How to Choose a College Major That's Right for Me
Updated: Mar 22
As the class of 2021 is spending the last several weeks of summer planning what courses to take and which mattress pad to buy, the class of 2022 is finalizing college lists and starting to write their admission essays. More than ever, we are having students second-guess what they want to get out of college, how they want to engage beyond the classroom, and what they can major in to meet their current career goals. This blog is going to focus more on the latter issue at hand: how to choose your major.
As college counselors, we are frequently asked by students how they should choose a college major. Many are terrified to say they're undecided, typically because they feel that not knowing will reflect poorly in the college admissions process. Others have yet to discover an area of study that feels meaningful, or they haven't quite figured out where there academic strengths and interests lie. For what it's worth, most high schools don't offer courses in the majority of areas of study students can major in. It's rare for high schools to offer courses in neuroscience, anthropology, finance, etc., and those that do typically only offer one introductory course that often doesn't explore the majority of what each of those fields has to offer.
On the other hand, we oftentimes work with students who have "known", seemingly for their entire young lives, what they want to study and how that degree might translate to a future career goal. Most of these discussions revolve around a pre-med track, engineering, computer science, or business, likely because careers in these fields seemingly yield financial stability and a wide-open job market. But the majority of students who feel strongly that they have their path already planned are surprised by what they discover in college about job prospects/opportunities and requirements for graduate school in their chosen field.
For example, nine out of ten students who claim to want to attend medical school in the future believe they must acquire a degree in a hard science, such as biology or chemistry. I was this student (pre-med track, biology major--I had every intention of being an Oncologist). The reasoning isn’t entirely unfounded, to be clear. There are certain coursework pre-requisites to qualify as an applicant to medical school (specifically in the USA), mostly in the hard sciences and mathematics. But what most high school students don’t understand quite yet is that the degree they obtain in college only amounts to about half the coursework credit required to graduate and receive said degree. And it should be noted that most medical schools are more interested in students who study subjects outside of the sciences and take a more interdisciplinary approach to their educations. After all, medicine is an incredibly interdisciplinary field.
Knowing that the majority of students who "know" what they want to study aren't able to articulate why, and those who have no idea are scared to admit it, it feels important to break down the process of choosing a college major. Why are so many students unsure about their academic interests? And how can we help them discover subjects and programs that will shed light on what their futures might look like?
What Does this Mean for Future College Students?
What this really boils down to is that we, as a society, continually ask the wrong questions, which ultimately
puts undue pressure on students. Students of all ages are asked what they want to be when they grow up, starting with those cute chalkboards parents fill out when their kids head off to school for the first time (in the photo to the right, Beckett, class of 2033, would like to be Spider Man). But in reality, the jobs that exist today may not exist down the line once students graduate (or at all, in Beckett's case), and the jobs that might be available to these younger generations don’t quite exist yet.
For reference, here are some industries, companies, and careers that didn’t exist when I was in middle school:
YouTube (created when I was in high school, and videos were limited to 30 seconds)
Smart Phones/Cases (oh, hey, 2007!)
Essentially the entire social media industry post-My Space (RIP)
Blu-rays (still available, rarely discussed)
Point being, we ask the wrong questions throughout students' growth and development. Many students end up in an uncomfortable position of thinking they know what they want to do/be/study and are robbed of the agency to change their mind or explore other interests. Perhaps even worse, students that have no firm vision of their future then they feel badly because all of their friends “know what they want.” For what it’s worth, here are some enlightening statistics:
Statistics vary from year to year and source to source, but the general consensus has been that between more than half of students change their major at least once in college (and that percentage increases for certain majors like mathematics). (source)
61% of college grads would go back and change their majors if given the opportunity. (source)
How to Change the Narrative
So what can we do to ameliorate this undue stress and anxiety in 17-year-olds, who think they need to make this seemingly huge life decision before they can even buy a lottery ticket? The answer revolves entirely around modifying the discourse. Instead of “what do you want to study?” or “what do you want to be?”, we should be asking better questions:
“What problems do you see in the world that you’d like to help solve?”
“What about that issue is intriguing to you?"
"What skill sets do you have or need to reach your goals?”
