College student pondering what major to pick sitting in the library reading a textbook.

Welcome to one of the most important moments in your academic career: picking a college major. Ah, the excitement, the possibilities—and yes, the stress. 

But don’t worry, you’re not alone in this. Almost every student faces the same questions you have right now. What should I major in? How will it affect my future? Where do I even begin in making such a big decision?

First, take a deep breath. We’re here to guide you step-by-step through this crucial decision-making process. Our goal? To help you pick the right major, with valuable insights, tips, and considerations. 

What is a major?

It’s a specialized area of study that you focus on during college. While general education courses give you a well-rounded foundation, your major provides more specific knowledge and skills. The one you choose, whether it’s computer science, psychology, business, or any of the many other options available, will define the core courses you need to complete to earn a degree.

Choosing a major means devoting yourself to studying a particular subject in depth. You can expect to take courses related to the field, participate in extracurricular activities, and complete internships that give you real-world experience.

Some students view their majors as a stepping stone to a specific career path. For others, the opportunity allows them to dive deeply into a subject that interests them, whether or not it directly relates to their eventual job.

Your major is more than a list of courses to complete. It’s a chance to shape your educational journey around your interests, career goals, and personal aspirations.

When do you declare a major

Every college follows a different timeline, but there are general patterns that most institutions follow. As a freshman, you are typically not required to declare a major. You usually have a window of time to explore different subjects before choosing. During this time, you can sample a variety of courses, interact with professors, and consult academic advisors. 

Here are some common timelines:

  • Freshman year: Students usually take general education courses and a few introductory courses in subjects they’re interested in. Your first year often serves as an exploratory period.
  • Sophomore year: Most schools expect you to declare a major by the end of your second year. Some institutions, however, may have earlier or later deadlines. Check your college’s specific requirements.
  • Junior year: After declaring a major, you generally have until the end of your third year to make a final change without significantly delaying your graduation.
  • Senior year: Your major is typically locked in by the fourth and final year, as you’ll be working on major-specific courses and possibly a capstone project.

Although timelines will vary, the general principle remains: you do not have to declare immediately. For graduation on time, however, you should decide halfway through college.

Importance of choosing the right major

Choosing your college major is more than a formality; it can impact your career, financial stability, and personal fulfillment. While it’s not the end-all-be-all of your future, selecting the right one does play a significant role. Here’s why:

  • Career opportunities: Certain careers require specialized knowledge and skills that you’ll acquire through your major. For example, to become an engineer, an engineering degree is practically a necessity. The skills and knowledge gained can give you an edge even in fields where the major isn’t a direct prerequisite.
  • Financial considerations: The major you choose can affect your earning potential. Though money shouldn’t be the only determining factor, consider the financial implications of your area of study, especially if you will be taking out student loans.
  • Personal satisfaction: A major aligned with your interests and passions can increase job satisfaction. Doing something you love can make the routine of a 9-to-5 job more enjoyable.
  • Time and energy: College requires a significant amount of time and effort. The reward of this investment can be greater when you’re studying a subject you’re passionate about.
  • Network building: Your major often determines the professors you interact with, the peers in your classes, and the professionals you work with. The networks you build now can open doors for you in the future.
  • Academic success: Students who find classes interesting and relevant are more likely to succeed. Majoring in the right field can lead to academic success, which, in turn, boosts your GPA, a factor that some employers take into account when hiring.

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Considerations for picking a college major

Choosing your college major shouldn’t be done on a whim; it requires careful consideration and planning. It’s tempting to follow friends or select a trendy area, but those are unreliable indicators of what’s right for you. To help you pick, here are a few fundamental considerations.

Interest and passion

Ask yourself: Do I enjoy learning about this topic? Can I see myself studying it for several years? A genuine interest in your major will make your academic journey more enjoyable and improve your chances of success.

