How to Choose a Major

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Specializing in a particular field and graduating with a degree requires a crucial first step: choosing a major. Picking a major often charts the course for one’s future career path, making it an important decision for college students to consider.

Between 20% and 50% of new students enter college as “undecided” on what major they plan to pursue. However, choosing a major early empowers college students to get a head start on their programs by completing the right prerequisites from the very beginning.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, business studies are the most popular majors for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees. They make up more than 19% of the total bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2016-17. Following business majors in popularity, degrees in health professions, social sciences and history, psychology, biological and biomedical sciences, engineering, communication, and visual and performing arts rank as some of the most popular majors in college.

There are many areas of study in college to explore. College students face an arduous decision when the time comes to finally choose a major. Students with a variety of interests and goals may struggle with the decision even more. Use this guide to learn how to choose a major, including what to consider when deciding among various areas of study in college and the potential career paths available upon graduation.

When Do I Choose a Major?

Students typically declare a major when they enroll during their freshman year. That said, “undecided” or “undeclared” students typically wait until the end of their sophomore year to choose. Undecided students refer to those who still need to choose a major, while undeclared students know which major they want to pursue but haven’t officially declared it. For example, an undeclared student may need to meet certain admission requirements before they announce their chosen major. Some schools may require students to choose a major before enrolling.

In short, students may decide on a major as early as their admission application and as late as the end of their sophomore year.

Strengths and Interests

Students should consider their strengths and interests when choosing a major. To ensure academic success, students should enroll in a degree program that aligns with their skills and passions.

Students should ask themselves the following questions to help narrow down their options:

  • What courses do I excel in?
  • What clubs and extracurricular activities do I enjoy?
  • Am I uniquely talented in a particular area?
  • What are my career goals?

Based on the answers, a student should develop an idea for good majors to choose from. For example, if a student excels in high school mathematics, they might consider a computer science or engineering degree. If a student is a talented writer, they may consider an English degree. Students wanting to start their own business could major in business with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Areas of Study

The areas of study listed below offer a glimpse into a few popular options students typically consider. Remember, students should look at their future schools and programs to determine what areas of study the school offers and the requirements for each. High school seniors who already know what area of study they want to pursue can benefit from applying to colleges that offer the best programs in their chosen field.

  • Art and Design

    The study of art and design covers a wide array of mediums, including painting, illustration, sculpture, and graphic design. Some core principles that students explore include color theory, balance, proportion, and contrast. Students also learn art history and critique. Over the course of study, students develop their own portfolio of work as an artist or designer.

    Majors in art and design include studio arts, drawing and painting, digital media, and photography. Potential careers include that of a graphic designer, a curator, or an independent artist.

  • Business and Management

    As a business and management major, students study the various ways that companies and organizations operate. Business studies can be applied to various industries, and a degree often opens the door to executive or other senior management positions.

    Examples of business and management majors include finance, human resource management, hospitality management, and business studies. A degree in this area can lead to senior management or executive positions. It can also prepare graduates for a career as an accountant, human resources director, or other administrative position.

  • Computers and Technology

    The study of computers and technology covers subjects such as the development of computer hardware, software applications, and programming languages. In today’s world, the majority of companies rely on computers and technology infrastructure to power their businesses.

    Popular majors in the field of computers and technology include computer science, cybersecurity, information technology, and data analytics. Graduates go on to work as IT managers, analysts, computer software engineers, and systems administrators.

  • Criminal Justice and Legal

    Criminal justice and legal studies lead to career opportunities in law enforcement, advocacy, and social services. Students study topics such as how the legal system works and the nature of criminal behavior. A bachelor’s degree in this area of study lays the groundwork for an advanced law school degree.

    Examples of majors include corrections, criminology, and criminal justice. Students planning to continue on to graduate school with the goal of becoming a practicing lawyer typically major in prelaw studies. Other career opportunities for criminal justice majors include those within law enforcement agencies and within the corrections system. Graduates may also seek work as a paralegal, social worker, or rights advocate.

