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Picking your major or minor can be stressful—especially if you feel your career might depend on it. You’re likely to grapple with a range of factors, and prioritizing them can be challenging. You might be wondering how to weigh the following:

  • Your career interests and future marketability
  • Your academic strengths and passions
  • Input from your parents, professors, mentors, and friends

First thing to know: If you’re not sure what path to take, it’s okay. About 75 percent of students change their majors at least once before graduating, according to Dr. Virginia Gordon in The Undecided College Student (Thomas, 2007). For help strategizing, read on.

Your academic strengths

Why play to your strengths?

  • Better grades
  • Higher confidence
  • A more enjoyable college experience

Expert guidance
“While college is a time to explore and try new things, it is also a time to recognize and develop your talents. Knowing yourself and what you’re good at is extremely important in finding a career that’s a good match,” says Dr. Gigi Simeone, pre-med and pre-law advisor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Student’s story
“Experiencing academic success encouraged me to pursue an art history degree. It felt good to do well. I ultimately worked harder and got more out of my degree,” says Holly G., a 2011 graduate of Marymount Manhattan College in New York.

Your passions

 #1 factor
Students’ own interests are the most important factor in how they choose their major, according to a 2014 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Why it works 
Studying what you love is fun and motivating. These students graduate with higher GPAs, studies suggest.

Expert guidance
If your passions and academic strengths don’t translate directly into specific jobs, “make sure to take classes outside of your major to broaden your thinking and show some versatility,” says Nicolette Sherman, vice president, NA People and Organizational Development, at Sanofi North America, in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Personal interests are an even more important driver for older students. This might be, in part, why many students switch majors after their first or second year.

Your career plans

Have some idea what you want to do with your life?
Research those fields to help you choose your major. “My thoughts changed when I shadowed certain professionals for a day. People are happy to help you get more exposure, and they’re a great resource for questions,” says Kate B., a fourth-year student at Winona State University in Minnesota.

Is a specific major essential?
For some lines of work, such as accounting or engineering, it’s essential that you earn a related undergraduate degree.

For other professions, it’s about the broad skills your major helps you develop. “What’s going to help most is being able to showcase how their major has helped them take information in, process it, apply it, and communicate,” says Nicolette Sherman, who is also president of the Boston chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association.

Your earning potential

Sometimes the money is about the major
Some majors secure higher-paying jobs, reports the National Association of Colleges and Employers, like:

  • Chemical engineering
  • Computer science
  • Mechanical engineering

But not necessarily
Your future success can depend more on your skills than on specific subject matter. For an example.

Expert guidance
“There are excellent books and online resources identifying first jobs and alumni career paths by major,” says Nancy Burkett, director of career services at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. “But we also let students know that how their career path will evolve is certainly up to them—and it’s not determined by their major.”

The gender gap

Certain majors lead to better-paying jobs after graduation—and women are underrepresented in those subjects.

Women are relatively scarce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields), reports the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Most significantly, female enrollment is lower in certain especially lucrative majors, including:

  • Computer science
  • Physics
  • Engineering

Increasing women’s participation in STEM fields is key to reducing the gender pay gap. Go for it.

Your learning style

Identify how you learn best
Prefer hands-on labs, large seminars, group workshops, or small classes? Investigate suitable majors or minors.

Do your homework
Research professors and students’ evaluations on courses required for a prospective major. Which classes and professors seem likely to work for you?

Ask questions
Meet with professors. See if the department community is a good fit. Professors also have connections to industry and other professional fields, and can provide tips or recommendations.

What do students consider very important or somewhat important in choosing their major, minor, and electives?

98%   Personal interests and passions
95%   Own strengths and challenges
92%   Building specialist skill set or knowledge
90%   Increasing appeal to potential employers
87%   Future earning potential
69%   Reputation of a course or professor
66%   Guidance from advisors & other mentors
35%   Input from family and friends

Student Health 101 survey, November 2014.
2,100 students answered this question.

Your postgraduate education plans

You up for more?
Do you want to go to graduate school, medical school, or law school? While it may seem premature to start thinking about postgraduate plans, the decisions you make during college can affect your academic opportunities after college.

Watch out for the prereqs
For example, if you plan to attend med school, you must fulfill certain pre-med requirements as an undergrad. Students aiming for a graduate degree in nutrition are likely to need credits in chemistry and physiology.

Too much?
If you’re feeling overly restrained by your postgraduate education goals, talk to your academic advisor or careers counselor about your options. In addition, realize you will likely have half a dozen or more jobs over your lifetime.

“Just because you chose teaching as a major or profession doesn’t mean you cannot work in the technology industry as an educational consultant (for example) later on,” says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas, Little Rock.

Student Interviewing

Specific course requirements

Check out the Must Do classes
For your top subject contenders, research the course requirements. Do they excite you, terrify you, or make you want to stay in bed watching reality shows instead?

Student’s story
“I was so excited about majoring in philosophy because of the specific courses that were required. They were classes I would have chosen to take regardless of my major, which made my educational experience way more fulfilling and pleasurable,” says Josh B., a 2013 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Personality, politics, & practicalities

Personality
Students who are well matched with their major are more likely to graduate on time and achieve better grades.

Political orientation
For example, students with more liberal views are more likely to choose a non-science major.

Parental income
Students from lower-income families are more commonly concerned with:

  • Tuition costs
  • Internship opportunities
  • Career preparation

Students from higher-income families are more typically focused on:

  • Academic prestige
  • College surroundings
  • Social factors

Practicalities
For students who commute to college while working or raising a family, the timing of courses can be the most important factor.

“The timing and locations of classes played a huge role in my course selection process… I had to be strategic about what fit my schedule,” says Anna C., a 2012 graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Faculty can make a big difference, for better or worse

Students are more likely to major in a field where they’ve had an inspiring professor in an introductory course, according to the American Sociological Association (2013).

Expert view
“Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field–some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.”
—Christopher Takacs and Daniel Chambliss in How College Works (Harvard University Press, 2014)

A student’s story
“I sought out professors who loved what they taught,” said Becca M., a 2012 graduate of Columbia University in New York City. “It encouraged me to be more engaged with the material, and I did far better in classes taught by dynamic professors.”

Making the most of your major


Get help or find out more

Campus Viewpoints: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Careers and majors: College Review

Choosing a major: Princeton Review

Getting from college to career: 90 things to do before you join the real world Lindsey Pollak (HarperCollins, 2007)

Where recent grads are working: Stanford University


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Maria Yagoda graduated from Yale in 2012. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, The New York Times online, Al Jazeera America, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.