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The Student’s Guide to Choosing a College Major

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.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Aviva Legatt Faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania

FAQs About Choosing a Major

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.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing 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.

What Should I Major In?

Need more help? The following online quizzes from Loyola University Chicago and The Princeton Review can point you in the right direction:

Top 5 Popular Majors

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.

Sample careers:

Accountant or Auditor
Median annual salary: $68,150
11% growth (2014-2024)
Management Analyst
Median annual salary: $81,330
14% growth (2014-2024)
Financial Analyst
Median annual salary: $81,760
12% growth (2014-2024)

Sample careers:

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselor
Median annual salary:$41,070
22% growth (2014-2024)
Recreational Therapist
Median annual salary: $46,410
7% growth (2014-2024)
Social and Community Service Managers
Median annual salary: $64,680
10% growth (2014-2024)

Sample careers:

Market Research Analyst
Median annual salary: $62,560
19% growth (2014-2024)
Operations Research Analyst
Median annual salary: $79,200
30% growth (2014-2024)
Social Worker
Median annual salary: $46,890
12% growth (2014-2024)

Sample careers:

Special Education Teacher
Median annual salary: $57,910
6% growth (2014-2024)
Market Researcher
Median annual salary: $62,560
19% growth (2014-2024)
Clinical Laboratory Technologist
Median annual salary: $50,930
16% growth (2014-2024)

Sample careers:

Forensic Science Technician
Median annual salary: $56,750
27% growth (2014-2024)
Biomedical Engineer
Median annual salary: $85,620
23% growth (2014-2024)
Geoscientist
Median annual salary: $89,0780
10% growth (2014-2024)

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics (2013-2014) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)

Highest Paying Majors

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.

Sample careers:

Production Engineer
Median annual salary: $71,634
Drilling Engineer
Median annual salary: $103,366
Petroleum Engineer
Median annual salary: $128,230

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.

Sample careers:

Senior Statistician
Median annual salary: $96,107
Director of Analytics
Median annual salary: $124,615
Actuarial Mathematician
Median annual salary: $131,700

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.

Sample careers:

Information Risk Analyst
$79,875
IT Security Architect
$120,774
Actuarial Scientist
Median annual salary: $130,800

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.

Sample careers:

Nuclear Power Reactor Operator
Median annual salary: $73,029
Senior Project Engineer
Median annual salary: $92,213
Nuclear Engineer
Median annual salary: $102,220

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.

Sample careers:

Energy Engineer
Median annual salary: $68,532
Renewable Resources Project Engineer
Median annual salary: $85,639
Chemical Engineer
Median annual salary: $124,500

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), PayScale (2017) and PayScale College Salary Report (2017-2018)

Majors with the Highest Employment Rate

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

Sample careers:

Conservation Scientist and Forester
Median annual salary: $60,610
7% growth (2014-2024)
Agriculture and Food Scientist
Median annual salary: $62,920
5% growth (2014-2024)
Agricultural Engineer
Median annual salary: $73,640
4% growth (2014-2024)

95% of recent graduates find employment in this field

Sample careers:

Cartographer
Median annual salary: $62,750
29% growth (2014-2024)
Geoscientist
Median annual salary: $89,780
10% growth (2014-2024)
Atmospheric Scientist
Median annual salary: $92,460
12% growth (2014-2024)

94.9% of recent graduates find employment in this field

Sample careers:

Adult Literacy and High School Equivalency Diploma Teacher
Median annual salary: $50,650
7% growth (2014-2024)
Career and Technical Education Teacher
Median annual salary: $54,020
4% growth (2014-2024)
High School Teacher
Median annual salary: $58,030
6% growth (2014-2024)

93.9% of recent graduates find employment in this field

Sample careers:

Exercise Physiologist
Median annual salary: $47,340
11% growth (2014-2024)
Dietician or Nutrition
Median annual salary: $58,920
14% growth (2014-2024)
Occupational Health and Safety Specialist
Median annual salary: $70,920
4% growth (2014-2024)

93.5% of recent graduates find employment in this field

Sample careers:

Biomedical Engineer
Median annual salary: $85,620
23% growth (2014-2024)
Mechanical Engineer
Median annual salary: $84,190
5% growth (2014-2024)
Computer Hardware Engineer
Median annual salary: $115,080
3% growth (2014-2024)

Sources: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (2015) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)

Top 10 Majors that Require Graduate School

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.

Source: Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (2015)

“Safe” Majors

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.

Highest Paying Careers

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Information Technology

  • Computer Engineering

  • Software Development

  • Computer Programming

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Engineering

  • Business Administration

  • Project Management

  • Architecture

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Petroleum Engineering

  • Mechanical Engineering

  • Chemical Engineering

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Business

  • Advertising

  • Marketing

  • Journalism

  • 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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Accounting

  • Business

  • Economics

  • Finance

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Engineering

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Biology

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Business

  • Advertising

  • Economics

  • Marketing

  • Statistics

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Communications

  • Public Relations

  • Journalism

  • Social Entrepreneurship

  • Marketing

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Human Resources

  • Finance

  • Organizational Psychology

  • Business Management

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

Examples of relevant majors that can lead to this career:
  • Business

  • Economics

  • Finance

  • Marketing

  • Information Technology

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016)