Written By: Ryan Zroka
It used to be that you could postpone that uncomfortable question until the back half of your college career. Third year, maybe. Fourth if you were lucky (or a humanities major). But that’s just not the case anymore. With colleges becoming more competitive, and the consequent pressure to specialize early on, even high school sophomores now find themselves weighing the relative merits of neuroscience vs. biomedical engineering.
But how do you actually know what your major should be? It’s a tough question to answer – and not just because the stakes feel so high. Our society isn’t really set up to give sixteen-year-olds the information they need to answer this question confidently. And the whole process of major selection is shrouded in a dense fog of misinformation, half-truth, and outright myth.
Now, I can’t tell you what major you should be. I can’t even give you an easy way of deciding. But at least I can tell you some important things about the process – things that make it a little bit easier to come to a decision.
1) Your Major Isn’t Necessarily the Subject That You Are the Best At.
When it comes time to pick a major, a lot of students just choose the subject they were best at in high school. And that’s a pretty reasonable move. Nobody wants to study a subject they’re bad at, after all. And if you stick to your best subject, you’re likely to get through your college years with less frustration and a better GPA.
But choosing a major is something with implications that potentially extend beyond your college years. If all goes well, your major will provide you with a core of knowledge that you can draw on for the rest of your life – that builds a foundation for your personal and professional growth. And so, when you’re thinking about you major, you need to think at least a little about how it fits with your long-term vision. The thing that you are good at may not get you to where you want to go in life. And it may not be something that will hold your interest for the next ten or twenty years. When a subject comes easily to you, you might just get bored with it after a while.
Now, I’m not telling you to throw caution and every practical consideration out the window here. If you’re a tone-deaf white kid (i.e. me), jazz composition may not be the best choice for you. But I ask you to remember that there are probably many things that you are good at, or potentially good at. So, you don’t need to default to the subject that’s easiest for you. You’ve got other choices.
2) Your Major May Not Be What You Think It Is. So Do Your Homework.
Subjects tend to get taught rather differently in college than in high school, especially when you get past the introductory levels. Rather than broad survey courses (“World Civilizations”), you’re likely to get courses focused on very specific topics (“Gandhi and the Making of Modern South Asia”). They focus less on established bodies of knowledge, and more on research methods and emerging fields.
This may be a good thing for you – but it may not be. As you dive deep into a subject, you may realize that it’s just not what you thought it would be.
Sometimes this is something you can only discover through experience — by trying out a major and seeing if it works for you. But even in high school, there are some things that you can do to figure out what exactly lays ahead, and whether it is for you.
If you can, obviously, you can look for an internship in your chosen subject. But if there aren’t a lot of formal internships available, don’t get discouraged. With a little gumption, you can often track down some good opportunities. Find a company or a professor that does work in the subject you are interested in. Then, send them an email. Something along the lines of: “Hi, I’m interested in learning more about paleontology. Can I sit quietly and watch you? I will also help you for free.” You’ll hear “no” a lot, but you might well get a “yes.”
Make good use of your college visits, too. Browse the schedule of classes before you go and find a class or two that looks interesting (preferably not an intro course, which will be a lot like high school). Ask nicely if you can sit in. Professors care about teaching and they like it when students put in extra effort to learn – they won’t often say no. Sitting in on a few classes isn’t going to magically clarify your future for you. But it will give you a little bit of a better idea of what your major will be like.
3) You Can Change Your Major. Yes, Really.
Colleges understand that high-school seniors don’t always know exactly what they want to study. So, they make it reasonably painless for you to switch majors. Most students do, in fact. According to one 2013 study, 80 percent of American undergrads switch majors at some point. Many switch more than once.
Of course, the rules vary from university to university, and sometimes there can be obstacles. Switching into an impacted major, or a switch that requires you to move across administrative units (say, from the College of Letters and Science into the College of Engineering), can be difficult or impossible. But apart from these special circumstances, the general rule is this: If you want to switch in your first few years, and if your GPA is good, you can usually make it happen. And unless your switch is fairly drastic (math to poetry, say), it likely won’t extend your time in college.
So when it comes time to choose a major, do the best you can. Do your research. Read. Ask questions. Reflect. But don’t allow the fear of a wrong choice to paralyze you.