Choosing a major to study for four years is an important but difficult decision. Some students have no idea what they want to do, while others daydream about their dream job but aren’t really sure how to get there. To help students through the process, this guide highlights the important factors to consider when choosing a field of study and looks at top majors as well as the potential careers they can lead to. Before committing to a program, find out everything you need to know.
Dr. Aviva Legatt
Dr. Aviva Legatt serves as an affiliated faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches in the Organizational Dynamics program. She has served on the undergraduate admissions committee at Wharton and now guides students on how to stand out for admission to elite colleges via VivED Consulting. She also writes for Forbes, covering millennials pursuing advanced degrees. Further college admissions commentaries by Dr. Legatt can be found on U.S. News and World Report, Business Insider and Reader’s Digest. Legatt holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania.
Picking a major can be difficult, especially if students are unsure of what they want to do. Admissions expert Dr. Aviva Legatt offers the following answers and insight to the questions students most frequently ask.
It depends on the career you’re hoping to have. Certain majors lead to fairly specific careers like doctor, lawyer, nurse or accountant. On the other hand, some majors – such as art, philosophy and economics – can lead to a wide range of careers. If you’re still trying to figure out your career path, identify the skills and knowledge you’ll gain from a particular major and map out ways you can use them in the professional world after graduation.
Some colleges are fine with applicants being undeclared, but many admissions panel readers advise students not to submit applications with an undeclared major status, as it limits them in understanding the student and their future goals. Tufts University undergraduate admissions officer Meghan McHale Dangremond suggests it’s better to pick a major you’re fairly serious about and switch later on if interests and goals change than to be undeclared on the application. However, choosing any major randomly isn’t a good idea either, especially if the rest of your application doesn’t align with that selection. For students who really don’t know what to study, being undeclared can be acceptable if the other parts of your application clearly show your interests and goals.
As soon as you’ve figured out what interests you and what you want to do. Many colleges have policies in place that encourage students to declare a major early on, but a study based on data from 78,000 students suggests it’s best to wait until you know what you want to work towards. It’s common for students to change majors and because the majority of first and second year courses focus on general education, this is a great time to sample different fields of study and talk to advisors to pinpoint interests and skills.
Yes! And many undergraduates do. But you should carefully think everything through before making the change official, especially if you want to change course during your junior or senior year. Switching majors often changes graduation requirements and those who change their major during junior year or later may need to stay an extra semester or more to graduate, which also means spending more money on tuition and other school-related costs.
Having interest in multiple subject areas isn’t a bad thing, but you will have to narrow things down. The best way to do that is to explore. During your first year, take general education classes in the subject areas you’re interested in and slowly start eliminating majors that aren’t the best fit based on personal interest and/or skillset. Talk to students who are already in those fields to find out what they like and don’t like about the major and talk to professors to see if one subject area aligns with your interests and career goals more so than others.
If you want to combine your interests, you can choose to double major or minor. For instance, if a student elected to study history but also had interest in politics, they could major in history and minor in political science. Other students elect to complete two majors, taking between 50 and 60 credits for each discipline. Double majoring may require students to be in school for an extra semester or two, but having two distinct sets of knowledge may lead to higher starting salaries and greater job opportunities.
This is a dilemma for many students, particularly those considering soft sciences. But before eliminating a major that doesn’t seem practical, carefully consider what you could get out of it. Most, if not all, majors offer broad skills that can be useful in a number of careers. “Regardless of how pragmatic the major is on the surface, it can be helpful to come up with a set of learning objectives or goals for particular majors,” says Dr. Legatt. “Most majors don’t necessarily provide a linear path to a job. For example, some of my colleagues have degrees in anthropology and help businesses be more productive by zooming in on cultural problems.”
While you’re undecided, spend the first and second years knocking out general education requirements to stay on track, but do so in a strategic way. Colleges offer a wide range of course offerings to fulfill general education credits, from math to psychology to rhetoric to art. Enroll in classes across several different areas to fulfill the necessary requirements but also help you figure out the type of career you want to pursue.
Researching as much as possible is the best way to figure out what motivates you, what you’re interested in and what you want to do career-wise. Explore different industries and actual job descriptions online to see what piques your interest. But also talk to people. Nearly every college campus has skilled academic advisors and career counselors to help students compare majors. Talk to someone who works in your fields of interest to get the inside scoop and find out how they got to where they are now. And talk to current students who are further along in their educations to see how they decided on a major.
