Diverse vector characters with thought bubbles above their heads | tips for choosing a major

Key points

  • Understand that the choice of major, minor, and electives has implications for career opportunities after graduation and should be made thoughtfully.
  • Learn that strategic combinations of courses can enable you to balance your strengths and interests with the needs of employers and your own earning potential.
  • Access strategies and resources for guiding course choices.

Picking your major or minor can be stressful—you weigh your interests and what you’re good at to try to make a decision that could influence your life for years to come. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you decide. “There are excellent books and online resources, as well as data, that students can browse to identify the first jobs of recent grads and alumni career paths by major,” says Nancy Burkett, director of career services at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

No matter how much thought you put into the decision, it’s important to remember that your career path will evolve and grow as you do. “We let students know that how their career path will evolve is up to them—and it’s not determined by their major,” says Burkett. So you can breathe easy knowing that while your major can give you the skills needed to excel in a specific career path after graduation, you’re not stuck doing a certain job based on the courses you took in college.

Still need help deciding? Here are a few things to consider when choosing your major or minor, or even what electives to take.

1. Your academic strengths

Choosing a major or minor (or elective) that plays to your strengths has some important advantages: 

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

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

“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.”
—Holly G., recent graduate, Marymount Manhattan College, New York City

2. Your passions

It’s not just about what you’re good at—choosing an academic path that aligns with the things you’re passionate about is also extremely important. In fact, students’ own interests are the most significant factor in choosing a major, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

This strategy works: Students who study subjects they’re passionate about graduate with higher GPAs, studies suggest. 

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, chief human resources officer at Oyster Point Pharma in Princeton, New Jersey.

3. Your career plans

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

For some lines of work, such as accounting or engineering, it’s essential that you earn a related undergraduate degree. For other professions, the subject of your major is less significant than the skills you’ve developed in school. “What’s going to help most is being able to showcase how your major has helped you take information in, process it, apply it, and communicate,” says Sherman.

4. Your earning potential

Money matters—at least to some degree. So consider average starting salaries for the majors on your short list. 

Some majors tend to promise higher-paying jobs. According to the 2021 National Association of Colleges and Employers Salary Survey, the most lucrative fields are currently computer sciences, engineering, math, and social sciences. 

That said, it’s not all about money; if you hate math, you probably don’t want a job that requires you to do it every day. Plus, the subject of your major may not have as large an impact on your eventual salary as you might think, depending on what field you go into and what your post-grad plans are. For example, the median salary for a communications major is $54,000, according to a report by Georgetown University. But a communications major who goes on to get a graduate degree in marketing has a median salary of $81,000.

5. Your learning style

Everyone’s learning style is unique—and yours may influence the kinds of classes you want to take. For example: 

  • Identify how you learn best. In what type of environment do you excel—hands-on labs, large seminars, group workshops, small classes?
  • Do your homework. Research departmental professors and students’ evaluations of the courses required for a prospective major.
  • Ask questions. Meet with professors. See if the department community is a good fit for your academic ambitions, learning style, and personality.
  • Identify what and who motivates you. Students are more likely to major in a field in which they’ve taken an introductory course taught by an inspiring professor.

6. Specific course requirements

For your top major contenders, research the course requirements. Do they excite you? Terrify you? “I was so excited about majoring in philosophy because of the specific courses that were required,” says Josh B., a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “They were classes I would have chosen to take regardless of my major, which made my educational experience way more fulfilling and pleasurable.”

7. Your postgraduate education plans

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. If you plan to attend med school, for example, 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. 

If you’re feeling overly constrained by your postgraduate education goals, talk to your academic advisor or career counselor about your options. And remember: You can always pivot. “Just because you chose teaching as a major or profession doesn’t mean you cannot work in the technology industry as an educational consultant later on,” says Amy Baldwin, director and senior lecturer of writing, literacy, and academic success in the Department of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas, Little Rock.

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Article sources

Amy Baldwin, EdD, director and senior lecturer of writing, literacy, and academic success, Department of Student Transitions, University of Central Arkansas, Little Rock.

Nancy Burkett, director of career services, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Nicolette Sherman, chief human resources officer, Oyster Point Pharma, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey.

Gigi Simeone, PhD, health sciences and pre-law advisor, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Jones, L. K. (2014). Choosing a college major based on your personality: What does the research say? The Career Key. http://www.careerkey.org/pdf/choosing-a-major-with-personality-match.pdf

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2021). NACE salary survey. https://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/files/2021/publication/executive-summary/2021-nace-salary-survey-winter-executive-summary.pdf 

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

Wiswall, M., & Zafar, B. (2014). Determinants of college major choice: Identification using an information experiment (Report No. 500). New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports. http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr500.pdf