How to Choose a College Major

Future aspirations: Choosing a major even if you don’t know what you want to do

How to choose a major

  • Start with your passions and choose a general direction.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your mind later. Most students do.
  • For pre-professional programs, consider your undergraduate options carefully.
  • Consider the downside to any major or career path.

When you were in kindergarten and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, it elicited a cute and endearing response.  Now, however, the question begins to take on some real meaning and with that, some real pressure.

Do you feel like you should know your college major before you enter the hallowed halls of higher education?  You (or your parents) are spending a tremendous amount of money on college, shouldn’t you at least have a clear focus on your area of study?

The answer is, “no, not necessarily.”  

You do not need to have established your life’s path before you begin college. In fact, I would argue that it’s hard for you to reliably pick a college major when you may not even know all of the possibilities that exist. One important statistic reinforces this theory. The most popular college major among incoming freshmen…undecided.  That’s right, the majority of entering college students agree that they’re not in a position to make this kind of commitment and even among those who do have a major selected, 75% change their minds (and their majors).

Find a general direction

Choosing a college is often a function of the academic majors they offer, so if you don’t know what you want, how do you choose a college?  The answer lies in knowing yourself. You need to know (generally) what kind of environment will suit you well, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and your likes and dislikes. While you may not have a specific college major in mind, do you know that it will have something to do with science and math or are you evenly split between engineering and history?  Knowing the answers to these questions can help you eliminate some places and keep others in the game.

Spend some time thinking about what you enjoy and where your strengths lie.  Eliminate what you can, and narrow the list of possibilities as you know them. Often, students select a major once they’ve taken a course that inspires them or have done an internship that captures their enthusiasm. Keep an open mind and avoid the pressure to make a choice before you are ready.

Don’t always seek the most logical route

So you’ve known since you were knee high to a grasshopper that you wanted to be a doctor (lawyer, dentist, veterinarian, etc.)  Every family member knows your aspirations, and when asked what you want to major in during college, you confidently answer, pre-med (pre-law, pre-vet…you get the picture) thinking this will put you on the fast track to medical school, but that’s not exactly correct.

The “pre-professional programs” as they’re collectively known, aren’t actually college majors, they are actually advising programs for students who aspire to these professional schools.  These programs have advisers that ensure you are on the right track, taking the right coursework and getting the grades you will need to make your dream a reality.  They will provide other services like mock professional school interviews, information on professional school standardized testing, internships opportunities, etc.

So, if you’re not going to major in pre-(fill in name of profession), what will you study? Here’s the good news. You can major in almost anything as long as you take certain core courses (which your pre-professional adviser will tell you) or develop certain necessary skills (like the critical thinking and writing necessary in law school).  In preparing for professional medical/vet school, you’ll find a certain set of required core coursework in the sciences.  Professional schools will have expected you to take biology (including a certain number of courses in upper level bio), chemistry (including upper level courses like organic chemistry and biochemistry) and calculus among others.

Don’t be afraid to be different

Your choice of a college major can actually make you a more interesting candidate to professional schools. For medical/dental/vet school, as long as you’ve taken the requisite coursework, you can major in something esoteric or unrelated to the professional school you seek to attend.

For aspiring lawyers, how many law school applicants have majored in environmental studies, a foreign language or music? The diversity of your interests means diversity in the student body which may be appealing in the professional school application process.

So, as you go forward, simply know what you need and think about what you like. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, nor necessarily be the same thing.

Look at the Dark Side

Who ever thought that Darth Vader would have insight into making major life choices?  While having dinner with some friends, we talked about the practicality of Darth Vader’s philosophy.  It’s interesting to think about how the dark side might actually prove valuable to young people making monumental decisions.  The dark side is, in this case, the down side, and there is a downside to every choice we make.  There are no perfect scenarios, not in college choices, jobs or heck, even prom dates.  Perfection doesn’t really exist, and by making idealistic decisions, we miss the opportunity to make well-informed choices that will realistically prepare us for what comes down the road.

Think about these examples:   

You want to be a doctor.  You’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and you can think of nothing you’d rather do than go to medical school and be a doctor.  You daydream about the joy you bring to someone when you ease their pain and fix what ails them.  You fill with pride at the thought of having developed a trusting relationship with your patients, but did you ever consider the down-side?  What about the fact that most of your patient interactions may occur in 10 minute intervals.  What about the burdensome paperwork requirements, government regulations and fear of lawsuits that may drive some of what you do?

You’d rather be a teacher, perhaps?  There is no more rich reward than watching the light bulb illuminate as a child learns to read or makes a new discovery.  You envision nurturing a classroom of freshly scrubbed faces who come to school each day eager to learn, but many in the profession will tell you that’s not the case.  Mandatory standardized testing, heavy government regulations and decreased budgets will drive much of what you do and can often limit the creativity you might otherwise bring to the classroom.  Your class, often large because of funding limitations, will have a variety of special needs students.  Some will have learning disabilities, others will have issues at home that affect their ability to come to school ready to learn.  Picture yourself at the head of this class.  If you have the patience, creativity and dedication to weather all of the variables that being a teacher brings, then you know you’re ready.

Don’t get hung up on the dark side, but viewing the choices you make with realistic expectations will help you enjoy your work while navigating the inevitable challenges you will face.