College Freshman, Students Hacks

The Simple Guide To Choosing The Right Major in College

Choosing the right college major
*This post has been updated 11/19/2020

Choosing the “right” major for yourself– it’s important.

Even though college students don’t have to pick their major right away, it’s often one of the first things they think about. Declaring a major can seem like the answer to the question “Why am I in college?” , but really it’s not. You’ll probably figure out the reason you’re in college long after you declare your major. However, that doesn’t mean choosing your major isn’t important– it is. And you should think critically about choosing the “Right” major– the right major for you.

Obviously, the right major for you is going to be different for different people. But different people can use the same process to find out what the right major is for them. Before you begin that process, there’s some things you should understand.

*This post is derived from a chapter in our upcoming BOOK!!!

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What is a Major?

Simply put, your major is the academic field that you get your degree in. A majority of the classes you take will be classes which fulfill the requirements for your major. It’s the focus of your education.

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What is a Minor?

A minor is the secondary focus of your education. Minors have course requirements just like majors, but not as many– and a minor is less important than a major. Your minor can complement your major (for example, a business administration major with an economics minor) or it can be unrelated (for example, a biochemistry major with a graphic design minor). Many schools don’t require students to have a minor, but some do.

How important is my major?

Important, but it doesn’t define what your career path will be. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which was most recently revised in December 2014, found that only 27% of graduates work in a field related to their major. That’s slightly below 3 of every 10 graduates.

Not all majors are created equally…

Even though there is a 73% chance your career will be outside of your major, choosing your major still matters. Certain majors have a proven track record of leaving students unemployed or underemployed. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found Fine Arts and Mass Media / Communications to be the most unemployable majors:

Fine Arts: 6.4% Unemployment rate, 58.5% Underemployment rate

Mass Media / Communications: 7.4% Unemployment rate, 56.1% Underemployment rate

* Averages based on 2015 – 2016 data.

Underemployed: A graduate who has a job, but that job doesn’t require any college degree. It’s not ideal to be underemployed, but it’s much better than being unemployed. With your degree, you can start a job that under-employs you, and once you have experience you can advance to a position that uses your degree.

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“Can I change my mind?”

Short answer: yes. Most-correct answer: it depends.

You can always change your major, but that doesn’t mean you always should. Every major has course requirements (the classes you must take to get the degree) and it takes a lot of time to get them done. If you declare a major your freshman year and decide you don’t like it, you can probably change it your sophomore year and still graduate in 4 years. But if you wait until your sophomore year to declare a major and decide later that you want to change it, doing so might mean pushing your graduation back by a semester or more.

When it comes to course requirements and choosing classes, we can help you with that too! Now that you understand the above, you should start the process of picking the right major for you.

First, you’ll need a list of the majors offered by the college you’re attending. You can almost always find this list on the college’s website, or you can ask your academic advisor for the list. If you’re having trouble finding it on the school’s website, try Google searching “List of majors [name of your college]”. 

Using that list, make your own list of contenders– The 5 – 10 majors you’re most likely to enjoy. Only consider your interests for now because this is like a brainstorm; anything is okay to write down. You’ll narrow the list down throughout this process… I’ve even created thorough examples to help you through it.

Choosing the Right Major: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats…

Once you have your contenders list, SWOT analyze each major on your list. A SWOT analysis is an evaluation of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. In this case, write down your strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and threats of each major.

You know your strengths and weaknesses already, but coming up with the opportunities and threats of each major will take some research on your part.

Luckily, statistics for this sort of thing are only a Google search away. You can find out things like the graduates’ unemployment rate of a certain major, amount of other students in a certain major, employer demand for a certain major, etc. without ever leaving your computer.

Talk to professors within the majors on your list. Don’t be afraid to seek out a professor to ask them questions, even if you’ve never talked to them before. It’s their job to teach you and help you make educated decisions– not only do they like to do it, they get paid to do it. Basically, your goal is to find out the pros and cons of the majors on your list. Readers in 2020: You can ask professors to schedule a Zoom meeting with you too!

Revisiting this post to update it, I realize that this process is tedious. For the readers who are really unsure about choosing a major, this may help you feel more secure about your decision going-forward. However, if you would say that you already know ‘what you want to be when you grow up’, then I encourage you skip this process. There’s no need to overthink something you’re already confident about.

Here are some questions to ask professors to understand different majors:

“I’m working on choosing the right major…”

  • “What are some advantages of majoring in ______________?”
  • “What are some disadvantages of majoring in ______________?”
  • “Which skills are most important for succeeding as a ______________ major?”
  • “Of all the classes required to complete the ______________ major, which one do students struggle with the most? Why?”
  • “If I major in ______________, which of these programs am I likely to use more: Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel? Why?”
  • “What kinds of employers would hire a ______________ major?”
  • “What do you think the world would look like without ______________?”

