How to Pick a College Major: Stop Thinking, Start Doing

If you're not sure what to major in, the key is to stop just thinking about it and taking action to figure it out! Start by reading our student writer's advice.

Choosing your major is hard—everybody knows that. Besides deciding which college to attend, it might be one of the hardest things you’ve had to face up to this point—not just in your academic career, but in life. After all, there’s a reason there are so many articles written on this topic. You are not the first or the last to encounter the vexing problem of which major to choose, so give yourself a break. Fortunately, there’s a method to this madness. Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, I’m going to break it down for you by focusing on the idea of thinking vs. doing, which is key to discovering your best-fit major. Let’s clear out some of the anxious fog surrounding this problem and get down to business.

Having the proper mindset

Part of the anxiety and agitation you feel about choosing your major is perfectly normal. It is, after all, an important decision: You are trying to decide which path to walk on—potentially, hopefully(?), intermittently—for the rest of your life. Sure, nothing’s set in stone, and nobody forces you to do anything or stay anywhere indefinitely. But is it nonetheless your first foray into serious decision-making regarding your life, so you should take it seriously. That’s one part of your anxiety that’s normal. But there’s another part that isn’t: the psychological effects that stem from a lack of certainty (often compounded by parents and society). That part you should ignore. At 18, not knowing what you want to do with the rest of your life isn’t abnormal, so don’t let it get to you.

After successfully separating these two parts, you should start thinking of this problem in clinical terms—that is, start thinking of what you can do to begin solving this problem and get your emotions out of the way. A surgeon in the operating room doesn’t think—he operates. After you do this, you can proceed to the next stage and the main point of this article: understanding the difference in value between thinking and doing

Related: 4 Expert Tips for Choosing Your Best–Fit College Major

Relying on experience

The natural resting place of problem-solving—in this case, not knowing which major to choose—lies in our heads. As agonizing as it might be, there’s a certain level of comfort and security we tend to gravitate toward when we engage in what can be labeled the “thinking mindset.” The issue with this methodology, however, is that most problems can’t be solved in our heads. Rather, they are solved by experience—i.e., by doing. Empirical data often trumps theoretical data. So stop relying on your thoughts and start relying on experience. It will teach you much more in a week than it ever will in a year.

The importance of doing

Doing forces us to examine and adjust our actions accordingly, something the thinking mindset lacks the capacity to do. It allows for a higher level of clarity that can’t be achieved by thinking. Say, for example, that you want to become a stage actor. You’ve never acted before, but you really, truly, deeply feel it in your bones that you are destined to become the next Marlon Brando. You enroll in an acting studio or some other type of acting program, and on the very first day, your name is called by the acting instructor to perform a monologue in front of the class. You’ve worked hard on it, you’ve memorized it to perfection, you’re ready to go. But as you stand in front of the class, suddenly, you freeze; your heart is racing, your palms start to sweat, you feel a chilling cold running through your back, and you can’t seem to open your mouth. Every thought going through your head is negative and you feel judged. This happens each time you get up in front of the class until you realize that acting isn’t what you thought it was. In other words, what the thinking mindset told you about acting was inaccurate—but you couldn’t possibly know that without trying it first. The moral of the story isn’t to make you fearful of trying new things, but just the opposite: To find the right major, you first have to determine which ones are not right for you. It’s all part of the process. 

Related: How to Choose Your Major and Explore All Your Options 

Stop thinking and start doing!

You can spend hours sitting in your room, agonizing over “what should I do?” and wasting valuable time and energy. But you have to reverse that process. When it comes to choosing your major, thinking is limited by nature; it’s confined to your thoughts. On the other hand, if you have a general direction in mind but are unsure, guess what? Bingo! That’s precisely where you need to be and is the optimal starting point.

In the meantime, sign up for classes that you think you might enjoy that are somewhat in the general vicinity of the field(s) you have in mind. Don’t worry about getting specific right now—that comes later by a process of elimination (like the acting example above). For now, get out of your head and start taking action. 

For more advice on exploring different fields of study in college, check out the articles in our Majors and Academics section.

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