"What's your major?" No question causes college students so much angst. But this doesn't have to be the case. Take the right steps to select the major that fits your goals.
Take Your Time—But Start Now
"The first piece of advice I'd give any undecided student is to relax, " says Mary Schilling, director of Career Services at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Be ready to explore and experiment. "The average student changes his or her major two to three times during the college career," Schilling says. Even if the first major you pick isn't the one you stick with, you'll improve your chances of finding the right fit if you shop around.
What Does Your Major Mean?
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Majors mean different things to different students, so start by figuring out what your major means to you. For some, the college major is training for a career. For others, choosing a major is a path to personal fulfillment that has no connection to future career plans. Keep these in mind:
- A career-related major means an easier job hunt after college, but you may miss out on the breadth of learning college can offer. Plan to take electives outside of your major to balance your intellectual development.
- If you choose a non-career-related major, you'll have to work harder outside the classroom to develop your career goals. Plan to start career research early and do internships every summer to get the job experience and connections you need.
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And while some careers obviously require a specific college major (e.g. future nurses need to major in nursing), other career paths are more flexible, especially if professional school is required. "Students interested in becoming lawyers do not have to have a degree in political science and pre-med students do not need to major in biology," Schilling says.
Plan Ahead to Meet Deadlines
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When do you have to choose? Many colleges give a deadline by which you have to declare your major—often by your junior year.
But there may be additional hidden deadlines. Many popular majors require the completion of prerequisites—courses you must complete before you can declare the major. Schools use these prerequisites to help control enrollment in crowded majors. If you put off taking these classes, you may not be able to complete the prerequisites in time to declare your major.
To avoid these complications, start your decision-making process the first day of freshman year:
- Identify the majors that may interest you and learn about the requirements for declaring and completing these majors. Consult your school's course catalog and ask to speak to an academic counselor in your top-choice majors.
- When choosing electives, take courses that serve as first-level prerequisites for your prospective majors. By the time you finish your electives, you may find you've completed your major prerequisites as well.
- Pay attention to the courses you like—and the ones you don't. "If studying a certain subject is like pulling teeth or is the last thing you want to do, then something's wrong," advises Brown University student Seth Pipkin.
- Be willing to revisit and revise your choices. Did you choose a major, only to find out it's not what you expected? If you started your exploration early in your college career, you'll still have time to explore other choices.