Do I need to enter college with a major?
The high school student who is the ultimate type A, planner extraordinaire can probably lay out an accurate vision for the next decade of their life, including their college and career path. Whether due to rigidity or innate passion, there are teens who truly know what they want to be when they grow up from an exceptionally young age. For these folks, picking a college major is easy—they pretty much did so when they were seven. For the rest of us, the undecided majority, selecting a major is often a burdensome and stressful endeavor, and one that weighs heavily on the shoulders of 17 and 18 year olds whose energy is better focused elsewhere.
What follows are data, research, and big-picture advice that should alleviate some of your/your teen’s angst about major selection.
There are more choices than you think
Let’s begin by demonstrating that the very concept of forcibly selecting a major before starting your postsecondary studies is flawed. While students often believe that there are only a handful of majors to choose from, like entrées at a fancy restaurant, the college major smorgasbord more closely resembles the menu at the Cheesecake Factory.
We’ve met many accomplished young people who, due to limited exploration and sometimes excessive parental pressure, live in a world where there are only a handful or career choices: doctor, lawyer, scientist, engineer, computer programmer, investment banker, and a few other high income, high prestige professions. This narrow lens carries beyond top students as evidenced by the number of degree-earners in certain fields. Nationwide, over 20% of college grads earn business degrees, followed by massive numbers in health professions (primarily nursing), psychology, biological sciences, social sciences and history, and education. These 6 areas account for well over half of all college graduates.
Based on these statistics, you might never know that the U.S. Department of Education presently recognizes over 1,500 academic programs offered by the nation’s colleges and universities. You read that correctly—there are 1,500 different majors including areas like: Golf Course Management, Juvenile Corrections, Greenhouse Operations, Documentary Filmmaking, and Military Technologies, just to name a handful.
You are likely to switch once…or twice
Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their postsecondary experience. It is estimated that 80% of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, an internal study revealed that 70% of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo at some point in their collegiate careers.
The takeaway here is that many of those who enter college with a major already declared are not really far, if at all ahead of their undecided peers. The majority of students from both camps will eventually change course anyway.
Don’t delude yourself
While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway because of poor planning, lack of information, or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first- and second-semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Any student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of advanced math and science classes in high school. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in 12th grade.
Return on investment is important, but don’t think purely in dollars
Too many students who declare their major before starting college selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students — almost two-thirds — select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in four years. This seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue what are considered the most economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.
Don’t believe us? Here’s a stunning fact—Philosophy majors outpace their peers who studied marketing, pre-law, and even chemistry in both average starting and mid-career income. You read correctly—philosophy majors!
Different paths, same destination
Even if you believe that you know you’re 100% committed to certain profession or graduate school down the line, there are typically more than one major that will successfully prepare you for those next steps.
For example, countless students with an eye on med school mistakenly believe they must major in the biological sciences. This can be a prudent path but is far from a compulsory one. In fact, only about 50% of students enrolled in U.S. medical schools majored in the biological sciences. The other half majored in everything from mathematics to the humanities. “Yeah,” you’re probably thinking, “but how do humanities majors fare on the MCATs?” Out of all matriculated med students, the humanities majors actually outscored the biological sciences majors by a sliver of a point on the MCAT.
Many aspiring lawyers assume that selecting a Pre-law major is their best bet. Interestingly, the American Bar Association states that it “does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education.” There are good reasons for this as average LSAT scores for those who major in the classics, philosophy, and math are far greater than those who studied law in undergrad. Criminal Justice majors actually have the lowest average LSAT score of any group.
A case for exploration and flexibility
There is nothing wrong with selecting a major prior to setting foot on a college campus. There is equally nothing wrong with taking a full year or two of college before committing to an area of concentrated study. Follow these three pieces of advice and you’ll not only make the best decision for your future but you’ll also feel significantly less stress:
1) Approach this decision with an open mind and learn of the many (1,500!) options that are available.
2) Follow your passions and enthusiasm—the long-term outcome will be better than staying the course in an area you thought you would enjoy but do not.
3) Understand the bigger picture of the fields you are considering—there are often a multitude of undergraduate pathways leading to advanced study and/or professional success.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).