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Choosing a College Major

Six college students sitting.

The author defines "major" and "minor" in the academic sense and presents helpful tips for students who are deciding which area of study is right for them. Linda Tobash is the director of University Placement Services at the Institute of International Education.

"Like most people, I remember very well the year I chose my major. In fact, I made the decision three times."

-Dr. David Brownlee, Professor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

With hundreds of majors and thousands of colleges and universities from which to choose, how does one begin to decide what and where to study? For some, the first decision is where—at a large comprehensive university, or a small liberal arts college, or a specialized institution offering programs in engineering or technology or computer science, for example; in a city or the country; near the beach or in the mountains; near family or far away; at a school providing financial aid; or at a school that offers specific extracurricular activities, such as the opportunity to play on a soccer team, or to work on the campus radio or television station, newspaper, or drama, or film productions. But for many others, the college search begins with what they might want to study and where the best places to study that subject might be.

Unlike other national educational systems, where someone's college major is determined by what was studied in secondary school or scores received on college entrance exams, undergraduate applicants to U.S. colleges and universities often can choose from the full range of schools and academic majors. Of course, at highly selective institutions, competition for admission is very strong and only a small number of outstanding students gain entrance. Even at institutions that are less selective, some majors—nursing or engineering, for example—will have stricter and more competitive admission requirements. But, generally speaking, the array of choices for prospective students is quite broad.

What Exactly Is A College Major?

Stanford University's Web site states, "A major is the field in which you choose to specialize during your undergraduate study. Your choice determines the academic discipline that will absorb a significant portion of your academic time and energy. Upon successful completion of the major requirements and University requirements, you receive a bachelor's degree. Your major offers an opportunity to develop your intellectual skill, to show your capability in grasping a subject from the fundamentals through advanced study. What you study is an important personal decision." [www.stanford.edu/~susanz/Majors.html]

When a student chooses a major, he or she enters into a contract with a college to complete a prescribed course of study that consists of both general education requirements (i.e., university requirements) and academic major requirements. In other words, the college curriculum will consist not only of courses in the major field of study. In fact, as much as 50 to 60 percent of coursework might consist of general education and elective courses, i.e., courses that the student chooses from a broad range of options both within and outside of the major. The percentage of general education courses, as compared to major courses, varies depending on the school and the major, but all institutions require some general education courses. The U.S. undergraduate education is rooted in a liberal arts tradition, with general education seen as very important. The goal of all undergraduate baccalaureate degrees is to develop in each student critical thinking skills and the ability to learn how to learn, as well as proficiency in a specific academic area.

At many institutions, students can choose both a major and a minor area of study. A minor, or concentration, is usually closely related to the academic major; e.g., a student might major in English and minor in theater, or major in history and minor in political science, or vice versa. A small number of courses in the minor will be required for graduation and will frequently "count" (i.e., be applicable) toward the major degree requirements as well.

At some institutions, students, working closely with an academic advisor, can design their own individualized majors. A growing number of undergraduate students choose dual majors. In other words, they graduate having met the requirements for two majors. The majors can be related—for example, two majors in the social sciences, such as history and sociology. Or they can be completely different—biology and literature, for instance. Often students will choose more than one major in order to better prepare for a career or to make themselves more competitive for graduate school. But sometimes they choose a double major because of personal passion. At some institutions, double majors can be taken simultaneously, and at others dual majors must be taken sequentially. Generally speaking, the length of time to earn a degree will be a bit longer, but students are not starting with each major from the beginning. A good number of the general education and even elective courses in one major will count toward the degree requirements for the second major.

All institutions clearly define the expectations and course requirements that students must fulfill to graduate. Students generally meet each term with an academic advisor who helps them choose courses that will count toward their degree requirements. Most institutions also provide tools to help students, such as program or degree requirement checklists.

When Does One Choose A College Major?

Some students enter college knowing exactly what they want to study, some think they know, and some have no idea. Most will change majors at least once.

Since nearly two-thirds of undergraduate students in the United States change majors before graduating and might consider up to four or five majors before finally deciding on one, a number of institutions actually prefer that students not declare a major until after they have started their college education. Even at those institutions that require prospective students to identify a major when they apply, students can usually select an "undecided" or "undeclared" major option.

While students do not have an unlimited amount of time to choose a major—most baccalaureate degrees are designed to be completed in four years with 120 semester credits (see sidebars)—students often have until the end of their sophomore year to decide and still be able to complete their degree on time. Of course, students choosing to enter community colleges (two-year institutions that award associate's degrees) must choose a major much sooner. And it is better for students to decide early if they choose a major for which a large percentage of the required coursework is in the major field (e.g., highly technical fields or some health fields) or if there are a large number of prerequisites (basic courses that must be taken before one is allowed to register for a more advanced course).

How Does One Choose A Major?

Some have a passion for a subject. Some have an area in which they excelled in high school. Some have a career goal that will dictate the major they must take; for example, nursing, teaching, studio art, or engineering. But many students just don't know. While they may have an idea of what they want to do after college, they might not have a clear idea what area of study will best help them reach that career goal. Nor is there usually only one major that leads to a specific career. In fact, many schools caution that choosing a career and choosing a major are two distinctly different processes.

Most educators agree that in choosing a major, students should consider what they like to do, what their abilities are, and how they like to learn. Some of the best resources for helping choose a major come from colleges and universities themselves. A large number of institutions post on their Web sites a wealth of information and tools to help prospective and current students select majors. While some Web sites focus entirely on the programs and services offered at that institution, many others post helpful information that can be applied to any college setting.

The most frequently cited advice includes:

Learn more about yourself. What are your academic strengths and weaknesses? What do you enjoy? What are your interests? What are your values? What are your immediate goals after graduating—getting a job or going to graduate school?

Take a personality or an interest inventory or assessment. If such inventory or assessment opportunities are not available in your secondary school or town, you can check at a U.S. Educational Advising/Information Center in your home country. Through its EducationUSA program, the U.S. Department of State operates more than 450 of these centers in 170 countries [http://www.educationusa.state.gov].

Visit Web sites of university departments. Look at the majors offered. Analyze the courses offered and the degree requirements. Some college faculty members post their course syllabi, a full description of the courses, online. The more you can learn about the types of courses and work required for a major, the better.

Once you are in the United States, go to departmental offices on campus and talk with staff, faculty, and students.

Visit college career centers and look for reports that list jobs recent graduates have found, as well as the subject area in which the graduate majored.

After you enroll, try out different courses in different departments. Learn about the faculty members who teach the major courses and about what kind of students enroll.

If you find yourself in the wrong major, don't worry. Most students in U.S. colleges change their majors. Do not stay in a major you don't like or that is not challenging and stimulating.

Don't confuse a career choice with a major choice. Any major can prepare you for a number of different job possibilities. As the University of Washington states on its Web site, "A college education helps prepare you for the job market but doesn't limit you to a specific career".

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

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