Choosing a college major – complete guide

Contents

    College is an exciting time that allows you to dive deep into your interests, expand your mind, and prepare for a future career. While some new college students already have a strong idea of their academic path, others opt to take electives before settling down and choosing a major. With a seemingly endless number of college majors available, it’s common for students to feel overwhelmed.

    Colleges and universities provide a wide array of resources to help students select the best college majors for them based on their interests. Here, we provide a rundown of everything you need to know to pick a major that supports your personal, professional, and salary goals.

    What is a college major?

    A major is a subject area specialization at the undergraduate level. In other words, your major determines what field you earn your degree in, what core classes you take, and what special skills you may develop in the course of your college career.

    Choosing the right major can give you a competitive edge when applying for internships and jobs and significantly impact your overall college experience. While your college major isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to your future career, it can certainly help you acquire the necessary skills to succeed.

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    When do I need to declare my major?

    Most schools require students to officially declare their major by either the beginning or end of their sophomore year. You have the option to declare a major upon enrollment or enter your freshmen year as an undeclared major, which allows you to take electives and explore your interests before deciding.

    How to choose your college major

    U.S. opinion on the purpose of college is split. About 50% see the most value in workforce-relevant skill development, while 35% see personal and intellectual development as being key. Be sure to take time and reflect on which of these is your priority when it comes to choosing a college major.

    The process of reviewing and selecting the best majors in college doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, it can be an exciting experience that allows you to reflect on what matters most to you. Below, we offer suggestions on essential points to consider in answering the question ‘What should I study in college?’.

    “On selecting a major, my advice is to put mission before major. Students should match life and career goals to the selection. With few exceptions — engineering and nursing, for example — the precise choice of a major is much less important than building social capital and gaining internship experience.”

    Elaine Maimon, PhD Advisor for American Council on Education

    1. Identify your career goals

    It’s no surprise that most students enroll in college to prepare for a future career. If you’re planning to enter a specialized field like healthcare or information technology, it’s important to choose a major that will help you build the appropriate skills and credentials. Take time to reflect on what your specific career goals are, what credentials you need to enter the field, and what majors are most aligned with these goals.

    2. Consider your current or target school

    If you are still deciding which college or university to enroll in, it’s important to speak with an admissions counselor or research which schools have the strongest programs for the major you are interested in. All degrees are not created equal and choosing a school with a strong program in your intended field of study can lead to more opportunities further down the line.

    If you are already enrolled and are trying to decide which academic path to take, spend some time researching which programs your school is best known for. Do any of them align with your interests? If so, this could be a great strategy for choosing your college major.

    3. Review best majors by salary

    Choosing your course of study based on highest-paying majors is a helpful strategy if you have a financial goal in mind. Earning a degree in a well-compensated field can help you maximize the value of your education by reaching better-paying positions than peers in other majors.

    The table below provides a breakdown of some of the best-paid majors to help jumpstart your research.

    Bachelor’s major Average salary
    (3 years after graduation)
    Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering $97,010
    Computer Science $83,902
    Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research, and Clinical Nursing $72,718
    Applied Mathematics $64,877
    Statistics $64,557
    Finance and Financial Management Services $61,743
    Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods $60,626
    Economics $60,337
    Agricultural and Food Products Processing $60,119
    Dental Support Services and Allied Professions $59,509
    Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions $56,502

    The best-paid major 3 years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree is naval architecture and marine engineering. Following that, engineering fields dominate the top spots (omitted to show variety). Computer science and nursing also offer competitive salaries.

    What engineering, nursing, and computer science have in common is that these majors allow you to enter a career and begin climbing the ladder with just a bachelor’s degree. Most other well-compensated occupations require at least a master’s. Therefore, if you are looking to enter a well-paid field as quickly as possible and do not plan on attending grad school, choosing a major in one of these fields may be your best bet.

    4. Research most in-demand majors

    Selecting your major based on which college majors are in demand can help ensure plenty of job prospects after graduation. While some fields – such as video game development – are oversaturated, others – like nursing and teaching – are experiencing serious shortages.

    You can gain insights into in-demand college majors and skillsets by touching base with your academic advisor or searching online. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is an excellent source of information about career projections.

    What is a minor in college?

    A minor is a secondary academic specialization that you can decide to pursue in addition to your major. It can be related or unrelated to your major and generally requires about half the number of credits. Pursuing a minor can help you further specialize, provide you with a unique advantage over colleagues, or give you the space to dive deep into interests outside of your major.

    Should you have a minor?

    Consider some of the key pros and cons before deciding. A major advantage of getting a minor could be the opportunity to further specialize in your field. For example, if you major in finance and minor in cryptocurrency, your minor adds another layer to your degree that can lead to competitive advantage when applying for jobs. Minors also allow you to pursue your side interests. If you have a passion for psychology but want to become an engineer, a minor in psychology can help you get the best of both worlds.

    Pros

    can help you further specialize in a field

    allows you more freedom to pursue your interests

    may make your degree more versatile by expanding your specialization

    Cons

    can mean less flexibility in your schedule and fewer opportunities to take other electives

    may lead to more rigorous coursework and a more stressful academic experience overall

    choosing your minor after you’ve already completed several electives could mean having to pay for additional classes

    Other options

    Choosing 1 major and 1 minor isn’t the only option. For one reason or another, you might find yourself drawn to one of the options below. Remember – your academic experience is yours to customize and change as you see fit.

    Double major

    A double major is when a student decides to declare 2 majors. The majors can be related, but do not have to be. This option provides the advantage of allowing you to dive deep into 2 specialized areas within a single degree.

    Individualized major

    Sometimes it can be difficult to find a major that perfectly aligns with your interests and career goals. To give students more flexibility, several universities and colleges allow you to create your own major and individualized study plan.

    Undecided major

    Anywhere between 20% and 50% of students enter college as undecided majors. This allows you to take time to focus on elective courses, explore your interests, and join clubs before settling down into a specific program of study.

    Changing majors

    Have you chosen your college major only to realize that your interests lie elsewhere? Luckily, you’re not alone. Approximately 30% of college students change their major at least once before graduation. Your academic advisor is a great resource if you do decide to make a change.

    Next steps

    While picking the right college and choosing your major may feel a bit overwhelming, it is also an opportunity to explore your interests and reflect on your future plans, goals, and priorities. Once you have a few potential majors in mind, reach out to professionals in the field, perform research, and get in touch with your academic advisor to discuss further.

    Degreechoices also features a wide array of resources to help you take the next steps, including a scholarship database and a unique ranking methodology to help you make informed decisions about your future.

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