Self-evaluation can help even the most indecisive student come to a confident decision about what to study. Aside from seeking guidance from academic advisors, friends and family, students need to make sure they’re also attuned to their own personal interests. Start by asking:
When applying to college, biochemistry may suddenly seem like the best choice given the wide range of careers available and great earning potential. But if you didn’t enjoy science classes – or do particularly well in them – during high school, that’s probably not going to change in college. It’s important to be realistic about your strengths and interests when choosing a major.
The answer to this question can dramatically affect the process of choosing a major, and students should start thinking about this early on. While a business degree might seem like a good choice in terms of career opportunities, if the student isn’t truly interested in in the field, they most likely won’t thrive in it.
Pursuing personal interests can be highly motivating, but you’ll also want to land a job after graduating. Career One Stop, which is sponsored by the Department of Labor, lists the top 50 fastest-growing industries. Students who aren’t sure what they want to do may want to start by looking into thriving industries, then work backwards to choose a major.
While it’s important to align your studies with your interests, it’s also important to pursue a career field that will allow you to pay off student loans and make a living. Dr. Legatt suggests students use O*Net or Bureau of Labor Statistics data to review earnings and job outlook. However, she also cautions against focusing on this in an admissions letter. “In order to make a compelling case, students won’t want to use a story about picking a major to make as much money as possible,” she says. “Instead, they should tie in their past experience with their career ambitions to make a persuasive case for entering a particular major.”
There are some fields that require – or at least strongly encourage – a master’s degree or higher to qualify for gainful employment so if the answer to this question is no, you can eliminate some majors right off the bat. Pursuing a career as a psychiatrist, doctor or lawyer may sound like a great idea, but students who don’t want to be in school for years beyond their undergraduate degree will need to reassess and explore majors that can lead to a career after two or four years of college.
Need more help? The following online quizzes from Loyola University Chicago and The Princeton Review can point you in the right direction:
Approximately 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees were conferred in the U.S. during the 2015-2016 academic year, and a few fields stood out amongst graduates. Below are the top five most popular majors, along with examples of potential careers to pursue.
Sources: National Center for Education Statistics (2013-2014) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)
For those who prioritize earning potential, the following majors can lead to six figure salaries after completing a bachelor’s degree.
Completing a degree in petroleum engineering gives graduates the skills needed to participate in the extraction of hydrocarbons for use in a variety of industries. Careers for this major include entry-level roles in the field, lab positions for those interested in research and advanced roles overseeing teams of engineers.
Actuarial mathematics gives students the skills and knowledge needed to analyze financial risk by focusing on applied mathematics, financial models, statistics, economics and computer science. Individuals planning to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics, quantitative finance or business administration often use this program as a springboard for future study.
Much like actuarial mathematics, actuarial science degrees require coursework in statistics, calculus, finance and economics. This degree, however, emphasizes computing and computer science more heavily. Common master’s programs for graduates include quantitative finance and risk management.
Nuclear engineering programs teach students how to design nuclear reactors, find environmentally safe ways of disposing nuclear waste, understand subatomic particles and address issues related to radiation. After college, graduates are most likely to find employment in the Federal government, research and testing facilities, and utilities corporations.
Chemical engineering coursework covers topics such as biochemistry, economics and mathematics. Areas of work where graduates can be found include the energy sector, renewable resources, research and development, pharmaceuticals and food manufacturing.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), PayScale (2017) and PayScale College Salary Report (2017-2018)
To determine whether a particular major is a good investment, students also need to factor in employment rate and growth. The following majors and sample careers should see the highest growth between 2014 and 2024.
96.5% of recent graduates find employment in this field
95% of recent graduates find employment in this field
94.9% of recent graduates find employment in this field
93.9% of recent graduates find employment in this field
93.5% of recent graduates find employment in this field
Sources: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (2015) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)
The majors highlighted in this section don’t necessarily require graduate school but it’s often recommended and most students do go on to pursue a master’s degree. By furthering their education in these areas, students are able to advance and hone their skills, increasing their job opportunities and salary potential. Pursuing a master’s degree also allows them to participate in meaningful work related to their field. The data below comes from a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study. Majors were categorized into subgroups. While the top ten are STEM and STEM-related, the full list shows other subgroups as well.
77.3% of students typically go on to grad school
75.9% of students typically go on to grad school
68.3% of students typically go on to grad school
68% of students typically go on to grad school
67% of students typically go on to grad school
64.5% of students typically go on to grad school
62.8% of students typically go on to grad school
61.7% of students typically go on to grad school
59% of students typically go on to grad school
58.9% of students typically go on to grad school
For some students, a versatile major – one that can translate to a wide range of career fields –can feel like a safe bet when they aren’t sure which professional path to pursue. The following undergraduate majors offer broad knowledge and skills for a variety of careers after graduation and can also serve as the foundation for graduate-level studies.
