As an incoming university student, you may have already realized that it isn’t easy to choose a college major. You may have a few ideas about what you want to do in your professional life, but you’re getting input from school counselors, family, friends, and sometimes even strangers about what you should major in and why. They want to see you set up a good life for yourself after graduation. They want to see you succeed. They also want you to be happy.
If you’re wondering, “How can I be happy working in chemistry, math, or accounting? I want to teach English Literature!”, your thoughts are valid. You may already know what you think of as the perfect college major, that will help you be happy and have a successful career. And, if you don’t know what you want to do with your life right now? That’s normal. Not every 17- or 18-year-old has this figured out. The first step is to find a college that offers a variety of possible majors, so you have some leeway in changing your mind without upending your entire college life with a transfer. You might also choose a major that has a lot of utility in the working world, something in the humanities or that will let you take many general classes which may apply to whatever you choose to major in later.
Resources for Before and After College
What is the Difference Between a Major and a Minor?
Your major is the sequence of classes you take from one discipline or field—this is your primary focus of undergraduate studies. This may be engineering, social work, journalism, nursing, or any one of thousands of fields. To be allowed to continue in your education, you are usually required to choose a major by the time you complete 60 to 90 credits. If you don’t choose a major by this point, you may not be allowed to continue your classes.
Like your major, a minor is made up of a specific sequence of classes. These can be chosen to complement your major or can be a counterpoint. You might choose psychology as a major and criminal justice as a minor, which go together well if you work in the prison system or with those who abuse illegal substances. However, if you choose psychology and accounting, you might use accounting as a fallback option or work as a bookkeeper on the side while you necessarily finish a master’s degree. A minor should require around 18 to 21 credits.
When Do You Declare a Major?
While you are in your sophomore year, you should have an idea of what you want to major in. During your first two years (four semesters) in college, you’ll mostly take general education classes. At the same time, you should begin exploring the major, or majors, that you’re interested in. You can do this through your general education courses, which are usually quite broad, or by enrolling in a new intro class each semester. If you know what you want to major in when you first begin college, enroll in at least one course of this major so you know you’ve made the right choice.
Some majors, such as social work, require that you request admission. Others, like journalism, require that you pass a test specific to the field. This test measures your ability to use grammar, punctuation, and spelling correctly. Before you complete your fourth semester, be ready to declare your major. Visit your school’s website to see what their guidelines or for declaring a major. Speak to an advisor in the department you are considering. Know what courses you would have to pass to complete the requirements to graduate.
How Important is Your Chosen Major?
For engineers and teachers, declaring those specific majors is the first step in beginning their careers. But, if you want to work in a different field, such as law, there is no specific major in law for undergraduate students. The same is true of students who want to become medical doctors. If this is the case for you, you can opt for a major in a liberal arts or humanities field. This will give you depth in your undergraduate degree that you can build on when you move on to the higher-level education necessary to enter law or the medical profession. However, this is something else you might want to discuss with your advisor to see if they have any suggestions for your undergraduate degree. Don’t leave assets on the table here. Your advisor is here to help.
Of course, if you plan to become a structural engineer, then it’s vital that you declare this as your major. Not only will it be necessary to gain access to your last two years of engineering courses, but you’ll be given access to an advisor in the department, who will be able to tell you if you are missing prerequisites, help you find an internship, and help you focus your schooling to best support your interests and future plans. If you want to become a social worker, you could major in psychology or sociology. If you want to be a counselor, you’ll have to complete an undergraduate psychology major and move on to complete a master’s in counseling.
So, the importance of your major mostly depends on where you’re headed. Make sure you know what you need before you decide for or against completing a certain major.
Can I Change my Mind?
Yes, you can. If you declared a major in marketing but found the courses to be more challenging (or boring) than you expected, you have the opportunity to choose a different major. Each college and university has their own way to do this, so, again, check with your department or the department you are considering switching to in order to find out what procedures you need to follow. Additionally, you might want to talk to people you may know who are in the fields you are considering. You need to know what the educational requirements are and what the career fields are like before you make such a big decision, especially if you are far enough into your current major that this shift will mean you lose a significant amount of specialized course credit that may not apply to your new major.