Skill set and strengths

Your natural skills and strengths should align with your chosen major. A computer science or engineering major might be for you if you’re good at solving problems and like to analyze things. Alternatively, a degree in journalism or psychology might be a better fit if you are good at communicating and understanding human behavior.

Career opportunities

Think about the job prospects offered by your desired field. Find out what industries you could enter, the demand for jobs in those areas, and possible career paths. Our career guides are an excellent resource with helpful information on occupations, including projected paths, median salaries, tips, and FAQs.

Academic requirements

Academic requirements differ by major and must be taken into account. Depending on the course load, some may require additional years of study or certification. Prepare yourself mentally and academically for what’s ahead.

Flexibility and versatility

While specialized majors can offer direct career paths, broader subjects like business administration or liberal arts are more versatile and can be applied in various industries. A more general major may be beneficial if you enjoy wearing multiple hats or desire a diverse career.

Consult with advisors and mentors

Speaking with people who have gone through the same process can provide valuable insight. An academic advisor can provide information about the prerequisites for specific degrees and how a typical course load is structured. You can also explore your options with career mentors or professionals with real-world experience.

What not to do when choosing a major

As there are wise strategies for choosing a college major, there are also common mistakes students make. Knowing these factors can help you avoid unnecessary stress. Here are some things to steer clear of:

Following the crowd

Always consider that what works for others might not work for you. Your path is uniquely yours and should reflect your interests and goals, not someone else’s.

Ignoring financial realities

Although you should be passionate about your major, don’t overlook the financial aspect. Earning potential varies significantly by profession. If you have existing financial obligations or student loans to consider, ignoring this factor may lead to stress and difficulties down the road.

Succumbing to parental pressure

Many students feel pressured by their parents to choose a subject they believe is ‘worthy’ or ‘stable.’ Parental advice comes from a place of love and concern, but ultimately, you are the one who will attend classes and build this career. Make sure your choice is something you’re passionate about.

Being shortsighted

Focusing on the immediate perks, like easy classes or fewer academic requirements, is tempting, but consider the long-term implications. Does it offer a solid career path? Upon graduation, will you be able to find a job? Always take a step back and look at the big picture.

Overthinking and indecision

Remember that choosing a major is not a life sentence. Many professionals change careers multiple times in their lives. Don’t let fear of making the “wrong” choice scare you into making no decision at all.

Neglecting to research

Some students pick a degree without really knowing what’s involved. Research the required courses, workload, and career options. Setting realistic expectations and making an informed decision starts with gaining basic knowledge.


What happens when you can’t decide a major?

If you can’t decide on a major, don’t panic. Many colleges offer “undeclared” or “undecided” options that let you take general education courses while you decide what you want to study. Take advantage of this time to explore different subjects, attend career fairs, or participate in internships. You can also seek advice from an academic advisor. Delaying this decision for too long could extend your time in college, so try to choose by the end of your sophomore year.

What happens when you want to switch majors?

Switching majors is not uncommon, but it comes with challenges. As a starting point, changing your course of study may require additional courses, which could prolong your college stay and increase educational expenses. You’ll also need to consider whether your existing credits will transfer and if the new degree has prerequisites. This process usually involves meeting with advisors to assess your academic standing and map out a new course plan.

Is a double major advantageous?

It can be advantageous to double major, depending on your career goals and interests. Having two majors can enhance your versatility and open up more job opportunities. You will also be able to explore two academic areas in-depth. However, it can be demanding regarding workload, time, and energy. Be realistic about your capabilities and weigh the benefits against the additional stress and academic responsibilities.

What is the difference between a major and a minor?

A major is a student’s primary field of study and the focus of their degree. It requires significant coursework and will likely lead to employment after graduation. Conversely, a minor is a secondary field of study requiring fewer courses and is less comprehensive. It allows you to gain specialized knowledge in an additional area without the same level of commitment. Unlike majors, minors are usually optional and can complement your major, broaden your skill set, or allow you to pursue your interests.

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn