When it comes to your college education, one of the most important decisions you’ll make, along with selecting your school, is choosing your major. And schools don’t make it easy: Some offer more than 100 majors!
With all those choices in front of you, it’s natural to think of changing majors as a normal part of college. But doing so can be incredibly costly: Research shows that bachelor’s degree recipients typically take and pay for 15 credits more than they need — an entire semester of wasted time and money. And that doesn’t even factor in the emotional cost, or the loss of potential salary due to delayed graduation.
So doesn’t it make sense to spend more time trying to figure out the best major for you? If so, this guide is for you. In addition to offering tips on narrowing down options, we provide resources to help you make a decision, and interview several experts who offer their insider perspective.
Expert Panel: Choosing Your Undergraduate Major
To give you the best perspective on how to select an undergraduate major, we turned to the experts. Our panel includes:
Dr. Robert Kohen
F. J. Talley
Q1: If I am a college-bound student who has no idea what to major in, what should my first step be?
Kohen: When it comes to picking a major, students should reflect on their interests and try out classes in a variety of areas that appeal to them. It’s also helpful to work backwards from career: I recommend students reflect on potential career paths and explore what types of educational trajectories align with those paths. Once a student has some potential fields in mind, they should explore majors that can lead to those fields. They should also reach out to professionals in those fields to schedule informational interviews, where they can learn more about the field and potentially set up a shadowing or internship opportunity.
Lawrence: The first step is to explore your areas of strength and your desire for experiences. Think about what you both love and hate and research careers that highlight your strengths only.
Talley: An ideal first step is to answer your question with a question: What do you want to do when you grow up? And while many young people haven’t made a final decision about their careers at 16 years of age, they know what they like and what they don’t like. For example, a high school junior knows they love science and aren’t crazy about literature, or they have great ability in history, but not so much for math. I’d also ask that they look at the adults they know and ask those adults what they like about their job and what a person who wants to enter that career should do. The point is to open up their minds to what the life of adults is like, and to learn that there is a process to working toward the careers they want. Often, the adults they talk to had specific majors in college, and that may be their first step toward choosing a major that’s attached to a career they might like.
Q2: When should I choose a major in order to optimize success in college?
Kohen: This is going to depend on the college and major. Some programs will only accept you if you are admitted to that program as a freshman applicant, while others are relatively easy to transfer into from another major or from being undeclared. At many colleges, you can wait until the end of your first or second year before declaring a major. Some majors, however, require extensive coursework (think nursing, engineering), so starting sooner can better ensure completing the degree in four years.
Lawrence: By the end of your freshman year in college, leading into your sophomore year. The first 1.5 years are usually general studies, so deciding before then may lead to added stress, anxiety, or multiple changes.
Talley: Ideally, students should choose their major before the end of their sophomore year in college. This allows them to compete the major and graduate on time, yet still have some flexibility to enjoy other courses and experiences during college. Waiting until after the sophomore year makes that tougher. Declaring a major during the first year is fine as well, but students should know that the choice of major isn’t irrevocable. The major is simply one tool to help them move toward the career they want, but not the only one. Other tools include internships, shadowing experiences, and other work in their field of choice.
Q3: What is more important when choosing a major — student interests or what they are good at?
Kohen: Both are important! Choosing a major — and a career — is about marrying these two.
Lawrence: It’s important to carefully balance both, finding harmony in the strengths and passions. If a student is passionate about what they aren’t good at naturally, they may encounter a steeper learning curve or find themselves becoming disinterested over time.
Talley: This is a tough question — but also an excellent one. Normally, I’d say that a student’s interests often match their strengths, but that’s not always the case. I normally ask students: What would they willingly spend their time doing, even if they weren’t getting paid for it? What so engages them that they don’t want to stop? I also ask them what are they willing to work really hard on in order to improve? Once you filter out some things that don’t tie much to major (though some would say that anime and Pokémon might tie to some majors!) what’s left are the streams they might pursue in terms of career and major. Generally, I don’t encourage students to pursue a major which offers high career income, but in which they have limited skills. No one should have to struggle like that.
Q4: What other factors should a student consider when choosing a major?
Kohen: Students applying to college should consider how competitive a given major is: Popular programs like computer science, for instance, are often much more difficult to be admitted to than programs like history. Sometimes a student can make themselves more competitive by studying a related field that is still of interest to them: Mechanical engineering, for instance, can be less competitive than other engineering majors, and geographic information systems and data science can be less competitive than computer science.
Lawrence: Students should consider long-term goals and issues they find interesting. They should look for problems they want to solve and investigate studies that get them into a deeper understanding of those problems. The earlier a student identifies a mission or cause they want to champion, the more focused their career pursuits will be.
Talley: As mentioned above, students should consider their current skills when choosing a major. They may really enjoy problem solving and building things but hate math. In that case, they probably shouldn’t choose engineering as a major, even though problem solving is something engineers do all the time. In this case, the student should consider other majors where creating and problem solving are central, such as architecture. They should take a hard look at their strengths — or what they’re willing to do to build on their weaknesses — early on to make the best long-term choices.
Q5: How important is major choice?
Kohen: This depends partly on the field. If a student wants to work in a more technical, skill-based field (think engineering, nursing), developing those skills during college will be important, and employers are increasingly looking for students with hard skills. That said, employers also value the “softer” skills that come with any liberal arts education: the ability to problem solve, think critically, write, and express oneself clearly. Practically any college major provides great training in these skills. One strategy is to combine a liberal arts major (say, music or English) with a minor or certificate in a hard skill, such as computer science or data science, and to seek out internship experience during college in the professional areas that interest the student.
Lawrence: Undergraduate major studies provide a solid foundation and general education in a specific area of study. Based on the curriculum, majors give students the opportunity to further learn about themselves and determine what they would like to continue studying, learning, or pursuing post-graduation. It’s ok if a major changes, and the student learns more about themselves. It’s also ok to finish out a program and take up additional classes, certifications, or graduate studies to apply greater learning and research. Beyond the major, the life skills students learn finishing an undergraduate program will be what continues to pay dividends post-graduation.
Talley: Choice of major is important because it gives a structure and focus to their undergraduate education. Also, many majors require students to complete courses in other disciplines in order to complete a major and graduate. This allows students to customize their major, so it prepares them more effectively for their chosen career. Having said that, the major is only one part of a student’s college career. Students may find that they could enter their career of choice with a variety of majors. This means that if the major they feel locked into isn’t the “perfect” one for their chosen career, there is always a Plan B. A great way to pursue that Plan B is to head to the career center and chat with the staff.
Q6: What are some specific tools or resources that students can access to help them make this decision?
Kohen: Assessments like the Self-Directed Search and YouScience can help a student hone in on majors and careers that might align with their interests, and students can then use resources like O*Net, Occupational Outlook Handbook, and Roadtrip Nation to explore those careers in more detail. When it comes to learning about a particular major, What Can I Do with This Major? and the Study Hall Fast Guides are great resources. Lastly, while money is only one part of the equation, students can explore earnings-by-major data at the federal government’s website College Scorecard.
Lawrence: Students should explore leadership and personality assessments like DISC or 16 Personalities, for example, to learn more about themselves and possible career options that align to who they are. They should also seek out guidance from successful professionals in a similar field or industry they one day hope to be in. Finally, they should volunteer or intern at companies that have positions they hope to get into. Exposure and experience will give their education legs and help them determine if they are headed in the right direction or should pivot.
Talley: Two great tools are the College Boards Big Future and ACT’s List of College Majors, which includes tools and inventories to help students choose their majors. But again, a college’s career center staff can spend much more time with a student to help them explore careers and majors.
Q7: What should I do if I declare a major and I don’t like it?
Kohen: Around a third of all college students change their major at least once. If you’ve decided your major isn’t right for you, absolutely explore alternatives. Changing majors can potentially extend your time in college beyond four years, however, so pay careful attention to how many courses a major requires, when they’re offered, how easy it is to register for those classes, and if they have to be taken in a particular sequence.
Lawrence: A student’s major should be their decision and commitment. It’s more important for a student to honor their commitment to a program they want to be in than to struggle through the internal battle or regret of wishing they had the courage to change. Depending on how deep they are into studies, this decision may have implications in the short term, but will pay dividends in the long term.
Talley: In the short term, change it! Students shouldn’t make themselves miserable by staying in the wrong major. This can make college far more difficult than it should be and may hinder graduating at all. If a student is in their last year of college, however, that becomes more difficult. A good discussion with a career advisor and their academic advisor may help the student carve a path within their existing major that isn’t too painful, yet can still prepare them for a career. And while I hate to suggest that students stay in a major they hate, going back to square one and adding a year or more to their college career might not be doable.
Q8: What advice would you give your younger self about choosing a major?
Kohen: Follow your interests.
Lawrence: Go for what you want most, even if that brings about additional challenges. You have one life to live, so make the most of it by trusting yourself and reaching for your dreams. You can go farther than you imagined. Don’t settle.
Talley: I would probably ask people in careers that I liked how they got there and what major they pursued. I’d also ask them if there are other ways to enter that career, and if they wished they had pursued a different major.
Q9: Any final advice for students trying to choose their major today?
Kohen: Most adults do not work in a field explicitly connected to their college major, and many adults change their career (often multiple times). Study what you enjoy and what aligns with your current long-term interests. Don’t focus too minutely on salaries: While STEM majors often make higher salaries than humanities majors right out of college, for instance, many humanities majors eventually catch up and surpass STEM salaries.
Lawrence: Don’t settle for what others expect you to select. Remember it is your decision and opportunity to learn more about yourself and prepare for a successful future life and career. Make the hard choices now so that you don’t have to live with the regrets that plague many adults later in life. Reach for the stars!
Talley: Don’t let the choice of major stress you out! It’s an important choice, but not the only choice you’ll make in college. And since there are often many different access routes to a given career, make your major just one tool of many to help you reach your career goals.
Self-Assessment – How to Make Your Major Decision
If you’re like many students, you may begin to approach your decision about your major by identifying careers and industries where you expect future growth. And growth can mean different things to different people, sometimes referring to potential salary increases or perhaps to the number of projected openings for a given position title.
But just as important as researching growth opportunities in your future career is the chance for you to learn more about yourself. You can do this by asking yourself questions to identify personal characteristics that may play a role in your major decision. These questions can come from official self-assessment tests and evaluations, but they can also be less formal and come from introspectively answering questions that prompt you to think critically about what you want from your education and future career.
So, get your tablet, laptop, smartphone, or pen and paper ready to jot down some notes in response to the following prompts.
Make a List of Your Skills and Strengths
A good way to begin thinking about your major is to consider the things you’re naturally gifted at doing. By playing into these inherent strengths, you give yourself a significant advantage, because in all likelihood, your studies will simply be easier. This can also help you learn more in a shorter amount of time with less considerable effort put toward academic achievement. Another way to think about this: What do your friends and family always tell you you’re innately good at doing, and does that strength suggest a specific field of study?
Make a List of Your Skill or Academic Weaknesses
As important as it is to assess your strengths, you also want to identify your weaknesses. If there’s a particular school subject in which you’ve always struggled, for example, you may want to consider this before choosing that subject as your major. But if you’re still committed to that major, acknowledging your weaknesses related to that subject can help you put a specific plan in place to help overcome them as you pursue your major.
Consider Your Passions and Interests
If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life — or so the saying goes. If you pick a major that falls in line with your genuine interests, going to class will be less of a chore and likely even fun. Additionally, you might want to pick a major that could lead to a job or career that’s in line with your passions.
Make Note of What You Aren’t Interested in
For most of us, figuring out what we don’t like to do is fairly simple. But have you considered how these things may be tangentially related to a future career? For example, maybe you’re not interested in working with children, and yet you’re considering an education degree because you think you’d be a great principal. This sounds obvious, but too many students choose a major based solely on a prospective title, instead of really considering what that job may entail. Remember, no area of study (or future job) is worth it if it makes you miserable or keeps you from sleeping well at night.
Write Down Some Things That Inspire You
Write down ideas, events, people, places, or anything else that excites you or makes you want to learn more. Not only can this exercise give you some idea about the sort of academic subjects or future careers that will give you plenty of motivation, but it can also help you figure out what topics will provide you with lifelong fulfillment.
Consider What Jobs or Careers You Can Actually See Yourself Doing
Your major doesn’t lock you into a particular career, but it does make it easier to get certain jobs and harder to get others. For example, if you major in finance, you’ll have an easier time finding a job at an investment bank than if you majored in biochemistry. When choosing a major, look into what types of careers it can lead to. Then decide if those jobs are something you will enjoy.
