how to choose a major

We know that choosing a college major can be overwhelming.

But have no fear! Your choice of major will not lock you into a specific career for the rest of your life. That said, you WILL spend a lot of time whatever subject you choose. Here’s what you need to know about college majors before you commit.

What is a major?

Your major in college is your specialized area of study. Beyond general college requirements, you'll also take a group of courses in a subject of your choosing such as Chemistry, Comparative Literature, or Political Science. At some schools you can even design your own major.

How important is your major?

The major you choose will neither predict nor guarantee your future. Many graduates find jobs that have nothing to do with what they studied in college. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average twenty-something switches jobs once every three years and the average person changes career fields two or three times in their lifetime.

If you intend to earn a professional degree (like an MD) after college, you will probably need certain courses, or prerequisites, under your belt. But many future doctors major in non-science related fields.

When do I declare a major?

Typically in your sophomore or junior year, but the answer varies across schools and programs. Some colleges ask you to list your expected major on your college application (although "undecided" is usually an option), but don't require you to declare definitively until later.

If you are interested in a major that requires a lot of classes, or classes that are limited to students in that major, then it is better to declare early. Some majors demand a strictly regimented order of courses, and if you fall behind, you may have to extend your college stay by a semester or two.

How to Choose a Major

Consider these factors when picking your major.

  • Career Prep

    Choose a major because it will prepare you for a specific career path or advanced study. Maybe you already know that you want to be a nurse, a day trader, a physical therapist, or a web developer. Before you declare, take a class or two in the relevant discipline, check out the syllabus for an advanced seminar, and talk to students in the department of your choice. Make sure you’re ready for the coursework required for the career of your dreams.
  • Earning Potential

    Future earning potential is worth considering—college is a big investment, and while college can pay you back in many ways beyond salary, this can be a major factor for students who are paying their own way or taking out loans. According to PayScale.com, the majors that lead to the highest salaries include just about any type of engineering, actuarial mathematics, computer science, physics, statistics, government, and economics. Keep your quality of life in mind, too—that six figure salary may not be worth it if you're not happy at the office.
  • Subjects You Love

    Some students choose a major simply because they love the subject matter. If you love what you're studying, you're more likely to fully engage with your classes and college experience, and that can mean better grades and great relationships with others in your field. If your calling is philosophy, don't write it off just because you're not sure about graduate school, or what the job market holds for philosophers. Many liberal arts majors provide students with critical thinking skills and writing abilities that are highly valued by employers.
  • Undecided? Explore your interests.

    If you truly have no idea what you want to study, that's okay—many schools don't require students to declare a major until sophomore year. That gives you four semesters to play the field. Make the most of any required general education courses—choose ones that interest you. Talk to professors, advisors, department heads, and other students. Find an internship off campus. Exploring your interests will help you find your best fit major—and maybe even your ideal career.

Can I change my mind?

Definitely. One of the most exciting aspects of college life is that it introduces you to new subjects and fosters new passions. You might enter undergrad enjoying physics but discover a burgeoning love for political science. However, keep this mind: Every major has requisite coursework. Some require you to take introductory courses before you move into the more advanced classes. Also, some classes are offered in the fall but not in the spring, or vice–versa. If you change your major late in the game, it may take more than the traditional four years to earn a degree.

Minors and Double Majors

If one field of study doesn't satisfy your intellectual appetite, consider a minor. A minor is similar to a major in that it's an area of academic concentration. The only difference is that a minor does not require as many classes.

Some undergrads with a love of learning and an appetite for punishment choose to pursue two majors, often in totally different subjects. A double major provides you with an understanding of two academic fields. It allows you to become familiar with two sets of values, views and vocabularies. That said, it also requires you to fulfill two sets of requirements and take twice as many required classes. You won't have as many opportunities to experiment or take classes outside those two fields.

While a minor or a double major might make you more marketable, both professionally and for graduate study, both are time—and energy—intensive. Most students find that one major is more than enough.

Need help? Browse majors and learn more about them with our college majors search tool.  Plus: Here's our list of Top 10 College Majors based on research covering job prospects, alumni salaries, and popularity.