Remember how I mentioned that I started college on a pre-med track (as a biology major)? Well, in my first semester, when I realized that I didn't actually enjoy science as much as I had during my education leading up to college (apparently I just had really engaging and enthusiastic teachers in middle and high school science courses), I felt stuck. Paralyzed by the unknown, I spent most evenings studying for weekly quizzes and labs, absolutely miserable and unable to enjoy any piece of the college experience as a result. That is, until a friend pointed out that I was making myself miserable and I didn't have to endure this coursework beyond that first semester. In my mind, I had to know what I wanted to study. Going from knowing to being completely clueless was terrifying and intimidating to me, but the reality was setting in that I had no clue what I wanted to study. I spent weeks trying to decide on a new major, until a brilliant friend pointed out that I was thinking about it all wrong.
I was thinking my choices were biology or something else, when in reality, my choices were biology or not biology. Asking the right question allowed me to break free from that paralysis and take a terrifying leap into the unknown. As it turns out, the latter question was much easier to answer--not biology. I spent the following semester taking seven courses (which required a special waiver from the college to take more credits than typically allowed) in various subjects including sociology, anthropology, psychology, advanced tap dancing, and philosophy. It should come as no shock that I suddenly felt more content in college, and I enjoyed every single one of the classes I took. Turns out, I really love social sciences, not hard sciences--who knew?! Reframing the question helped reframe my mindset, which is the direction I think we should be heading when discussing potential majors and careers with teenagers.
How Might this Impact the College Application Process?
I'll start with the difficult truth first, to get it out of the way: some schools require students to declare a major during the application phase. For example, University of Washington and California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo (more commonly referred to as Cal Poly SLO) make it extremely difficult and complicated, and often impossible, to change majors once admitted to the school. And it’s important to keep in mind (at these schools and others like them) that if you don’t get into your top choice major, it might not be a great fit for you. Would you still be happy if you took classes for two years leading up to potentially being admitted to that major, then finding out (halfway through college) that the major is no longer an option because you weren’t admitted?
The reason these schools make it difficult to change your mind is because they often admit only a certain number of students to each major, and most of their majors are impacted. This means they have reached the threshold of the number of students they can educate in each subject area, based on faculty availability and expertise, limited resources, and classroom capacity restrictions. While these schools tend to be popular, particularly amongst those interested in studying engineering, computer science, and neuroscience, their restrictions aren't typically the norm.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges in the USA that do not admit student by major, rather as a cohesive cohort. For example, at Tulane University, when you're admitted to the school, you're technically admitted to every major. You may start out on a pre-med track, but discover that you love architecture and glass blowing along the way. Tulane has a seamless and easy process to change your major accordingly, and advisors who will help you navigate new departments and course requirements for graduation.
In general, applying to most colleges undecided won't negatively impact the admissions process. The majors that typically restrict the number of students most often include engineering, computer science, and business. If those are of particular interest to the handful of students who somehow "know" what they want to study, it's worth checking with each college about their selection criteria, process to change major if needed, and verifying if these particular programs are direct-admit or require pre-requisites and are thus not guaranteed.
Real World Applicability
For students who are unsure about their intended majors or career trajectory, we try to get creative about how they navigate the murky waters of the unknown. The most efficient and effective route we've found is to have students explore current job opportunities in fields that sound interesting. In this exploration, we want students to note the qualifications required to be an eligible applicant for that particular job of interest (do they require a graduate degree? a degree in a specific field? a certain number of years of previous and related work experience?). Students should find as many jobs of potential interest as they can, and keep notes on the pieces of the job descriptions that sound intriguing, and those that don't sound as exciting but might be palatable. Combining all of the things they like about a specific job, job title, or career path will help students to create their own dream job description. This description can change over time as students learn new skills and study new subjects, but keeping qualifications and job requirements in mind can help students determine which professional and academic opportunities to pursue throughout high school and college.
There are several important things to remember as you navigate college applications and then your college experience:
Your college major matters far less than what you do in college. Get involved, explore various subject areas, built new skillsets while fine-tuning current ones. This can mean joining a club, taking a dance or art class, volunteering as a research assistant in a lab, or anything in between.
Be open to fact you might not use your degree in your future jobs and career. Most people don't! So study what is interesting to you and be sure to connect with your professors as often as possible. Ideally, the content you learn in each class will be applicable to future coursework and professional opportunities, even if there isn't a direct correlation. For example, the skills you'll learn in a theater class will benefit you in other contexts, such as public speaking.
Be open to changing mind about your major or future career goals as skills and interests evolve.
And check out this cool resource to learn more about what you can do with each major!
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors