If there is anything that most college students fret about, it is deciding a major. In U.S. colleges and universities, students are given an opportunity to select a field of study in which they will take in-depth coursework. This is the field in which they will specialize during college and is called a “major”. Students sometimes decide to “double major” in two fields, which means that they take all the coursework needed for each of the two (or even three) majors. In addition, students may pursue an optional “minor,” which is a smaller version of a major, with perhaps half as many required courses.
My university offers 42 majors and some very large public universities offer more than 100 majors. A liberal arts college may offer 20-30 majors. No matter which type of college or university a student attends seeking a bachelor’s degree, they have a wide range of options for field of study.
Because choice of major is the source of a lot of anxiety for students and parents, I offer some suggested “do’s and don’ts” to help facilitate the process. The “do’s” are provided below and the “don’ts” in a companion article-Part Two. These suggestions are intended to help the student make a good decision that he or she will look back on over the years with pride and satisfaction.
DO become familiar with all the majors offered at your college.
Many fields of study are available in college that are not taught at all in high school and may be completely unfamiliar to a college freshman. Some of these majors are new, some are designed to meet a need in the workforce, and some combine traditional disciplines. Here are some examples of majors that a freshman might not know about:
Health Administration and Policy
Management of Aging Services
Business Technology Administration
DO narrow down your list of potential majors and then do research to learn more about each possibility.
After you rule out the majors that are clearly not appropriate for you, try to hone in on 3-5 or 3-10 that you could imagine yourself pursuing. Read the full description of the major in the college catalog as well as the requirements. Study the course descriptions of the courses needed for the major. Notice whether there are “tracks” or “concentrations” within the major and whether one or more of those “tracks” strikes a chord with you.
Also consider how your strengths and aptitudes align with those needed for success in the major. Does it require mathematical skills (e.g., Math, Physics)? Does it require a great deal of reading and writing (e.g. English, Journalism)? Does it require interpersonal skills (e.g., Social Work, Elementary Education)? Consider how each major relates to your strengths and interests as reflected in your high school career-both inside and outside the classroom.
DO plan your schedule for the first few semesters to include introductory courses in the fields that you have identified as potential majors.
If you are required to take general education or general distribution coursework (to ensure “breadth” of your college education), you can use those courses to test the waters in a potential major. For example, if you are intrigued by Sociology, an introductory course in that field will almost certainly fulfill a “Social Science” general education requirement. If Theater is a major that seems like a possibility, take an introductory Theater course that can fulfill an “Arts and Humanities” requirement for general education.
Often that first course can give you a much richer sense of what the field is about. I have often talked to students who say “I thought I wanted to major in Economics until I took ECON 101” or “I took Introduction to Archaeology for an Arts and Humanities course and found it really interesting, so I added Archaeology to my list of possible majors.”
DO keep an open mind about your major field of study at least through your freshman year and possibly longer.
Even if you enter college determined to be an accountant or a music teacher or a mechanical engineer, you may find that the field does not suit you once you encounter the necessary coursework. More than half of college students change their major at least once during college. This is not because they are fickle, or indecisive, but because they are gaining additional information about potential majors and making appropriate mid-course adjustments.
It is important to notice how many credits of coursework are associated with various potential majors. Some programs, such as engineering and architecture, may take 4 ½ years or 5 years and therefore you will want to get started in those majors earlier rather than later. Other majors may require fewer credits, leaving you more time to decide. Typically a student can be on the fence about History vs. Political Science for a year or two and still graduate within the traditional four year time frame.
DO seek out extra-curricular activities and internships that relate to your potential major field(s).
Another way to learn more about the field and about yourself is to join clubs and organizations related to the area. If you are interested in becoming a lawyer, join the Pre-Law Society, Mock Trial Team, or volunteer to be a student judicial officer. On the other hand, if you are thinking about Environmental Science, join the Environmental Awareness Club. If you have always wanted to be a diplomat, join the Model United Nations or start a chapter on your campus. At my university, most majors have a “Council of Majors” that sponsors events and disseminates information of interest to majors.
Even better is to seek out an internship-paid or unpaid, credit or no credit-in the field of interest. If you are considering becoming a pharmacist, do an internship in a hospital or community pharmacy. If you are thinking about Financial Economics, find a summer internship at a financial services company or a large bank. There is no substitute for putting yourself in the work environment to provide that “reality check” that will propel you into or out of the field.
Now that you have some specific action steps in mind for choosing your major, go to Part Two. In Part Two (the “don’ts”) I will point out some common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Source: Personal and professional experience