Les Baltimore says about 25 percent of new students at Adelphi University walk in without a major, and the senior associate provost in the school’s Office of Academic Services and Retention is okay with that. He says while majors are important, they aren’t necessarily important from day one. In fact, your major might not even be all that critical to landing a job someday.
“With certain exceptions, you can do most things with most majors,” Baltimore says.
That’s a sentiment echoed by college administrators across the country. What’s more, some experts say college students are too quick to select a major or choose theirs based on the wrong reasons. Bob Franco, senior associate director of the Seton Hall University Career Center, notes students often make the mistake of thinking of majors in terms of a specific job or industry.
“Majors and industry become abstractions that paralyze us,” Franco says. “These things are less important than defining the skills you’re getting from an academic program.”
The point is that students shouldn’t be selecting a major in the hopes of getting a specific job because, as Long Island University President Kimberly Cline puts it, “the top five jobs students will have in the future haven’t even been invented yet.”
If you aren’t supposed to look at majors in terms of jobs, just how are you to know the right way to choose a college major? Here are five steps the experts suggest:
Step 1: Forget about ROI and what your parents want
A lot has been written about getting a degree with a great ROI, or return on investment. Focusing on the financial side of a degree may be one way to end up in a career you hate.
“Chasing the money is problematic,” Cline says. A degree with a great ROI could be in a major that doesn’t fit your interests or aptitude.
Jeffrey Carlson, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of Rosary College of Arts and Sciences at Dominican University, takes it one step further and argues students should completely disregard what other sources — whether that be a website or a best friend — say is a good major.
He takes a more holistic approach and suggests students look inside themselves to determine their gifts rather than simply follow the crowd. “You can’t be nourished by copying someone else’s original choices,” Carlson says.
Step 2: Ask about school assessments and career planning courses
Once you’ve set aside what everyone else thinks you should do, it’s time to discover what you really want to study.
The first stop on that path to self-enlightenment should be at your school’s career or guidance office. Plenty of schools offer assessment programs and even college courses designed to help you find that major which hits your sweet spot of personal interest and natural aptitude.
The Long Island University Promise program uses a Myers-Briggs personality assessment and other resources to help students find their majors. Dominican University has an online assessment as well as a one-credit course devoted to career exploration. And Adelphi University asks students to fill out a personal interest inventory to narrow down their major choices.
Step 3: Dig out the old high school transcript
Your high school transcript is likely a gold mine of information when it comes to selecting a major, regardless of how long ago you were enrolled.
“Too often, high school is ignored by universities,” Carlson says. “I’m all about integrating the high school and university experiences.”
Students shouldn’t treat their high school years as a separate academic period with little relevance to college. On the contrary, they should look back and identify which classes they enjoyed and which ones they excelled in and let those classes guide their decisions in college.
Step 4: Make the most of your first two years and don’t be afraid to re-declare
Unless you’re studying in a specialty or vocational field like nursing, most majors include a significant number of general education requirements. According to Baltimore, anywhere from 25-80 percent of your major may be comprised of this foundational coursework.
For those earning a bachelor’s degree, the first two years of school could be devoted to these requirements while coursework for the major can be saved for the junior and senior years. “Start sampling a number of different classes that meet gen ed requirements,” Baltimore says.
By taking a variety of courses, you can find the subjects that are a good fit for you without worrying about wasting any credits.
Step 5: Sign up for an internship
The final step recommended by experts on how to choose a major is to complete an internship.
Cline says students don’t have to wait until their senior year to get an internship; she sees internships that can be pursued after one’s freshman or sophomore year. Plus, students don’t necessarily need a declared major to land an internship.
Seeking out these opportunities early can be a way to gain real-world, hands-on experience in a particular field. In addition, it can be a way to connect with professionals and learn what educational background brought them to their current position.
In the event you end up graduating with a major you don’t feel suits you, don’t despair. As a former human resources executive for American Express, Franco stresses employers are rarely looking for workers in terms of their major. “If you come to my organization, what are you going to be able to do?” he asks.
When it comes to choosing a college major, students should look for a field of study that will give them a good answer to that question. For more insight into options you have at the online level, check out our directory of online colleges by area of interest.