The University Network

How To Choose A Major: Step-By-Step Guide From A College Expert

As it does for every college student, the time will come for you to choose your major. And yeah, it’s true, commitment is scary. If you’re a traditional student who just graduated from high school and haven’t experienced the professional world yet, chances are you have no idea what you want to be when you “grow up.” How could you? 

Well, choosing your major is no easy task — that much is clear. So, to help you out with your decision-making process, we’ve conducted extensive research and spoke with a college expert. 

Here is what you need to know to choose your college major.

1. Make a decision before finishing your sophomore year 

“Picking a major is not as important as picking the right major, but the timing of that is important,” said Rachelle Germana, Interim Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stony Brook University. 

At most colleges, exploring different majors is expected and encouraged. However, to stay on track for graduation, you should have officially declared your final major before the end of your second year, according to Germana. 

Specifically, exploring students who wish to graduate in four years should aim to have a major in mind by the end of their freshman year. And by the end of their sophomore year, they should try to commit, Germana continued. 

*It is noteworthy, however, that some specific fields and programs, such as nursing, may require students to commit early. So, make sure you ask your academic advisor(s) about deadlines for potential majors.  

2. Find a major in which you feel purpose

Before choosing a major, it is important to consider your post-graduation plans. By this, I don’t mean you have to pick out a specific company you want to work for or a city you want to live in. Instead, you should consider what type of major will prepare you for a career that will make you happy, proud, and excited. 

“Students who are successful, they have not just interest, but they feel purpose related to their major,” said Germana. “The more that students feel purpose related to their major, the more likely they are to be successful, and the more likely they are to graduate on time.”

This isn’t to say you need to be rescuing puppies or operating on patients to feel a sense of purpose related to your major or career path. 

Purpose and passion are found from within. If you truly believe what you’re doing is beneficial, important, and worthwhile, that’s all that really matters. 

3. Evaluate your skill set 

The old saying, “you can do anything you put your mind to,” is often true. 

But, depending on your personal strengths and weaknesses, some majors and careers are going to require a lot more work than others. Therefore, it is very important to evaluate your skill set and career aspirations before choosing a major.

Students should think about what their expectations are and ask themselves, “do my expectations meet reality?” Germana said. 

For example, if a student wants to become a forensic scientist, “has that student historically performed well in math, chemistry, and physics?” she added. 

If the answer is no, they could still pursue it, but they will likely have to work harder, Germana said. “They might want to think about that. If that’s not where their strengths are, do they want to still pursue it? The answer is different for every student.”

4. Consider the skills you’ll learn

Decades ago, it was common for individuals to work the same job until they eventually decided to retire. But today, that’s seldom the case. 

“Folks are moving around jobs more than ever before — more than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations,” said Germana. 

Therefore, in terms of employability, emotional intelligence and soft skills, such as collaboration and communication, are becoming increasingly important to develop. So, when choosing a major, you should absolutely consider which skills you are going to gain, said Germana, especially if you have intentions of exploring different careers.

5. Get help from professionals 

Let’s be real. If you’re a traditional 18-or 19-year-old college freshman, you likely don’t have the professional or academic experience needed to make an informed decision on which career field you want to enter. 

You may be interested in marketing, for example, but without work experience, it’s hard to assume you’ll enjoy the day-to-day tasks of working at, say, a marketing firm. 

For decades, internships have been widely recognized as a great way for students to “trial-run” a career and gain experience. But, they can be hard to get, especially early on in college — around the time when you have to declare your major. 

Therefore, Germana suggests reaching out to your college’s career center, professors, and other faculty members for assistance. 

  • Talk to academic advisors and people in the career center

Say you’ve expressed an interest in studying history, but you don’t know what your employment perspectives would look like after graduation. 

Well, there is a lot more that you can do with a history degree than become a history teacher, for example, and your college’s career center is there to inform you of all of your employment possibilities and help you develop “forward-thinking goals,” according to Germana.

And if you aspire to become a lawyer, for example, but want to study history in college, your academic advisors can help you stay on track to graduate with the grades, coursework, and test scores you need to be accepted to law school.

  • Talk to professors and other faculty members

Now it may seem like a no-brainer, but students often forget to discuss their majors and career aspirations with the very people who could likely give them the best advice — professors and other faculty members on campus. 

Most often, professors don’t start their careers teaching. Many of them have real-world experience within their field. 

Your business professor, for example, may also be an active entrepreneur, Germana suggested. And your journalism professor may also have a weekly column published in the local newspaper. 

So, if you’re curious about a major or career field, don’t hesitate to ask your professors and other faculty members! 

6. Seek professional experience 

As mentioned above, internships are, quite possibly, the best way to gain professional experience and trial-run a career field. But, as a traditional freshman or sophomore, internships aren’t always easy to get, because you have juniors and seniors to compete against, who are often more qualified. 

So, Germana recommends seeking professional experience available on campus. 

Many colleges and universities offer on-campus employment and mentorship opportunities through their career center. 

At Stony Brook, for example, there are students involved in the marketing aspects of undergraduate education that are helping with promotion, Germana said. For a marketing major, working part-time as a marketer for the university would be tremendous work experience. And, ultimately, it could help students decide if marketing is something they want to professionally pursue. 

Additionally, to gain professional experience, students can seek volunteer opportunities available on campus or in their community. A volunteer opportunity assisting marine biologists, for example, likely won’t show you the day-to-day tasks of the job. However, it will help you gauge the overall theme of the field and the personalities of the professionals.

According to Germana, experiences are the best tool for identifying your interests and strengths. Without them, there is no way to understand the full scope of your curiosities and abilities.

7. Don’t be afraid to switch majors

It’s extremely common for students to switch majors. In fact, nearly a third of college students will change their major at least once within three years. 

And as long as students switch before the end of their second year, they will likely stay on track to graduate in four years, according to Germana.

But “students should approach switching a major from a place of empowerment, not failure,” said Germana. “It’s really more about the growth mindset. There is empowerment in identifying something that is not working out for you and then making an adjustment.” 

8. Don’t assume your career options are limited to your major

In recent years, more and more students have chosen majors, such as engineering and computer science, that are directly connected to careers. And fewer students are pursuing liberal arts degrees, presumably, because they believe such degrees won’t expand their employment opportunities or help them land well-paying jobs.

But that’s not necessarily true.

“The liberal arts are absolutely valuable to career and employability. They just aren’t directly connected. And that is OKAY,” Marianna Savoca, Assistant Vice President for Career Development and Experiential Education at Stony Brook University, told TUN for a previously published article

Take an English major, for example.

“There are so many employers in every single industry who could use people who understand how to read and analyze something written and then how to communicate,” Savoca said.

So, students need to understand that their college major does not define or box in their career options or which jobs they can apply to. Instead, students should view their major as a tool to help them gain skills and knowledge that can apply to many career paths, Savoca suggested.

In conclusion, take a deep breath

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sit back and take a deep breath. 

Choosing your major can, and should, be an exciting and liberating time. By choosing a major, you’re setting yourself up to expand your knowledge and employability within a certain field. You aren’t determining the rest of your professional life.  

But, if you ever feel stuck or in the wrong place, don’t hesitate to make an adjustment. And, remember, there is always the option to double-major or add a minor, although it may require more work.