Picking a College Major
Every college student deals with the same concerns, “what should be my major”? I imagine that if you are reading this article, you are feeling some level of stress or anxiety about choosing a college major. This is completely understandable. As parents, teachers, and counselors have no doubt hammered into you, choosing a major in college is an important decision. It’s one of the first big independent decisions of your academic and professional life. In many ways, choosing a major functions as a rite of passage in the process of becoming an adult.
Some people know what to major in in college before they even start high school. However, most people don’t, so if you have no idea how to choose a college major, don’t panic. (Even if you’re a second-semester sophomore in college!)
With that said, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what major to choose. And if you do let someone else choose for you (like your parents), you’re likely to be miserable. The truth is that the process of thoughtfully selecting the best major for you takes work—work that you need to put in yourself.
While I can’t do that work for you, I can tell you the foundational principles of investigating and ultimately picking a college major.
The Most Important Task for Picking a Major
The most important task for choosing a major in college is deciding on your own priorities and goals. Too much of the advice out there on how to pick a major assumes you have particular goals or tells you what your priorities should be.
Even your own parents may be focused on particular priorities and goals that don’t match up with yours. Family conflict around major choice is a common issue. This may be especially salient for you if your parents are paying for part (or all) of your education.
It is reasonable to listen to your parents’ concerns and advice. However, it’s important to remember that it’s ultimately your major. You will have to do the work and ultimately leverage that major as you transition into the workforce. If you are studying something you are not really interested in, you may not be very motivated to succeed (or maybe even to attend class). So you need to ask, “Which college major is right for me?”
Here’s some advice on discussing any change in your major plans with your parents. If your parents are paying for your education and they want input into your plans, you can also consider compromises like majors that are agreeable to both of you, double majors, or minors.
For you to be able to choose a college major that makes sense for you, you first need to figure out what you want out of a college major. For some people, knowing they will almost always be able to find a job throughout their lives is most important. For others, being able to pursue a particular intellectual interest is the critical factor. Most people are motivated by some combination of factors that they weigh in balance.
These factors will guide you towards the answer to the question “What college major is right for me?”
Here are some factors you will probably want to consider when you go about choosing a major:
#1: Your Interests
Of course, your interests are an important part of picking a major. If you really dislike what you are studying, you will be miserable. Additionally, you won’t be particularly motivated to complete your coursework. So it is essential that you are actually interested in what you are studying. As part of that, you should be able to envision yourself using at least some of the skills you are learning in your major in the workforce.
With that said, people place differing premiums on how interested they need to be in their major. For some people, only studying their one true passion—be it Greek and Roman military history or tropical horticulture—will do. However, many people have several areas of interest that they could envision themselves pursuing. For example, I considered going to art school for a BFA. I also considered majoring in biology or in English. (I ended up majoring in folklore and mythology—more on that later.) The ultimate deciding factors in my major choice weren’t necessarily related to what I was most passionate about, because I was genuinely very interested in everything I considered. Other factors came into play when I made my final decision. So your interests will likely guide you, but they may not be the primary deciding factor when you choose a major.
You will also find that new interests arise when you get to college and you have access to more possible courses of study. When I arrived at college, I was able to take classes about religion and anthropology, which ultimately led me to the folklore and mythology program. So keep an open mind about your interests throughout the major selection process, especially once you arrive at school
#2: Your Abilities
You should also consider what you’re good at when you think about how to choose your major.
This doesn’t mean that you should definitely major in whatever you are best at in high school. For one thing, you will probably discover new talents in college as you take courses in areas that weren’t available to you in high school. For another thing, the thing that you’re “best” at is not necessarily what aligns best with all your other priorities and goals.
The main principle here is that it’s probably not a great idea to major in something that you know you are pretty weak in. If you’ve barely pulled C’s in math all through high school, being a math major (or a similarly math-heavy major like engineering or physics) is probably not the best move.
The bottom line is that you should be confident that you will be able to do well in most of your coursework in your area of study.
#3: Future Employability
When you think about how to pick your major, it makes sense to consider what kind of job prospects you will have once you have your degree. Will you be able to find a job? How hard will it be? Will you have to move to where the jobs are, or are there jobs everywhere?
