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How should I choose a major?

May 18, 2018

A new Strada-Gallup survey shows why it’s important to choose a relevant major to your future career.


If you’re not sure what you’re going to major in, you’re not alone. Many incoming college students wait to declare their major, preferring to try out a few academic tracks and discover which subjects resonate with their skills and interests, while also exploring and imagining different career paths.


Being deliberate and intentional when choosing a major is important, as recent studies indicate the relevance of your major to your career and life goals can be a key indicator of long-term satisfaction and success. From College to Life: Relevance and the Value of Higher Education, a new Strada-Gallup survey, shows that “relevance is three times more powerful in predicting value and twice as powerful in predicting quality when compared with the public data widely used to create rankings of colleges and universities.” So those Best College rankings that are so widely used? Ultimately, they may matter much less than the major you choose for your four-year degree.


Key Survey Findings


The Strada-Gallup team surveyed more than 78,000 employed adults nationwide, ages 18 to 65, who had completed at least some college courses. Survey respondents were asked to rate the relevance of their courses in the context of skills used in their day-to-day lives as well as what they do at work.


The overall findings indicated that:

  • Respondents who regard their courses as relevant to their daily life and career also believe their education is high quality and “worth the cost.”
  • Respondents who strongly agree their courses are relevant also report a strong sense of satisfaction (“thriving”) in terms of overall well-being.
  • In predicting consumer ratings regarding educational quality and cost value, relevance is a stronger indicator of satisfaction than “other important demographic characteristics” such as age, gender, income, and race/ethnicity, among other factors. Relevance also performs as a more powerful standard of measurement compared to average cost of attendance, average SAT/ACT math scores, alumni earnings, graduation rates, and student loan default rates.

In short, it’s finding that academic fit--a field of study that aligns with your personal and professional goals--that helps shape future success.


Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Major


Of course, as an incoming freshman, you may have no idea what you want to major in, or which courses will be be most relevant for what you want to do. Don’t worry! College is all about discovering exactly that (and you have four years to work toward figuring this out).


When thinking about potential majors, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel fully engaged with the course of study?
  • Are the classes within the program interesting to you?
  • Are you good at the initial subject matter--and invested enough to continue building those skills?
  • Can you envision putting your developing skills to use in a work/professional environment?
  • Will these skills be employable in the future--and in the region(s) where you may want to live?

If some of your answers are murky, that’s OK! Many liberal arts colleges’ curriculum are structured in such a way to encourage exploring multiple paths, so you can take a variety of courses across a wide range of disciplines early in your college career as an underclassman (e.g., freshman and sophomore years), then refine/narrow your possibilities in your upperclassman years as a junior and senior.  


Additionally, many college career services programs work in tandem with faculty advisors to help students understand how their studies can translate into a career. So if you’re interested in Russian literature, for example, but aren’t sure how this course of study can be adapted into the working world, the career services team can help.


Take Your Time


Truly, there’s no rush in declaring your major; indeed, waiting to declare or changing your mind may even be beneficial. A 2016 Inside Higher Ed report showed that students who changed their major as late as senior year were more likely to graduate than those who knew their major from day one on campus. Experimentation and flexibility can predict success!


Some colleges have recognized this and updated their policies accordingly. At College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, for example, students must wait until second semester of sophomore year at the earliest to declare their major. If you’re undecided, speak to the colleges that interest you to see their specific timeline requirements for declaring a major.


Relevance is the marriage of interest and talent, and when something is relevant, you’ll be engaged and motivated to build your skills. Ultimately, determining relevance, like choosing a college itself, is all about doing some introspective soul searching. What’s relevant for you depends on what intrigues you, what you’re curious about, and where you want to go. What’s relevant for you (what you actually study) may be very different from what you originally thought you would study. Use your four years of college as an opportunity to experiment, to try different paths and see how you respond. Work with the resources at hand, refine as you go, and you’ll set yourself up for success.


Have a great story about how you chose your major? We want to hear it! Tweet us at @EdmitEDU or email us at support@edmit.me.

Photo by University of Minnesota on Flickr.