Business has been the most common degree attained for decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and signs point to that trend continuing. This is no surprise since the major can lead to careers in a range of industries – from marketing to consulting to business development – after earning an undergraduate degree. However, even those who wish to further their education can go on to earn a master’s in various fields such as finance, marketing, psychology or accounting.
Foundational science degrees are always in high demand as they serve as a stepping stone to graduate studies in countless fields but can also be used to land employment in some of the most innovative and cutting-edge industries after a four-year degree. Graduates of these majors can be found working in areas such as environmental sustainability, food science, medical research, product development and forensics. These majors also open the door to advanced degrees in engineering, biochemical sciences, pharmacy, medicine and astrophysics.
Today’s constant shift and advancement in technology makes this major a popular safe bet, particularly around tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Austin and Seattle. Jobs for these graduates already totaled 3.9 million in 2014, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that this number will increase to 4.4 million by 2024. The reason for this growth is the expansion of big data and cloud computing, more devices relying on the Internet and an increased demand for mobile computing. Opportunities for advanced study include computer science, computer engineering, software development, computer programming, mathematics and management information systems.
Before being dethroned by business degrees, education was the most commonly conferred degree in America, and with good reason. Education is a safe choice since teachers and other educational professionals will always be in demand. Master’s programs in education, library science, curriculum design and research open the doors to administrative and managerial roles as well as higher salaries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the healthcare industry is set to have the fastest growth and highest number of new jobs of any sector between 2014 and 2024, making this major a safe option for those interested in health and medical careers. The major also serves as a solid foundation for advanced study, with many going on to complete graduate degrees in nursing, health sciences, medicine, dentistry or physician assisting.
Mathematics is a crucial component in many of today’s technological advances, making demand for numerically-minded professionals high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that math occupations will grow by 28 percent between 2014 and 2024, with potential employers ranging from multinational corporations to government agencies. Individuals in this field also stand to make impressive salaries – the median salary for math-focused jobs was $81,750 in May 2016, a significantly higher number than the $37,040 national average for all occupations. Paths for advanced study in this field include master’s and doctoral programs in mathematics, statistics, actuarial mathematics and financial mathematics.
While some students may focus primarily on their personal interests, others might prioritize a high salary and want pursue a major that helps them reach that financial goal. If you fall into the latter category, consider exploring the following careers:
IT managers oversee all computer-related systems in their organization and work with their staff to plan, coordinate and implement a range of technologies at all levels of the company. They may also oversee technical training for other employees.
Median annual salary: $135,800
These professionals oversee the workflow and output of architects and engineers. They may develop plans for new products, hire and train staff, oversee budgets and commission research related to design enhancement as part of their job responsibilities.
Median annual salary: $134,730
Finding the best ways of extracting oil and gas from below the Earth’s surface is the main work of petroleum engineers. They may also design equipment, devise ways to extract more efficiently, or evaluate current extraction methods and make recommendations for improvement.
Median annual salary: $128, 230
These managers often find themselves working with colleagues cross-functionally to plan, coordinate and deliver marketing materials to achieve business goals. They are also tasked with developing campaigns, placing advertisements and overseeing staff.
Median annual salary: $127,560
Visual Arts/Graphic Design
These numerically-focused professionals oversee financial reporting, create and manage budgets, review company spending and prepare financial statements as part of their daily responsibilities.
Median annual salary: $121,750
Working with chemists, biologists, physicists and other scientists, managers in these fields oversee lab work, direct research and development activities, manage quality control and ensure production remains steady.
Median annual salary: $119,850
Whether working with a small, locally-owned business or a multinational corporation, these professionals encourage the sale of their company’s product to consumers. They also review research on consumer behavior, evaluate sales statistics and make projections about sales cycles.
Median annual salary: $117,960
Nonprofits and for-profit companies alike hire public relations managers to enhance and monitor public image, raise funds for humanitarian projects, develop campaigns and ensure the company has a proper spokesperson.
Median annual salary: $107,320
HR managers are tasked with overseeing all the administrative functions within their corporation. Aside from hiring and training employees, these professionals manage benefits, handle staffing issues, and serve as a conduit between staff and management.
Median annual salary: $106,910
CEOs, CMOs, COOs, CFOs and other C-suite executives spearhead the various functions of a business (such as marketing, finance or operations), manage a team, serve on senior boards and are ultimately responsible for all happenings within their department.
Median annual salary: $103,950
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)