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Lucia, a junior from Boston, Massachusetts, has dreamed of becoming a robotics engineer since she was nine years old. “I’ve been taking classes in physics and computer science, as well as participating in engineering clubs outside of school,” she says. “I’m so ready!”
Thinking about what to major in when you go to college is exciting—and also a little stressful. Some of you, like Lucia, already have it figured out. But most of you are still undecided—and that’s totally OK.
Just over 50 percent of you say you have some ideas, but you’re still thinking about what you want to major in, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. Spencer, a senior in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, has varied interests—English, journalism, and education—and he’s looking forward to exploring them in college. “I don’t think it’s very important to choose a major while in high school,” he says.
The pros of deciding a college major early? “Less stress and you can take courses in high school that relate to your major,” says Ryan, a senior from Wilmington, Delaware, who wants to major in aerospace engineering. The cons? “Time away from discovering yourself,” he says. Decisions about what to study in college are personal and based on your interests, experiences, and dreams. Experts say either path can take you where you want to go.
How majors work
In college, you’ll usually be asked to declare a major by the end of your second year—anything from comparative literature to computer science. Schools differ, but most require you to take about a quarter of your classes in that major, while the rest of your classes will consist of general education requirements (similar to what you took in high school) and electives. Many schools offer interdisciplinary majors such as international studies, cognitive science, or organizational studies—for these you’ll take classes from different departments. Some schools even allow you to create a custom major by combining classes from different disciplines that interest you.
Do I need to declare a major on my college application?
The short answer: most likely, no. Now for the long answer: At some highly competitive schools—or when pursuing disciplines such as the sciences, music, and art—students may be required to do a specific course of study in high school and declare a major. However, most higher ed institutions allow you to determine your chosen field once you get there by applying as undeclared, undecided, or exploratory. “Don’t worry,” says Dr. Sally Neal, director of the Center for Academic Advancement at Ithaca College in New York. “Your whole job in that first year or two [of college] is to explore and take classes that you didn’t know existed,” she says.
When it comes to the application process, “The whole picture of who you are is much more important and prominent than simply your choice of major,” says Dr. Emily Grey Goldman, a former career counselor at Columbia University in New York, and founder of Grey Guidance, a college counseling organization in Larkspur, California. About 12 percent of freshmen begin college as undeclared, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. When applying without a chosen major, “you can be very successful by being insightful about what it is you do know about yourself and how that will inform how you’re going to make the best of your college experience,” says Dr. Goldman.
Can I change my major?
Yes. If you start college with one major and later find something you love more, you won’t be alone. Roughly a third of students change their majors at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Pursue your passions now
Haven’t got a clue what you want to study? Rather than focus on selecting your college major in high school, focus on developing your interests. “I think high school is about finding the things you have a passion for and that you enjoy doing, and colleges will find a place for that,” says Christopher O’Brien, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College in Massachusetts.
Take the advice of our college admissions experts on how to explore your interests
|Dr. Emily Grey Goldman former career counselor at Columbia University, New York, and founder of Grey Guidance, a college counseling organization in California|
Take a wide a variety of classes in high school and check out clubs and extracurriculars—including some outside your comfort zone. Things like art, photography, technical training, and music can cost a lot of money outside a school setting. Take advantage of those resources now and you may find an undiscovered passion.
Talk to people in different fields. If your next-door neighbor does something that sounds cool, ask to grab lunch and talk in more detail about their career path.
Learn from experience: Don’t be afraid to try things and find out you aren’t into them. Trying four things and realizing you don’t like them is as informative as trying four things and finding something you love.
|Christopher O’Brien associate director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, Massachusetts|
Develop your skills in the things you enjoy and that come easy to you.
If you’re driven by creativity, check out the humanities, social sciences, or the visual or performing arts.
If you love math or science, take it beyond the classroom by talking to your teachers about getting involved in competitions, robotic teams, or volunteering in a lab.
|Trevor Kilgore coordinator for department advising in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor|
Check out online resources. If you’re interested in careers in health and medicine, look at college websites for departments that prepare you for those careers, such as biology, chemistry, or psychology. No matter what major you’re thinking about, review the curriculum. If you scroll down the class list and nothing on it seems interesting, that might be a good indication that you should look into something else.
Visit prospective student weekends and take campus tours. There are plenty of people on campus, such as admissions counselors and current students, who would be willing to talk to you about your interests.
|Dr. Sally Neal director of the Center for Academic Advancement at Ithaca College, New York|
Show you can do college-level work. The AP or community college class you take now will save on tuition later and give you flexibility to change or explore other majors in college.
Be open to discovery. Developing critical thinking skills, the ability to problem-solve, and to work with a team are skills that you will need when seeking out any career.
Try to avoid choosing a major you aren’t excited by
Up to a third of students choose college majors that don’t match well with their interests, according to the 2013 ACT National Curriculum Survey. Sometimes, this is to please a family member or because they think it will look good on a résumé. But a bad match can have repercussions; it’s best to do what you want to do. “When classes get harder and harder, it’s definitely more difficult to do well if you are not liking the material,” says Kilgore. When students’ interests match their majors, they’re more likely to keep that major, stay in college, and graduate in a timely manner, according to research by the ACT.
Other paths to finding what you want to study
Community college can be a good, economical route to exploring your interests, says Dr. Neal. Many community colleges offer two-year associate degrees with general education courses to help you narrow down your interests and transfer into a four-year program. Many also offer career-specific, two-year technical degrees, such as interior design, dental hygiene, and certain types of engineering.
Gap years, simply put, can give students a better sense of the world beyond school. Increasingly, Dr. Goldman has seen students take a gap year “to figure out what it is [they] want to do.” Of students who’d taken a gap year, 57 percent said it helped them determine what they wanted to study in college, according to the National Alumni Survey from the American Gap Association and Temple University Institute for Survey Research.
“Liberal arts programs allow students to explore their passions and values without the pressure of having to pick a major upon admission or even at the end of their first year,” says Kilgore. A liberal arts college offers varied paths to your major—you’re encouraged to sample a wide variety of classes, including literature, language, the arts, mathematics, and life sciences. While their programs are often less career-focused than traditional universities, a liberal arts degree can help you explore many different types of careers or prepare you for graduate school. But take note—most liberal arts schools are private institutions and may be more costly.
Aurora D’Amico, statistician, National Center for Education Statistics, Longitudinal studies branch, Washington, DC.
Christopher O’Brien, associate director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, Massachusetts.
Edward R. Colby, senior director, media and public relations, ACT.
Emily Grey Goldman, PhD, founder and counselor, Grey Guidance, Larkspur, California.
Trevor Kilgore, coordinator for department advising, Newnan LSA Academic Advising Center, College of Literature, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Sally J. Neal, PhD, director, Center for Academic Advancement, Ithaca College, New York.
ACT. (2013). Interest-major fit. College Choice Report: Part 1 Preferences and Prospects. 12.
Retrieved from https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/CollegeChoiceRpt-2013-14-Part1.pdf
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