The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Major

Choosing a college major can be hard. Some students have known what they wanted to be since they were three years old; others aren’t sure, even with college right around the corner. Whether you’re already in college or you’ve just started applying, here are some tips to finding the major that’s right for you.

student chatting at table

What is a major? What’s the difference between a major and a minor?

A major is a specific subject area college students specialize in. Typically, between one-third and one-half of the courses you’ll take in college will be in your major or related to it. Some colleges even let you design your own major!

A minor is a secondary field you can study in while completing your major degree program. It’s a specialization that requires fewer courses than a major. Minors are only required for certain degrees.

When do you declare a major?

Generally at most four-year colleges you don’t have to decide on a major until the end of your sophomore year. This gives you time to try a couple of classes and see what you like before you decide, and earn general education credits that count toward your degree. Keep in mind, certain fields and programs (like most pharmacy programs) require an early commitment so you can take all the required classes and graduate on time.

Steps to picking a major

1. What do you like?

The first thing to consider when picking a major is what you like to do. By the time you graduate high school you’ll have enough information and experience from your classes to figure out what you might or might not be interested in pursuing. Here are some ways you can dig deeper:

  • List 10 things you love. Listing what you love doing, both inside or outside the classroom, is a great way to see possible paths you can take. If you enjoy art and drawing but you’re also interested in technology, consider majoring in graphic design. If you’re into business and traveling, investigate majoring in international business.
  • Make a list of strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out your strengths and weaknesses can help you assess what kind of major to go into. For example, if public speaking isn’t really your thing, you might want to avoid majors that could lead to careers like being a news anchor or spokesperson. You can also take your weaknesses and build on them in college. If public speaking is something you want to improve, go ahead and take a speech class. You might love it!
  • Use the Roadmap to Careers Connect your interests to majors and careers, and explore video interviews with professionals in different industries to hear how they got where they are today. Use your College Board login to map your future—it’s free for students who take the PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10, PSAT/NMSQT, or the SAT.

2. What are your career goals?

After digging into what you’re interested in and potential careers options, it’s time to think about your goals and your future career—and how easy or how hard it might be to find employment.

If you have a specific career goal in mind, you might need to pick your major or program in advance, sometimes as early as when you’re applying to college.

It’s also good to know what degree you’ll need for the field that interests you. Here’s an overview of different college degrees:

  • Associate Degree The two-year associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS). Some students who earn this degree transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program; others use it to go straight to work. Community colleges, career colleges, and some four-year colleges offer associate degrees.
  • Bachelor’s Degree This degree requires completing a four- or five-year college program. Most students earn a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science degree (BS). You can also study toward a bachelor of fine arts or bachelor of architecture degree.
  • Joint Degree Students can earn a bachelor’s degree plus a graduate or professional degree in less time if they combine them. A student on this track may apply to a graduate program as an undergraduate and begin the graduate program in their fourth year of college.
  • Graduate Degree Graduate degrees are advanced degrees pursued after earning a bachelor’s degree. Examples are a master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS). Students generally earn a master’s degree after two years of study. A doctoral degree (for example, a PhD) requires four or more years of study.

3. Talk to advisers and professionals

The best source of college advice is your school counselor. They’ve helped lots of students who are making the same decisions you are. Your school counselor can tell you more about college majors and program offerings. Here are five questions you might want to ask a counselor.

  1. Are there any college fairs at this school, or nearby?
  2. Can you put me in touch with recent grads who are going to the colleges on my wish list?
  3. Which elective courses do you recommend?
  4. Do you have any information to help me start exploring careers?
  5. Do you have any college planning sessions scheduled?

Check out BigFuture™ for a list of 20 questions to ask your counselor to get the conversation started.

You can also reach out to professionals working in the field you’re interested in. They can talk to you about how they got from college to where they are now. Whether they’re your parents, guardians, family members, or people you interact with professionally, set up a time to interview them. Be prepared with a set of questions to ask.

4. Backups

Try to come up with one or two backup majors. This way you’ve got options if you decide to switch your major.

What if you can’t decide on a major?

It’s okay to enter college as an undecided major. You don’t have to know what you want to major in (or even what you want to do with the rest of your life) during your major search process. College gives you the opportunity to take classes you think you might enjoy or even classes you’ve never been exposed to before.

Volunteer and find internships. Internships and volunteer work are the best ways to get real hands-on experience in fields a major can lead to. You’ll get a great understanding of what day-to-day life in the profession is like. If you can, talk to people in different departments to see if their work interests you.

Events at local colleges/college visits. You can learn a lot from visiting colleges or attending events on campus. Colleges have open houses or accepted student days where department representatives answer questions and offer you their knowledge. There are also students around you can talk to about their major and class experiences in the major.

Can you change your major?

You can absolutely change your major in college. Studies find that most students change majors at least once and many students switch several times. No matter what year you’re in, sometimes the major you declare doesn’t end up being the right one. If you decide to change your major, make sure the credits you need align with your expected graduation date. Go to your counselor for guidance on picking a new major and setting up your schedule.

It’s a big decision, but you know yourself and your interests better than anyone. Remember, when choosing a major, the most important thing is to make sure you’re happy and clear about your priorities for your life and career after college.

By College Board
College Board