As you think about changing your major, you should be fully informed of the benefits and the consequences. If you received scholarships or grants, your award may have been partially based on the major you chose. You are also limited in how long, or how much, you can receive federal subsidized loans and changing your major will likely extend your time in school.
Steps to Deciding on a Major
What is Your Final Goal?
Your final goal in choosing a major is the career you want to take up. You can expect your opinions to shift as you come across other careers and information on each one. Take stock of your interests and skills. If you are a people person, but you despise science, that will make it easier to make a choice. Do you have good leadership skills? Communication skills? All of these will matter in the career you choose. Choosing a career that aligns with your skills will mean you’re ready to succeed in your professional life.
Think about yourself and your future ten or fifteen years from now. You want a career that complements your interests and lifestyle. What kind of community (town, city, or metropolis) do you want to live in? Are you willing to move periodically for your career? Explore the job market. The nursing field, for instance, has a near-constant shortage of qualified nurses to care for people in private practices and hospitals. What you choose as a major is the beginning of a long path toward what you want to do—and you may change jobs and careers at least twice. The more thought you put into that initial decision, the more likely you are to find yourself in a fulfilling place early in life.
Your personality plays a large part in the major and career you choose. Even if someone in your life is telling you to choose a higher-paying major (“You’ll be set for life”), keep something in mind. If you do choose a major with a career that pays well, but you’re miserable, then the job likely won’t be worth it for you. Instead, look at your personality and the activities you enjoy. That should help you choose a major or at least help you decide what you think is most important in life.
What are you interested in? Talking to people and helping them? Creating art, working at the computer, or designing an outfit? What stories online or in the newspaper do you gravitate to? What areas of the library do you go to first? When you learn something new, what is the most interesting to you? When you were a child, what were your career dreams? If you work, what parts of your job do you enjoy most?
Questions to Ask if You’re Really Not Sure
- What are your abilities?
Look at your scholastic achievements in the past, as well as your non-scholastic efforts. You may find that you are a leader or have some other skill you hadn’t considered. Consider your scholastic honors in sports, music, or art.
- What are your values?
Your life is driven by your values. These may include helping others and your religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. It might even play into your political standing.
- What are your interests?
Consider your activities, whether you enjoy being alone or with others, and your hobbies. What do you like to read? What high school classes did you most enjoy?
- What is motivating your choice of a major?
Do you have something that you feel really passionate about? Why are you choosing a particular major? Is it easy or because you know you have what it takes to do the work?
- What is your life situation?
Are you really interested in a particular field, but you don’t have the ability to do the work? Is the job market in a career you’re interested in not showing a demand for new professionals?
Where to Find Help
If you’re feeling lost or floundering in a sea of information, you aren’t alone. You have sources available from which you can draw the information you need. Talking to an advising officer at each of the universities or colleges you’re most interested in is one of your best options to find answers. This professional is well-versed in helping students figure out possible majors to consider. They will also be able to give you resources and information that will help you to narrow your options down.
You could also pick up a physical copy of the catalog from each university you’re exploring. Or, if you can’t do that, check out each university’s website so you can see what majors are offered. Once you choose a major, you aren’t locked in right away. You may be able to stay with your major and just pick up a minor in another field in which you’re interested or even double major if the credit hour requirements aren’t too high. As you get closer to deciding on your major, make sure that it fits in well with your abilities and interests, as well as with your academic strengths. If you aren’t sure, again, think about choosing a second major or turning one of your desired majors into a minor.
Best Majors for Quick Employment
When you graduate, one of the main things you want is to be able to find a job and begin working as soon as possible. You can certainly plan your major around that. If, for example, you major in nursing, you should know that medical practices, nursing homes, hospitals, and long-term care facilities are constantly looking for nurses. You want to choose a major with strong and various job possibilities. One way to find out if the majors you’re interested in also have consistently strong hiring patterns is to look at each major using the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website.
On the BLS website, visit the “job outlook” page, where you’ll find the percentage of growth for most careers, such as registered nurses. In the first paragraph, you’ll find the expected percentage of growth for that career. Most current data describes expected growth through 2028, but new data is collected every year, so this is a perfect source of information. You can also look to growth expectation and jobs available in various regions if you know you want to stay near home or move across the country. If the numbers aren’t what you were hoping for, you can check out similar careers, or consider what job you might have after 10 years and a few certifications.
