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How to Pick a College Major: Narrowing Down a Big List

How do you get from having too many major options to finding your best fit? A college student offers his best advice as you search for a major and career path.

Choosing the right major is an important aspect of your college success, especially if you’re academically driven or a high achiever. Students who feel they had made the right choice regarding their major will usually gain more confidence and thrive throughout their college careers. Essentially, that’s the end goal for each student. However, you may find yourself in a position of uncertainty where you’re unsure which major to ultimately declare, with the burden of your decision pulling on your shoulders as a result. If this sounds familiar, don’t stress. That’s not only common but is often an indicator that you care about your future and use good judgement when it comes to important decision-making. So, how do we get from this point to the end goal of choosing a college major?

Cultivate a healthy perspective

Before we dive any deeper, let’s invalidate a common misconception current and prospective college students make when it comes to choosing a major: believing that unless you make a specific choice on day one, you have failed. Meaning, if you haven’t proudly announced to the whole world your chosen major prior to the first day of classes, then you’re automatically disadvantaged. Needless to say, this belief is flawed, and the reality is much more complex than you’d think.

A 2019 survey published by Ellucian found that less than half of students are “confident in their career path when they enroll in college,” with nearly two-thirds feeling “overwhelmed by the process of selecting a major.” Additionally, the survey found that “more than half of students change their major at least once,” with nearly 20% more than once. If this comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t; choosing the right major is not a simple task. Nevertheless, these results are not meant to intimidate, but to illuminate. Now that we got this out of the way, let’s move on to some practical solutions.

Related: Why Picking a Major Isn't the Same as Choosing a Career

Start wide with a general direction

In a nutshell, the most common (and realistic) way you can successfully navigate the process of choosing the right major—and ultimately, the right career path—is by a process of elimination: you have to try different things to figure out what you like and don’t like. That doesn’t mean you have to try every single thing in the world, because chances are you already have a general direction—a sense of what draws you in, an interest, a curiosity about something. But it does mean you’ll have to do some branching out within that general direction. Doing so will allow you to narrow down the scope of available options and slowly inch closer toward a more specific, unique-to-you major and/or career path.

Narrow down your general direction

Let’s assume your general direction involves a passion for reading, writing, and learning about the world. In that case, you might think of History, English, Journalism, or even Political Science as possible major options. After all, according to this criterion, there’s a good chance one of these fields is the right one for you. But here’s where the important part comes in. Besides reading and learning about the world, a History major, for example, involves a lot of writing and research. “Well, I like writing,” you might say, and that’s great! However, as you progress through your courses, you may become aware that history writing tends to lean more academic in style and is not the kind you had in mind when you first thought about it. In addition, you may find the research aspect of history is too overwhelming and perhaps a bit too tedious to your liking. In light of these new findings, you decide History isn’t the right major for you after all, and you decide to enroll in an English class.

As you attend this class, you learn very quickly that English doesn’t have much of an academic spin to it, or at least not in the same way History does, and you feel relieved. “English is going to be fun!” you tell yourself. After all, when we think of English, we think of all the great writers and the impact they made on the human condition—Shakespeare, Woolf, Twain, Hemingway, Didion, and Baldwin may come to mind. Nonetheless, as you take more English classes and begin working on various writing assignments, you may discover that your writing tendencies lean more nonfiction than fiction. This discovery catches you by surprise since you always thought fiction was your strong suit. Still, you decide the things you want to read and write about must involve an aspect of reality. You decide English, too, isn’t the right major for you, and you gear your energies next toward Journalism or Political Science.

Take note of your progress and keep going

Here’s the lesson to gain from these examples: Even though at first you might feel a sense of disappointment and perhaps even a bit frustration as you move through different majors without officially settling on one, in reality, you made invaluable progress. First, with just a handful of courses, you managed to eliminate two potential majors that you now know for certain are not for you. Second, you gleaned valuable lessons about yourself, both in terms of what you like and don’t like. In other words, you narrowed down the scope of available options, which therefore got you that much closer to the end goal.

Related: How to Choose a Major: With Your Head or Your Heart?

And that’s how it’s done! If you don’t want to settle on a college major you know isn’t the best fit for you, then you have to try different majors (within your general direction) because you don’t (and can’t) possibly know everything they involve before trying them. As you continue to repeat the steps outlined above, you’ll further narrow the scope of your options until you hit that soft spot where all your preferences, sacrifices, and the hard lessons you’ve learned come together to form your perfect major.

Conducting your major search and college search at the same time? Combine these tasks and save time by exploring our College Lists & Rankings by Major!

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