For every college student, the time to choose a major eventually arrives. For some individuals, selecting a major is as simple as following a life-long dream. For others, it is a challenging process rife with anxiety. No matter your outlook on this higher education milestone, it is crucial to choose a major that is useful to you, not to your best friend or your favorite professor. Here is how to do so:
Begin with your destination
When choosing a major, start by considering your post-graduation plans. This may seem entirely too sudden if you are a freshman or sophomore in college, but it is an essential step. Think of your major not as a summary of your life to date, but instead as a glimpse of your future. You do not need to select a specific company that you will work for, but it is important to think carefully and deeply about your choice.
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You can visit your school’s career center, speak with your professors, or read the United States government’s Occupational Outlook Handbook to learn more about trends in various fields. The earlier you begin this process, the better.
If your long-term goals are fairly specific, you may be able to quickly narrow your list of potential majors. Meet with your advisor, or conduct research online to determine which degrees are required for your future career or field. If you plan to become a content marketer, for example, you might major in communications, English, journalism, or marketing. A career in electrical engineering, on the other hand, may call only for a degree in engineering.
Certain career paths may seem to require a specific major at first glance, but research reveals some flexibility. If your plans include law school, for instance, a pre-law undergraduate concentration may seem like an obvious choice. However, law schools accept students from a wide range of backgrounds, and law has many specialized topics. An undergraduate degree in biology or engineering, for example, can prepare you for a career in patent law. An international studies major can position you for international law, and so on.
As has been discussed in previous columns, you may be tempted to select a major that resembles a job description. The danger is that you will narrow your options by too closely defining your education. Even if you plan to pursue an advanced degree in marine biology, for example, consider completing a general biology degree. Take the coursework that will help you realize your dream, but do not lock yourself into one particular path.
This is, in many ways, a balancing act. Having a path in mind is important, but keeping your options open is equally vital. Very few people stay with one career for their entire life, and having an overspecialized degree can lead to future employers overlooking your resume.
Earning a degree in a general field – like biology, English, or psychology – can also be a useful strategy if you are not sure about your future career. Many industry-specific skills are learned in the workplace, but a degree that teaches critical thinking and communication paves the way for adapting to a variety of environments.
Review any prerequisites
Although most majors at a given college or university have similar requirements for credit hours, they can vary widely in admissions prerequisites and in the type of curriculum that they use. When compiling a list of majors that align with your interests and career goals, remember to investigate the requirements for admission to each program. Some music departments, for instance, require that students audition for a place in a major.
If you are currently a freshman, create a schedule that will enable you to satisfy the necessary prerequisites in a timely, stress-free manner. If you are already in your sophomore or junior year, meet with your advisor as soon as possible to limit possible graduation delays. If there is also an independent project or research requirement for your intended degree, consider how that will factor into your planned graduation time. Such a project may help you build a portfolio to show future employers, but you will need to weigh that advantage against any potential delay in finishing your degree.
Brian Witte is a professional tutor and contributing writer with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized experiences to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
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