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How to Choose Your University Major

Deciding to attend a US university is a big enough step as it is, let alone thinking about an area of study. Here's how to make this major decision.

Many international students dream of attending US universities because of the system’s academic flexibility. But it still surprises some to learn that it’s completely okay to come to campus intending to major in Computer Science but leaving with a degree in Nursing. It’s not even a problem to arrive undecided!

Choosing a major area of study can be compared to shopping—you might have to figure out what you don’t want before figuring out what you do want. You can “try on” Computer Science, and if it doesn’t fit, you can put it back on the shelf and try something else.

Provided your higher education isn’t sponsored by your government—in which case, decisions are likely made for you—you will still want to give potential academic paths some deep thought. Here’s what to ask yourself and others, along with some perspective on when and how to explore majors and make your final decision when the time comes.

Match your interests and goals to programs and outcomes

Career interests play an important role in selecting a program of study for many students. And if you don’t yet know what fields are the best match for your talents and heart, there’s no shortage of aptitude tests to offer ideas.

But there are often many paths to the same career goal. At a liberal arts school, core requirements involve a lot of writing and oral communication in classes such as psychology and philosophy. The heaviest load of courses—especially as an upperclassman—may be in your major, but sampling from other buckets helps ensure you have a broad knowledge and many different perspectives.

Online research can bring you to specific universities and programs. The international admission pages of university websites often focus on the complex application process—with individual institutions having their own requirements—but be sure to browse the academic program pages as well. Just keep in mind that your cultural experiences and English-language level may mean needing to clarify your understanding of online content with the school.

Related: How to Discover (and Pursue) Your Passion

Questions to ask 

When considering a particular program that is designed to help you achieve your goals, ask each school or department questions such as:

  • What classes will I take?
  • What kinds of projects will I complete?
  • What type of internships can I pursue?

Since student outcomes vary significantly, you should ask some tougher, related questions in addition to doing your own research.

  • How is this program ranked within the industry and/or region?
  • Will my degree be accepted by the profession in my home country?
  • What kind of return on investment can I expect with this program?
  • What role will extracurricular activity choices play on my future résumé and in job interviews?
  • Is the program STEM approved?*

* That last question is one I’ve found international students are often keen on asking. After all, it has a direct impact on your ability to stay in the United States when you are done with your degree. Science-, technology-, engineering-, or math-related programs, if approved as such, allow graduates to stay in the US up to 36 months after graduation. Otherwise, your visa times out at 12 months. 

Related: Top Questions to Ask College Admission Counselors

On-campus support

Some on-campus resources can be tapped from afar, but it’s key to develop supportive relationships in your department and with as many knowledgeable people as possible once you get to campus. You don’t need to follow every piece of advice they give you, but try to vocalize your concerns, goals, doubts, and hopes. If you’re launching your university career “undecided” (starting classes without declaring an intended area of study), this outreach will help you come to a decision on a major (or at least help get you started). If you’re entering school with a particular major selected, continuing to consult these experts will help in gaining confidence about your choice.

Not sure where to start? The international admission office can share what supports are available to help you decide on a major, plus how to succeed at university and beyond. Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help; resources are only successful if they are used. Contrary to what some students may believe, you’re not alone. Many administrators and staff at your university will be ready and willing to assist.

Be prepared to be honest about your needs and understanding of how cultural nuances may impact your conversations. You may come from classroom environments where students are expected to respectfully listen to teachers and not engage in discussion, while American students are accustomed to participating in discussions and are sometimes encouraged to debate with teachers. If your water pipes burst, you call a plumber. It’s similar on university campuses—you find that person whose job it is to help fix whatever your issue is and discuss your needs with them.

There are several areas outside of admission that students can turn to for advice on academic program choices:

Career services office

Career planning and placement takes time, yet students often wait until they’re close to graduation to begin this process. You should actually start visiting this office your very first year.

English-language learning center

As you’re sharpening your English skills, this center may also be able to target specific areas of academic interest.

Academic advisors

The advisor you’re assigned (or seek out) is the go-to expert on course requirements and pathways to your degree, so how to achieve your goals is a natural discussion in advising meetings.

Student success center

Many campuses have offices dedicated to all aspects of ensuring students do well, offering coaches trained to help students explore their options—especially in cases where their first pick for a major appears to have been the wrong one. For example, maybe you came in firm in your decision to pursue Nursing, but you’re finding those biology courses to be more challenging than expected.

Faculty in your academic school or a school of interest

Having good relationships with faculty is the golden ticket to university success. And contrary to what you might think, popping in on a professor during office hours is not only acceptable but expected. As professors get to know you, they may pose ideas for a suitable (or more suitable) major or career you may never have thought of.

Other students

Many US universities have special programs that pair current American students with an international peer. While campus culture assimilation is typically the main goal, peer mentors can also help with academic decisions. While program content presented online is more of a sales pitch, speaking with an actual “customer” can walk you through what you won’t see online. If your school doesn’t have a formal mentor program, ask an international student officer if there’s someone you could be partnered with. 

Related: The Best On-Campus Resources for International Students

Navigating family expectations

Many international students who arrive with a chosen major weren’t actually the ones who chose it. That can make the notion of changing to something else seem intimidating or even impossible.

Consider a student who expressed strong excitement over Fashion Design, but whose parents told her to pursue a Math degree. She tried to persuade her parents but to no avail. Still, in explaining that math just felt too difficult for her, her parents were open to a switch to a different area of study in which she had expressed some interest: Human Resources.

While such conversations with family may not result in your top choice of major, there may well be a middle ground discovered in the negotiation. That process can help you find and articulate that spark of excitement to help in your career search.

Related: Staying Connected to Your Home Country and Family

You came here from another country, got exposure to the possibilities, and settled on a major to help you reach your goals. That’s the storyline your choices are building—a story that is all your own.

Already know what you’d like to major in? Use our College Search tool to find schools with programs of interest!

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