Derenda King, CFP®/CSLP®
Choosing a college major can be difficult. Some students have known what they wanted to be since they were young children. Others truly have no idea. The U.S. Department of Education reports that approximately 30% of students switch majors at least once. More strikingly, a survey by BestColleges and YouGov found that 61% of college graduates would change their undergraduate major if they could go back to school.
So why are majors important? They not only determine the degree with which students will graduate but also the career for which they will likely be most qualified upon graduation. Since deciding on a major can be an overwhelming process, now might be a good time to get started — given that students have more time on their hands due to stay-at-home orders. Here are some factors for your student to consider when thinking about a college major.
1. Think about the subjects you love.
What excites your student? By the time they graduate from high school, they should have enough information and experience from their classes to help them figure out their interests. If students love what they are studying, they are much more likely to be disciplined, as well as fully engaged in their classes and overall college experience. This often leads to great grades and relationships with others in their field. They can begin by making a list of what they love to do, both inside and outside the classroom, or by assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Encourage them to utilize resources on the College Board website to help them map out their future — it’s free to students who take the PSAT and/or SAT exams.
2. Research the college(s).
It’s important to think about colleges when selecting a major. Students who want to pursue a specific major should consider how that subject is taught at their schools of choice. For example, does the school even offer the major of interest? If so, does the college have a good record of graduates going on to successful careers in that field? Also, when thinking about their desired career and major, research if there are specific regions that are hubs for that profession. For example, students who want to pursue a career in politics often spend time in our nation’s capital or in New York. Students might think about applying to schools that are near the location they will likely be working in, as this can help in landing internship opportunities, which could further lead to offers of employment after graduation.
3. Consider declaring a major on college applications.
Declaring a major when applying to colleges can help admissions officers gain a better understanding of the student and how she or he can contribute to the incoming class. However, if the student doesn’t know what they want to do, they might want to choose a subject of great interest. If that’s not an option, don’t worry. Many schools don’t require students to declare a major until their sophomore or junior year. So students don’t have to know that they want to major in during the college search process. After all, that’s part of what college is for: to give students an opportunity to take classes and explore subjects that they might enjoy—and even subjects they’ve never been exposed to or considered as a possible career.
4. Think about career preparation.
Experts say that the best way to gain a better understanding of jobs in certain majors is to speak with high school counselors and professionals working in their field of interest. Counselors can tell students more about college majors and program offerings, while industry professionals can share how they got from college to where they are now. Students should schedule a time to meet or interview them and be prepared with a set of questions to ask. For example, students can ask counselors if they can put them in touch with recent graduates who are going to the colleges on their wish list. For professionals in the field, a sample question could be, “Why did you chose this occupation?”
5. Research earning potential.
Knowing one’s future earning potential can be valuable information. It is undeniable that some careers make more money than others. For example, generally speaking, majors in STEM, statistics, or economics tend to offer higher salaries than other majors. Students who have an idea of what they can earn after graduation can get a head start on budgeting for student loan payments or graduate school. While having a great salary is important, keep in mind that happiness is just as important. Choosing a career solely based on a high earning potential could result in unhappiness in that profession or even depression. PayScale is a useful website that helps students calculate expected annual salaries based on their major and career path after graduation.
6. Pair with a useful minor.
First off, let’s define a minor. A minor is similar to a major: it’s an area of academic focus or concentration, with one difference — it does not require as many classes. It’s a secondary academic discipline that can complement or support the major. For example, business majors might minor in marketing. A minor can also be very different from the major, perhaps an area that the student enjoys but doesn't want to pursue as a career. For example, a psychology major might minor in theater because they truly enjoy acting. In short, a minor is another avenue to learn useful skills that could potentially prepare students to work in more than one industry.
7. Know that you can change your mind.
As mentioned above, studies have found that many students change their major at least once and some switch several times. Students can enter college with one major in mind and, as their knowledge expands, discover a new area of interest. However, it’s important to note that
- The earlier the decision to change the major is made the better, and
- When changing majors, make sure credits are aligned with the expected graduation date; otherwise, changing majors could mean it will take longer to graduate.
It’s also important to note that the major one chooses does not necessarily predict nor guarantee the future. Many graduates find satisfying jobs that have nothing to do with what they majored in while in college.