When you have completed your SWOT analysis, use it to remove majors from your contenders list until you have 3 majors left at most. You want to eliminate majors for which the Threats outweigh the Opportunities. Keep in mind: The more majors you start with, the more research you’ll have to do to narrow your list down.

 Example of a SWOT Analysis

Strengths                        Weaknesses

I’m a great writer. I am not good at complex math.
I’m a good negotiator. I am not a “people person”.
I’m organized. I’m not very creative.

Business Administration

Opportunities                                                                                         Threats

Broad major, so it’s applicable to a lot of different jobs (variety of career options) It’s the most popular major (lots of competition)
30% of employers hiring recent college grads say business majors are in highest demand Building a network of connections might be hard because I’m not a “people person”
Good opportunity to use my negotiating skills and benefit from being organized N/A

Economics

Opportunities                                                                                                          Threats

Understanding of investing, markets, money, decision making (Very useful in careers and in personal life) 6.3% Unemployment rate (relatively high)

*3% is average for college graduates

N/A Relies heavily on complex math, which is a major weakness of mine

Mass Media / Communications

Opportunities                                                                                                         Threats

Wide range of potential employers

(They just don’t employ a large volume of people, which explains the unemployment rate)

7.4% unemployment rate (one of the highest of all)
Good opportunity to use my writing skills 56.1% underemployment rate (one of the highest of all)

Engineering

Opportunities                                                  Threats

Falls within STEM group of majors (highly employable)

* STEM= Science, Tech, Engineering, Math

Broad focus, there are many kinds of engineering (Threat is that highly-specialized engineers are in higher demand)
N/A Relies heavily on complex math, which is a major weakness of mine

Supply Chain Management (SCM)

Opportunities                                                                                                  Threats

Huge employment potential, almost every model of business has suppliers and distributors (SCM’s work with both!) Highly competitive (Not the job market, but the actual work SCM’s do in the industry)
Good opportunity to use my negotiating skills and benefit from being organized N/A

 

After evaluation using the Example SWOT, the example contenders list looks like this:

Economics: Removed because of high unemployment rate and because it involves lots of complex math– one of the weakness examples.

Mass Media / Communications: Removed because of high unemployment rate and major underemployment risk.

Engineering: Removed because it relies heavily on complex math, and because it would be hard to       compete with more-specialized engineers.

With a narrowed down list, you can move on to the next filter in the process… considering your ideal lifestyle. Choosing the right major should never be all about money, which is why you begin the process by considering your personal interests. But students have to pay for college and have money left over for their own purposes.

You’ll want to research figures that show average earnings. Remember though, only 27% of graduates get a job in their major. So more specifically, you’ll want to research average earnings by major.

* Want to know 15 of the Highest Paying Majors?

Here’s the example data: According to Payscale, Business Administration majors earn an average salary of $63,900, and Supply Chain Management majors earn an average salary of $71,500.

Even if the difference in average salary is minimal, cross the major with the lowest average salary off of your list– for the sake of making a decision.

Once you’re down to 2 majors on your list, you have some options. If you were the student in my example, now you would know that “choosing the right major” means you should try a major in Supply Chain Management. 

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The first option…

Double major! If you’re feeling ambitious, you can declare two majors. It’s like 2 chances at choosing the right major, plus you can drop one major later if you don’t like it.

Each major has its own course requirements, and you’ll have to fulfill the requirements of both, so be prepared to spend more time doing work than the average student.

With the rise of virtual learning in 2020, think hard before choosing this option. Although everyone is different, I found that my work was more challenging for me virtually than it was when I was physically at college. You should consider that learning two fields of study virtually might be harder than it would be in-person.

And the second…

Major and minor! With your list down to two options, you could major in one thing and minor in the other. You will take classes in both your major and your minor, so you’ll get experience with both.

And the last (for the indecisive)

Pick one. If you only want to work with one thing at a time, then declare one of the majors left on your list (flip a coin if you must). If you quickly find out you don’t like it, you can switch to the other major.

All of that critical thinking and methodology about choosing the right major for yourself can be stressful and overwhelming, but your future self will thank you for it.

After all, it’s better to think about how to make the right choice beforehand than it is to look back and think about why the choice you made was wrong.

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One thought on “The Simple Guide To Choosing The Right Major in College

  1. Lydia says:

    This is a helpful framework for determining a college major. I like your step by step approach while doing research into the real life possibilities of a career. I think it’s also important to consider student debt into the equation. With so many students taking out student loans to attend college, it’s important to consider a career that will realistically earn enough to pay off the debt.
    Thanks for sharing!

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