choosing a college major

How do you choose the right college major?

Once you have started your college experience and have made your way through the initial transition period of your freshman year, your thoughts will typically begin to turn to what is next. The most common question you will be getting from friends, family and your classmates about this time will be: “What are you going to major in?”

“The Major” becomes that all-encompassing topic of discussion that stays with you, until you have made your decision on a course of study. A few students will actually enter college already fixed on a particular major, and a few more may have “narrowed the field” to two or three possibilities, but for most of you the choice is still wide open. Your hope, of course, is to find a major that will be interesting, stimulating and enjoyable to you …. So, what is the best path to choosing that major?

In high school, you may have found that you were attracted to the sciences, history, English, foreign languages or some other particular subject area. And whatever leanings you had in high school may provide a decent starting place, but you also realize that the curriculum offered in high school is significantly narrower than what is offered at the college level. You may find that a subject not even on your radar screen in high school (perhaps a foreign culture, architecture, psychology, fine arts, ancient history, marketing, etc.) may now have great attraction for you!

Many college students will simply “sample” course subjects of possible interest during their freshman and sophomore years, in the hope that they will discover an area of interest that holds special appeal for them. Some may even involve their school counselor, who could add some new and independent inputs for the student to consider in choosing a field of study. In the end, it is “The Major” that is the focus of all the discussions and debate.

But is that truly the best place to focus?

If choosing a major were the final decision to be made before beginning your career in the workforce, then it would, indeed, be the correct focus. College, however, is not the end point. It is, rather, the time of transition to your work life, which will likely span the next several decades of your life. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to choose a college major based on your career interests?

Let’s play out a scenario and see where it takes us, in terms of answering this question.

Let’s say, that following the typical approach noted above, you had taken a course in philosophy, which you really enjoyed, during your freshman year. After taking a second course in this same subject during your sophomore year, you make a decision to declare your major in this subject area. Through the course of your college career, you also enjoyed courses in the sciences, business and art, among others, but the particular philosophy courses (or professors teaching those courses) raised your interests to a higher level.

Finally, as you enter your senior year, you now begin to explore what type of career path might appeal to you (perhaps by following the suggestions included in my previous posting titled “Choosing the Right Career Takes Work”). Through the exploration process, you determine that you want to begin your working career as a financial analyst. Further, your investigation reveals that companies or institutions favor financial analyst candidates with business majors. Does this mean that non-business majors will be excluded from a financial analyst job? Certainly not, but it could mean that your chances of obtaining your desired first career path, particularly with the most preferred employers, may now be out of reach.

Now, let’s contrast that outcome with an alternative approach to choosing a major – namely, by considering your career interests earlier during your college years. In that case, you would have started your career exploration work before you needed to select a major, which would have resulted in your preference to start a career as a financial analyst. Knowing that a business major would better position you for successfully finding a position in such a career, you decide to pursue a major in business. You still have plenty of room in your course schedule to pursue your academic interest in philosophy (and other subject areas) through additional coursework, but are now far better positioned to achieve your career aspiration of starting as a financial analyst!

In the end, there is no real mystery to this outcome. It’s only logical that pursuing a course of action with our ultimate goal in mind tends to lead to better long-term results than pursuing an intermediate goal without considering the longer term objective. Making this connection when choosing a college major, however, sometimes does not enter into our thinking, at the time we make the choice. Hopefully, it now will.

filed under: College to Career
Steve Vogel

Written by Steve Vogel

Steve Vogel graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Emory University and went on to earn the Accounting Award as the top performing student in his class at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he obtained his MBA degree. Steve started his business career with Boston Consulting Group, and later held positions in Strategy, Operations and Finance with American Standard, Masco, Ingersoll Rand and Dover Corporation. Within Dover, Steve served as CFO at Hydro Systems where he worked closely with Jeff Rowe and Fran Nunan.