There are a few ways to approach these questions. You can research professions facing shortages to get an idea of areas where you would be likely to find employment. Professions facing shortages include nursing, engineering, various computer science disciplines, accounting and finance, and teaching.
In addition to looking at shortages, you can look at growth industries. (Of course, there’s overlap here; if there aren’t enough skilled workers available to fill these growth industries, there will be a shortage! But it’s a slightly different angle). Some industries currently experiencing growth include nursing and other allied health professionals, finance, and data science. Within those groups, there are tons of different kinds of jobs available, and a variety of potential majors could lead you into those industries.
Note that there may or may not be a very clear link between a certain major and a certain job or industry. For some majors, it’s fairly clear what sort of job(s) the degree will lead to. A degree in teaching will lead to teaching, a degree in nursing to nursing, and so on. For others, it’s less clear. A degree in communications or sociology or public policy could lead to a variety of jobs.
Thus, in terms of future employability, don’t just think in terms of what job title you will be qualified for, because those things shift all the time. Think about the skills you will learn in your major, and how much those skills are in demand. For example, as data becomes a super-important part of the economy, skills related to data and data analysis are super-valuable. This includes skills in statistical analysis and database construction and architecture. Majors in statistics and computer science are good choices if you are hoping to meet that demand.
Note also that employability and salary aren’t one and the same. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, but if you do become a teacher, you will almost certainly be able to find a job.
What does all this mean for you? Research the employability prospects associated with a particular major. Think about the skills you will learn and the potential jobs you could have, and check out the employment prospects for those skills and jobs.
While this is far from foolproof—predicting job shortages and growth isn’t 100% accurate—it still provides valuable information that can give you at least a general idea of whether you are likely to find a job easily or whether it will take more work and require more flexibility in location etc. on your part.
The school you go to also plays somewhat into your general employability. At Ivy League and other top-ranked schools, most students are generally able to find jobs (even ones that are totally unrelated to what they studied) regardless of what they majored in. This is not as true at less selective schools, where graduates may struggle much more to find a job in some less marketable fields than in other more marketable ones.
#4: Future Income Potential
You will probably also want to consider your future income potential at least somewhat when you think about how to pick a major. This is far from an exact science but still a valuable exercise. If having a high salary is important to you, you need to be realistic about your interests; professions like teaching and social work typically pay very poorly so those may not be the best bet for a major. By contrast, majors like computer science and engineering tend to have a sunny salary outlook.
You can find lots of data on the median salary of graduates with particular majors. This is a valuable starting place. As you can see from the PayScale data, engineering, computer science, mathematics and finance-focused degrees dominate the list of best-paying majors. But it also includes physician assistant studies and government. By contrast, the lowest-paid majors tend to be concentrated in education, service industries, pastoral and religious studies, and social work and counseling.
But the median and mid-career salary data here doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. For one thing, in some of these professions, there is a high degree of income variability: graphic designers, for example, are low-paid in general, but the highest paid graphic designers can easily command six-figure salaries. You certainly can’t assume that you will be among the highest-paid in your field, but you should know when higher salaries are at least possible.
Additionally, sometimes your ultimate income potential depends a lot on graduate school. Psychology majors are low-paid unless they get advanced degrees, in which case they get a huge salary bump. So if you’re already intending on graduate school, this is something to keep in mind as you choose a major.
Again, it’s hard to predict exactly what your salary could be solely based on your major, especially long-term. But doing research can at least keep you in a realistic frame of mind.
#5: Particular Career Interests
You might also have a very specific goal, like becoming an astrophysicist, or a doctor, or a lawyer. Some (but not all) very specific career goals require specific majors, or at least specific courses and activities. For example, if you want to be an engineer, you have to get an engineering degree. If you want to be a doctor, you need to fulfill your med school prerequisites, or else you might have to complete an expensive post-baccalaureate pre-med program later. On the other hand, if you want to be a journalist, there are lots of majors that can accommodate that goal. And if you think you might want to go to business or law school, you have plenty of leeway in your choice of undergraduate major.
If you do have a very specific goal that requires a particular academic path, that probably needs to be your top priority in how to pick a college major.
Heart set on designing airplanes? You probably need to major in aeronautical engineering.