  • Education and Teaching

    Education and teaching majors provide a pathway to becoming a K-12 teacher, as well as specializing in other areas, such as special education or early childhood education. Those seeking teaching degrees often choose to specialize in a particular content area, such as math or history.

    Majors in this field include elementary education, special education, administration, and library sciences. Future career paths include a classroom teacher to a special education diagnostician. An education degree can lead to work as a principal, administrator, librarian, or counselor.

  • Liberal Arts and Humanities

    The liberal arts and humanities cover several different topics. The humanities include literature, theater, film, music, and journalism. Liberal arts encompasses the fields of social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics.

    Some majors in the liberal arts and humanities umbrella include psychology, philosophy, English, anthropology, political science, and history. Other majors include math and science degrees such as astrophysics or differential equations. Career opportunities for liberal arts majors vary widely, with psychologist, marine biologist, marketing consultant, or screenwriter among the many possibilities.

Career Paths

The earlier students decide on a major, the sooner they can begin the coursework necessary to earn their degree. To help, students should factor their future career paths into their decision.

When choosing a career path, students should consider the cost of their degrees and how much they can expect to earn when they enter their chosen profession. The future job market for a given occupation can impact the type of opportunities in the field available to new grads, as well as how much they can earn.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides a great starting point for completing this preliminary research, which features a trove of wage data categorized by occupation and geographic area. The BLS also projects demand for specific occupations over the next 10 years. The more demand for a specific occupation, the more opportunities graduates will encounter when they enter the field.

Some careers, such as becoming a teacher, may require additional licensing or certifications, so students should remember to factor these considerations into their overall education budget and timeline.

Choosing a School

Deciding on a specific major before choosing a school gives incoming students the chance to shop colleges based on the programs they offer. When evaluating schools, applicants should research faculty, research opportunities, internships, and campus groups to see which programs stand out.

Students should also review the curriculum of each school’s program and read through course descriptions for the various electives offered. This offers students a sneak peek into what to expect when attending the institution.

When pursuing a degree, especially online, students should make sure they attend an accredited institution. Accredited colleges receive the mark of approval by independent accreditation agencies. Diplomas from accredited colleges carry more distinction than those from non-accredited schools. Students should avoid non-accredited schools, as the degree programs may not be sufficient to meet the minimum education standards to enter a particular job field.

What To Do If You Have Multiple Majors of Interest

Students with multiple interests do not need to narrow down their selection to a single major right away. In fact, there are several pathways for students to follow and explore different fields of study during their collegiate careers.

For example, one could double major or major with a minor. This approach may increase a student’s workload, but pursuing a double major can expand a graduate’s future opportunities and possible career paths. Students could also pursue a single major with a minor. A minor is a secondary concentration of study that requires less coursework to obtain than a full major. The minor typically compliments the major, such as an advertising major with a minor in photography.

Students can also major in one subject with the intent to double major or work on a minor. Students don’t need to commit to a double major right away. If a student loses interest in one area, they can simply go back to pursuing a single major instead. Students often dabble in different departments as they look for the right fit.

Students can also join campus groups related to their other interests to see if they would like to major in it later on. College presents an opportunity to discover new ideas and meet diverse groups of fellow students. This way, students can feel out a department or major without committing to a semester-long course. Students can check things out by attending department-related campus groups and open houses.

Remember, most students enter college undecided. They may take a few intro classes during their freshman year to see what interests them. Students can meet with a school counselor to help guide them towards a particular major.

What If I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life

College provides an opportunity for students to begin to learn their interests, so students commonly enroll in college as “undecided.” Another option for students? Changing their major — which at least one-third of college students typically do during their first three years of study.

Students unsure of what they want to do with their life can simply take a variety of classes and note which courses they take the most interest in. Attending different events and club gatherings can further expose students to different potential areas of interest.

Meeting with an academic advisor during the first year of college and throughout college can also help students decide on a major and assist them if they feel they want to change their major later on. These resources prove invaluable for identifying and meeting all of the requirements for admission into a program. They can also help with the decision-making process.

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