Why You Need a College Major

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: February 13, 2021

Table of Contents

Last week, a mom emailed me asking if it was okay that her son does not know what he wants to study in college. She shared her experience visiting a college campus where a tour guide asked each student in the group to say their name and what they planned to major in. She wrote:

Kids spoke of studying biostatistics, history, forensics, and other subjects I have never heard of. When it was Sammy’s turn, he shrugged and said Dothraki (not sure if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, but this is not a real language…). The whole group laughed. I was so embarrassed. What should I do?”

I assured the mom it’s OK that Sammy, who at the time was a junior, has not decided a major. More than 50% of high school students go to college undecided. However, college admissions officers, especially ones at liberal arts schools are shifting away from their previous thought that students should come into their first year with no idea of what to study. After all, students can benefit tremendously from spending time during the early grades of high school exploring fields they are passionate about.

Continue reading below to learn four reasons why you should identify potential college majors. Also, be sure to scroll down to download this week’s freemium college admissions tool, The Student Career Planner.

#1: Strengthen your application

Demonstrate that you have explored various career fields. You do this by taking a breadth of classes offered by your high school, as discussed in How to Choose HS Classes, and extracurricular activities that align with potential career goals. Also, seek out internship opportunities to get a professional mentor. A mentor will provide guidance and insight into what it means to work in your career field. A mentor can also write you a recommendation letter and help you choose HS classes. All of this will show college admissions officers that you are ready for college.

Three years ago, a student of mine named Christina was interested in a fashion career. According to her resume, she’d taken classes in fashion design and merchandising and worked part-time at American Eagle Outfitters. She had also traveled abroad to Paris and managed a Poshmark boutique of used clothing. She applied to schools as a fashion major, including Fashion Institute of Technology, Boston University, and the University of Florida, all of which accepted her. While I can never be sure about the exact reasons for admission, I have a hunch that her fashion-themed application, which was well supported by her resume, essays, and recommendations, made it clear that she was a promising fashion student.

3 students laughing and studying

#2: Be in a less competitive admissions pool

You may be in a less competitive admissions pool if you choose a major this is in high demand by the labor market. Fields such as nursing, engineering, and computer science do not have enough students graduating from these majors to fill American jobs. Colleges’ inherent goal is to supply employers with a trained and knowledgeable workforce. So if you choose a high-demand major, you may have an advantage.

Also, the school you are applying to matters regarding the major you choose. The University of Michigan and Purdue University, for example, get their fair share of engineering applicants. However, a school like the University of Delaware may need more engineering students because they already have plenty of humanities students. In this case, if you apply to Delaware as an engineering student, you may be placed into a lesser competitive pool.

It’s good to ask your area admissions officer what types of majors they need in the next incoming class. If your desired major is mentioned, you have crucial insight into higher admissions chances.

Just a word of caution–if you do declare an intended major, your grades in the courses related to the major and extracurricular activities should support their aptitude for achievement. I had another student who selected engineering as his potential major, yet he had a B+ average in his science and math courses. In his application to the University of Florida, I convinced him not to mention his intention to major in engineering since it could potentially decrease his chances. He was accepted.

#3: Empower your college choices

Choosing a major can help you focus on the list of colleges to consider. For example, let’s assume that you want to pursue a psychology degree. Then as you conduct your research, you’d make sure that the colleges on your list offer this as a major.

At the same time, I’d encourage you to identify other potential majors (at least 3) and look for schools that provide all of these majors. This way, you won’t feel locked at the school because they only offer the one major you decided. Research shows that 75% of college students change their major at least once.

My fashion student Christina was also interested in journalism and business. If fashion did not work out, she could study either major at the University of Florida or Boston University (where she recently graduated from). She did not attend the Fashion Institute of Technology because it does not offer general journalism or business programs. Having the flexibility to select another major if the first option doesn’t work out or you change your mind is important because of the next point.

#4: Save time and money

Finally, you can save yourself time and money by taking classes that will count towards major requirements once a field of study is declared. Many colleges, especially liberal arts colleges, have core requirements spanning one to two years. When added to major course requirements, those courses limit the number of classes that can be taken as electives. So many students graduate in four and a half, five, or even six years because they took courses in one major but jumped ship to another major mid-way through. Usually, you’re only eligible for eight semesters. Extra time in undergraduate can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $60,000 more per year, depending on the school. Therefore, adding costs to an already costly investment can be prevented by encouraging your student to explore careers in high school.

Conclusion + Next Steps

Now that you know why it’s important to decide potential majors, here are some college prep action steps to work on this week:

  • Visit Education Planner, an interactive online tool to research careers. With Education Planner, you can zone in on 2-3 potential careers based on their interests. 
  • Download the Student Career Planner, a one-page chart to help you brainstorm and map out selected career fields to college majors and the courses and extracurricular activities you can participate in during high school to further explore careers and prepare for college.
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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.