Majors in Top 10 Fastest Growing Industries
- Artificial Intelligence, Computer Programming, Cybersecurity
- Analytics or Data Services
Data Science, Information Technology/Science
- Development of New Drugs
Pharmacist, Pharmaceutical Researcher, Pharmaceutical Sciences
- Human Resources, Employee Relations
Human Resources, Labor Relations
- Design, Develop, Test Aircraft and Spacecraft
Aerospace and Aeronautical Engineering
Best Majors by Salary (Most Earning Potential)
Every college student dreams of that high-paying job they’ll land after graduation. However, the size of your pay depends on what you choose to major in. Also, don’t forget, at the beginning of your career your entry-level salary will be markedly lower than your mid-career or your late-career salary. As you spend more and more time in your position, often with the same organization, your pay will increase (promotions and cost-of-living increases).
You want to begin supporting yourself and paying off any student loans you may have. Your prospective income should allow you to do all of this, so you want to have the education you need in the fields that pay the best. Just make sure that, even if you’re looking to improve your future paycheck, the major you choose is one that you’ll enjoy working at for the next several decades.
Majors and Positions with Average Income
- Math and Sciences
Operations Research Analysts, Statisticians, Actuaries: $62,000
- Computer Science
Technology fields: $67,000
Market Researcher, Management Analyst, Human Resources Specialist, Purchaser: $58,000
Video Editing, Public Relations, Translating, Writing: $56,000
- Social Sciences
Data Analyst, Government Economist, Salesperson: $57,000
- Agriculture and Natural Resources
Landscape Design, Education, Crop Consulting: $54,000
Editors, Sales Representatives, Teachers: $54,000
Nurse, Director of Nursing, Nurse Educator: $63,000
Best Majors by Job Security
You might decide that what you most want is a career that provides strong job security. You may have seen friends or family struggling to find employment, or losing employment, after the Great Recession of 2008 and you want to avoid that as much as possible. Even though the employment rate sat at 3.9% in 2018, there’s no guarantee it would last or withstand a strong shock to the economy. As 2020 rolled around, that was more obvious than ever.
On the flip side, you need to be aware that some fields and jobs aren’t as secure today as they were in the past. Because of advances in technology and even globalization, some fields require fewer workers, are part of a dying industry, or are being overtaken by automation. Add to this the stiffer competitiveness in the US job market, and you can see that you need to choose carefully.
If you’re planning to attend college, you likely already know that a higher education almost guarantees you a better-paying job; you are also less likely to go unemployed for an extended period of time. Positions such as dental hygiene, statistics, and tax examiners come with much lower chances of unemployment. Let’s see what other positions tend to keep you employed the most consistently.
Positions with Low Unemployment
- Insurance Underwriter: 0.9%
Accounting, Finance, Business
- Statistician: 0.9%
Mathematics, Statistics, Survey Methodology
- Psychologist: 0.9%
- Dentist: 0.9%
- Lawyer: 0.9%
- Physician Assistant: 0.8%
Healthcare or Science
Best Online Majors
If you have been wanting to go on to college, but work and family life have made that seem like an impossible goal, don’t discount going to school online. An online degree program won’t create scheduling issues as long as you choose a program that doesn’t require you to login at a certain time of the day. Instead, choose a degree program that is classified as asynchronous, one where you can sit down to listen to lectures at a time that is convenient for your schedule.
Online degree programs and courses are becoming popular enough that more than one-third of college students took at least one course online, if not more, over the last few year. That’s almost 7 million students who took an online class, as compared to more than 20 million undergraduate and graduate students in 2018. Of the students taking an online class, 16.3% enrolled only in online classes during the fall of 2019.
As you consider your options, remember to look for the accreditation status of all online degree programs and universities you are considering. Graduating from an accredited institution makes you look more attractive to employers and it’s the only way you’ll gain access to federal student funding, which is available whether you attend on campus or online.
