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Choosing a Major

February 1st, 2020

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Choosing a Major

For many students, selecting the right major is a process of discovery.

How are today’s students choosing college majors? While many students choose a major to prepare for a specific career, others enter college interested in exploring disciplines that excite them without regard to job prospects.

Conventional wisdom suggests that students are more likely to achieve success if they choose a major at which they enjoy and excel. Students’ lives and careers will morph and evolve in ways they cannot yet anticipate. Students who choose their majors based on careers that offer the highest salaries or that represent the fastest growing fields rather than on their strengths and interests might find they are not as successful as they would be if they majored in a field that drew on their aptitudes. This New York Times article addresses some of the myths related to choosing a college major. 

Many careers such as accounting, engineering or nursing require specific undergraduate majors to prepare students to enter the field upon receiving their bachelor’s degree. Consequently, to prepare students for such high-demand fields, many colleges have expanded the majors they offer – the University of Michigan, for example, now offers 251 different majors to students. As a result, a student who excels in math may find an array of career options after graduation – a researcher for Microsoft, a high school teacher, a mathematician for the National Security Agency, or risk assessor for an insurance company.

Students benefit from a broad education that opens many different career paths.

Students who become interested in a specific career that requires specialized training such as physical therapy or interior design later in their college years can always apply and enter a graduate program to earn the appropriate credentials. It surprises many students to learn that medical schools embrace students who earned a liberal arts degree, even in non-science areas such as English or social sciences, as long as they take a core set of science courses before applying to medical school. In fact, the Harvard Medical School website reinforces the importance of a broad liberal arts education with this advice: We adhere to the important principle that the college years are not, and should not be, designed primarily to prepare students for professional schools. Instead, the college years should be devoted to a creative engagement in the elements of a broad, intellectually expansive liberal arts education.


Most students enter college undeclared or uncertain about their major. In response, many colleges are now offering an exploratory major such as the one offered by Ithaca College which provides advising specifically for students who are unsure about their direction.

Still other students embrace their undecided status. They may enter college eager to learn about subjects to which they have never been exposed such as art history, paleontology and economics or Africana studies, philosophy and nutrition. They discover classes that excite them and professors who inspire them and are comfortable with declaring a major later or changing it in response to emerging interests.

One student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst intended to be an English major but discovered comparative literature while trolling through the course catalog.

“Comparative literature offers a wider range of courses such as film and literature and Irish literature,” she said. “I also like that it requires the study of two foreign languages so I plan on adding German to my current French studies.”

After seeing the course offerings online, the student attended a UMass majors fair and spoke at length with a faculty member from the comparative literature department, which sealed the deal. As someone who is considering a career in journalism, she knew that she wanted a strong liberal arts education rather than a more career-oriented journalism major. Having taken theology courses at Boston College, which she enjoyed, she also plans to earn a certificate in religious studies. She was able to combine her interests in literature and writing with her skills in a foreign language by exploring all her options. Next, she will be finding internships to gain journalism experience.

Researching How to Choose a Major

To explore all the possibilities, students should use all the tools at their disposal. One such tool is the career services counselor, who is available to meet with students and provide advice on an array of topics ranging from internships to resumes to meeting a professional in the field of interest. Many schools offer an online database of career information for students. 

An online tool to employ is a government sponsored website called Occupational Handbook, which allows students to search by field, growth, and pay. Here students acquire more specific information as well, including the typical work environment for any position and similarly related fields. A student who wants to be an architect will note that most architects earn a professional degree through a five-year program, rather than the typical four-year bachelor’s degree.

For more applicable information, students should visit the college website to review the four-year curriculum for any major they are considering. By assessing the curriculum before taking the courses, students may discover that they will need additional training or certification, or they may realize that there are courses for which they are not prepared–or feel reluctant to take. A student who thinks that nutrition sounds interesting but doesn’t enjoy science will see that nutrition programs are typically heavy in science courses.

“Students should investigate the kinds of career fields that use the skills they are developing in their classrooms,” said Pat Kitzman, Director of Career Services at Central College in Iowa.  “And do it early on.” Ms. Kitzman also recommends that students get practical career experience in the various fields that interest them, particularly internships.

Students have three summers between freshman and senior year to explore career options and they should plan to visit the career center at their college by November of each year to identify internship or research opportunities and prepare a resume. Some colleges, such as Oberlin, provide funding for internships.

Helpful Resources:

Spotlight: Lafayette College

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