There is a moment of fear unlike any other. That moment is when you’re filling out your college applications and it comes time to put an entry into the “Intended Major” field. It’s a hard choice. It’ll effect not only your next four years, but your life forever. This degree will determine what the world sees you as qualified to do for a living. It can be frightening to think that one little piece of paper could hold such value, but if you take it slowly and think it through, the decision doesn’t have to be an impossible one.

The question is persistent throughout childhood: what do you want to be when you grow up?  For the lucky few, the opportunity to be a rock star or a firefighter presents itself and childhood dreams are fulfilled. For others, the question only becomes harder at the impending approach of adulthood. In any scenario, this is the first thing that must be determined before pursuing your academic career: what do you want to be when you grow up? This question can be broken down into many smaller questions that go beyond just what you do from eight o’clock to five o’clock each day. Do you want to live in the city or the country? What kind of lifestyle do you want: one of quiet reflection or nights on the town? How much money are you going to have to make to support this lifestyle choice? Do you mind working long hours or would you rather not spend all your time at the office? By what age would you like to own a house or get married or have kids? Do you want the opportunity to travel? You’re not going to have the answers to all these questions, yet, and that’s okay. When choosing a major, however, these are the questions that need to be kept in mind. You should always be asking yourself, “will this choice lead me to what I want in life?”

When you have something of an idea where your career path is headed, it’s time for research. Go on any number of job sites like Indeed, Monster, Simply Hired, etc. and search for a job title that approximates what kind of career you have in mind. If you want to be a kindergarten teacher, for example, search for listings for teachers. Read the requirements and duties. What kind of degrees and certifications are needed? If one is listed, this can be the biggest launching off point for the whole major choosing process. Don’t be surprised, however, to find out that many employers don’t list a specific degree. Doing this will also give you the information you need to decide for sure whether this is the kind of career for you.

Once you’ve narrowed down your possible major choices to a small number based off your job research, get a hold of a course catalog from one of the universities that you plan to apply to. Most of the time, they’re available on the school’s website. Look at the courses needed to fulfill that degree plan for that university and read the class descriptions. What kind of courses are they? Do you think you’d enjoy them? Also look at how many hours you would need to take each semester. Would the amount of hours preclude you from doing certain extracurricular activities? Fourteen to sixteen hours is about an average, manageable course load for a semester and still allows for involvement in band, sports, theater, or other clubs and organizations. More than that would be considered a heavy course load by most measures, and you may have to give up doing certain things you enjoy. Consider whether giving up a passion for a few years is worth the reward of the degree.

Also look at the kinds of classes required for the major and determine whether they’re the kinds of classes you would be successful in. You may have to face some hard truths. Engineering and Computer Science degrees are heavy on math. If math is not your strong suite, you may have an incredible amount of trouble getting through those classes. If you’re willing to put in the extra work, then continue on that path. Know ahead of time, however, what you’re getting yourself into.

Don’t be afraid to change majors a semester or two in. That’s always an option, and sometimes it takes a year of actually experiencing the degree plan to realize it’s not for you. Some studies suggest as many as sixty percent of college students change their major at least once before graduation. You’re not going through this alone.

Something else to consider is that many of the performance-based and creative fields don’t require a college education to be successful; they are dependent upon talent alone. These also tend to be the fields where a steady paycheck isn’t guaranteed unless you’re the absolute best. If a steady paycheck is important to you, it’s worth it to pursue a degree in a field that will open you up to more job possibilities in case your dream career choice doesn’t pull through.

Most importantly, do not let anyone tell you what you should do with your life or what you should study. Take well-intentioned advice into consideration, talk to your school counselor, confer with your teachers, and people in the workforce, but remember that the final decision is always yours. Your mother may have always wanted you to be a lawyer, but if it’s not what you want to do, then don’t enter a pre-law degree program. This may be hard, and you may have to suffer through some arguments, but it’ll be worth it in the end. There’s nothing more fulfilling than doing what you want to do and knowing that for better or worse, the decision was yours.