Engineering Management: $166,000
- Petroleum Engineering
Petroleum Engineer: $143,000
- Computer and Information Systems
Computer and Information Systems Manager: $167,000
- Financial Manager
- Marketing/Marketing Management
Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Management: $131,000
- Computer Science or Information Technology
Database Administrator: $87,020
- Human Resources/Management
Human Resources Management: $110,000
- Computer Science
Network and Computer Systems Administrator: $81,000
- Mathematics, Management Science, Engineering
Operations Research Analyst: $81,000
- Supply Chain Management, Business, Systems Engineering
Majors in High Demand
Why should you look at the majors that are the most in-demand? Because, industries that are clamoring for this degree field or that one when they are hiring college graduates know what they need. And, if you can find a high-demand major that also fits in with your interests, then you win twice. First, you will be working in a degree field you love. Second, you’ll be earning a high salary that is justified based on employers’ needs for those skills and your specialized knowledge.
It isn’t easy to make such a big decision, but you need to think about the decades during which you’ll be working. Along with earning a high salary, you want to be satisfied in what you are doing five days or more each week. If you choose a field because your parents, grandparents, or a high school teacher said you should, but you’re miserable, then no salary will make it seem worth it.
- Chemical Engineering
Chemical Engineer: $74,000
- Medical Technology
Medical Technologist: $56,000
- Construction Management
Construction Manager: $76,000
- Physical Therapy
Physical Therapist: $71,000
- Aeronautical Engineering
Aeronautical Engineer: $78,000
Best Majors for Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance—this simply means that you have a healthy balance between your home life and your work life. Neither overtakes the other. You have time to spend with family and friends, relaxing and having some fun but you also get your job done and are focused when you’re there.
If you are a spouse or parent, you want to be able to spend time with your spouse and your children. Building and maintaining a relationship with them is important to you. Imagine if you had a career or supervisor who demanded that every minute of your time that you weren’t on the clock could belong to them the same way your on-the-clock time did. No one would like that. It’s bad for the mind and the body, both. If you have a stressful job, you need the time off even more. And, even if your work isn’t that stressful, no one should have to be on call 24/7. Time off helps keep you from suffering burnout, which can make you a less effective employee, spouse, and parent.
Burnout is a real condition that can cause irritability, fatigue, and mood swings. You make mistakes at work. You stop caring about doing your best because you are exhausted. It’s estimated that burnout costs between $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare expenses in the US alone.
Careers with Good Work-Life Balance
- Executive Assistant: $57,000
- Client Manager: $63,000
- Insurance Sales Agent: $51,000
- Technical Editor: $54,000
- Content Manager: $64,000
Best Majors for Undecided Students
It’s not unusual for high school seniors to start college without knowing what they want to major in. In fact, it’s a good idea to have some ideas without settling on one before you begin school. Chances are, you’re going to change your mind at least once about your major before you graduate.
Universities and colleges usually have policies that say their students are supposed to declare majors when they are juniors. Is it better to choose a major that allows you to move into a wide range of careers? Or is it better to know what you want to do with your professional life, only to realize two semesters in that you didn’t choose the right one?
As far as financial aid is concerned, it’s better to choose a more general major that allows you to move into one of several career fields. For instance, you may choose psychology, then move into social work or even human resources. If you choose a science field and then realize that you don’t enjoy the courses or you struggle to succeed, you may end up stuck or required to attend school for an entire extra year. By this time, you may also have used up a majority of your allotted financial aid.
- Liberal Arts or Interdisciplinary Studies
Museum Manager: $38,000
Real Estate Agent: $49,000
Occupational Therapist Assistant: $50,600
Public Relations: $48,000
Best Majors for Future Business Owners
A degree isn’t necessary to become an entrepreneur, but it will certainly help you to get your business up and running—and help ensure that it is solvent. If you choose the right degree option, you’ll learn how to write a business plan, get the funding you need from the right resources, hire and manage employees, and ensure that your revenue is growing. In addition, you need to know how to build and use soft skills such as time management, leadership, communication, and even mentorship.
- Finance or Accounting
- Writing or English
- Computer Engineering
Choosing a major isn’t hard, but if you don’t have an idea of what you want to do, then it will be exponentially more difficult. You need to know who you are, what makes you happy, and what you may see yourself doing in the future. What are your abilities and skills?
Next, you need to explore a few careers that interest you. Look at salary expectations and employment rates. If you and your parents are having a hard time agreeing, then suggest taking a minor in the field they want you to study. Finally, what are you passionate about? If you don’t have an answer right now, then just keep it in mind as you go through your general courses. Something will catch your attention; you just have to notice when it does.