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College Programs Require You to Make a Major Decision

By Peterson's Staff updated on Monday, January 28, 2013

What is a college major, anyway? In the hallowed halls of academia, it is most definitely NOT a rank in the hierarchy! A major is a major expression of you because it is the area that you choose to study in-depth in college and will be your major focus of the next four or five years—or at least it should be. You’ll find it’s a huge part of your identity, both by how you define yourself and by how others identify you. You’ll be amazed by how often you hear the words, "What are you majoring in?" While you don't have to declare a major right away, at some point, it will happen and most of your classes will focus on topics in that area.

The greatest thing about college majors is that you can choose from hundreds of them, from Accounting to Zoology. College academics run the gamut from such unusual subjects as Limnology, Folklore, and Criminalistics to Poultry Science, Tibetan Studies, and Resort Management. There are hundreds of choices out there, but which one is right for you? Should you choose something traditional, or select a major from an emerging area? If you’re a focused individual who already knows what you want to do after college, decide which major will best help you achieve your goals.

Where do I start when trying to choose a college major?

A great way to get started is to begin assessing what careers appeal to you. What are your interests, talents, values, and goals? Have a discussion with your school counselor about what college programs may be a good fit and try a few on for size. Picture yourself taking classes, writing papers, making presentations, conducting research, or working in a related field. Try to talk to people who work in your fields of interest, and decide if you like what you hear.

You might also give the classified ads a try. What jobs sound interesting to you? What level of education or experience is required? Select a few jobs that you think you'd like and then consult a list of college majors. Use this info to get an idea of all the related degree programs and determine which ones match your talents and goals.

What does a college major entail?

Most majors require you to complete a specific number of approved courses or credits related to your particular field of study. College degree programs consist of required courses that everyone pursuing that major must complete, as well as a body of elective courses from which you can choose. For example, if you’re majoring in English Literature, you’ll probably have to take an introduction to literature course and several courses that survey particular periods, such as Late-American Literature.

For electives, you can choose to take any course offered by the department that fulfills the credit requirements for your degree in that major. Catalogs from most schools will list credit requirements for each major, and more-detailed course listings will detail what courses are offered each semester that year and which ones are required for a specific college major. Some classes are only offered periodically or only during a particular semester. If you are interested in particular elective classes, make sure you find out when they are offered and if they will fit into your overall program schedule.

What's a double major all about?
When looking at college programs, you may feel truly inspired and opt to major in more than one area. Many disciplines offer enough latitude with course selections that you can complete a double major without ever taking additional classes to graduate! For example, as a Communications major, you may have so many electives available, both inside and outside of your major, that you could potentially fulfill the requirements of an additional major. Cool, huh? You’ll definitely stand out from the crowd at graduation, but don’t pursue a second major if both areas don’t interest you. You don’t want to waste time taking classes that bore you to tears and may lower your motivation to do well.

Some college majors are aided by a minor or concentration

A minor or concentration consists of a series of classes that complement your major. The required courses for a minor are determined by the department and entail fewer credits than a second major. Minors are a great way to “specialize” in a certain area within your major.

What if I just am not ready to choose among college degree programs in my first year?

Fortunately, you will have to take so many required courses during your college career that you can fill your first semester with all the basics, such as composition. If you're really unsure of your major, selecting a variety of introductory courses for your first semester is a great way to see what interests you. However, don’t dawdle too long. By sophomore year you should decide where you’re headed, or you may end up in school longer than you planned. That can get expensive.

Can I change my college major?

There is no law that says you have to stick with particular degree program. The majority of students change their majors, and it rarely causes any big problems. Changing your major from one area to a related one, such as switching from English to Communications, can be relatively painless if many of the courses you’ve taken are required for either major. However, if you jump from one major to a completely unrelated one, let's say switching from French to Wildlife Biology, you may find that some of the courses you took to fulfill the French major don’t fit at all for the Wildlife Biology requirements. 

The key to changing college programs is to do it as early as possible. The later you change your program, the more likely you’ll be taking extra classes. This will cost you time and money, since colleges charge tuition by the credit.

Don't let college majors stress you out

Deciding what to study is a tough decision, but don't let it stress you out. Majors rarely force anyone into a particular career. In fact, many students find themselves in a completely unrelated field after graduation—and are quite happy. Others complete a master's or Ph.D. in a completely different area from their bachelor’s degree. Choosing your major carefully is important, but life goes on, most likely successfully, even if you determine that studying something else might have been more interesting.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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