Think About Potential Salary
Considering future earnings is often a factor that many students either ignore or put way too much emphasis on. How much money you could potentially earn thanks to a particular major is important, but its importance depends on what your professional and personal goals are and how hard you’re willing to work to reach those goals. On one hand, making more money is nice, but not if it makes you unhappy. On the other hand, it’s good to have a job that makes you happy, but it’s hard to be happy if you can’t afford to pay for basic life necessities.
Jot Down What Challenges You in a Positive Way
We all have our challenges. But some challenges are fun and inspiring to tackle, leading to growth and fulfillment, while others are demotivating and a bit soul-crushing. Before choosing a major, ask yourself what kinds of challenges you’d be excited to face head on. If the idea of overcoming an obstacle that has long haunted you brings you excitement, this may suggest a specific area of interest or future career.
Note Any Classes You Can Take to Help Decide
Sometimes, you’ll need more information before deciding on a major. There may be classes available to you during your freshman year (or first part of your sophomore year) that can shed some light on what you can expect in a particular major. Figure out what these classes are and register for a few of them. Just be sure they can also help you meet your graduation requirements, whether as a required general education course or elective.
How to decide what’s realistic will depend on your particular needs and interests. There could be a major that you’re passionate about, but you don’t think it’ll lead to a career that pays what you need for your desired lifestyle. Alternatively, you might know you’d do really well at a particular subject matter, but you can’t stand the idea of studying it for several years in college or taking on that topic in your future career.
Additional Resources to Help You Choose a Major
Here is a list of additional resources to help you zero in on your strengths and interests. Many of these aren’t directly related to college majors; instead, they may be assessments that will help you learn more about yourself, which will help you make a decision about a future major.
This is a great website for finding free online self-awareness tests. Some of the test categories include personality, career, intelligence, and work values.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, this website has a variety of tools, including self-assessment tests, occupational data, job profiles, and an education and training search tool.
Available from Gallup, this personal assessment test is a great way to identify unique characteristics and talents that could be useful in a specific field of study or career.
This is a student-derived list of books, some of which are fiction, that offers insights and unique perspectives about different academic topics and career fields.
This article produced by Indiana University provides a host of helpful resources like booklets and major-to-careers connection tools to help you uncover your educational interests.
This resource comes from the library of Stetson University and gives a list of recommended books to help college students select a major.
Focus 2 refers to a series of tools to help college students make decisions about majors and careers. While not free, Focus 2 assessment may be available from a career counselor at your school.
This organization promotes the Enneagram of Personality, a method of assessment used for learning about nine interrelated personality types.
This is a self-reflection quiz to help students pick a major. It consists of 40 questions that ask about interests and preferences.
This is another quiz for helping college students select a major. It’s relatively short at just 10 questions.
The MBTI Assessment results in a well-known four-letter code that sheds light on your personality. The official test isn’t free, but there are many unofficial MBTI tests available online for no cost.
MyMajors offers a unique 15-minute assessment to recommend up to 10 possible majors. To use the tool, you’ll need to sign up and provide basic information about yourself.
This is one of the best sources of career information, with official data coming from the U.S. government. Unlike other sources of occupational data, this website presents it in a way that’s easier to understand when deciding among various careers.
The Princeton Review offers resources to help with college decisions, such as choosing a major. This particular guide includes a college major search tool.
Truity makes a variety of personality and aptitude tests, many of which are free. These include multiple career-oriented tests that are helpful for choosing a college major.
This self-assessment is a revised version of the John Holland Self-Directed Search, or SDS. SDS is designed to help people choose a career by utilizing the RIASEC theory, which classifies people and workplaces based on six characteristics.
Also known as BLS, this website uses official government data to provide abundant employment statistics. One of their most useful tools is its Occupational Outlook Handbook, which provides detailed reviews of specific careers, including types of skills and traits needed for them.
This is an article from the University of South Florida designed for USF students, but has great insight into the decision process and links to several assessments.
Offered by the University of Tennessee, this website lets users see how a particular major can lead to certain occupations. The tools are subscription-based, so interested students will likely make use of this resource by contacting their school’s career services office.
Offered by CareerOneStop, this is an online test you can take to determine your personal values and make it easier to identify careers that are a good fit.