How to Choose a Major in 2021 - Tips, Tactics, and Examples
If you landed on this article, chances are you’re about to make one of the most major decisions (pun intended) in your career life so far.
You’re also probably feeling overwhelmed by all the options out there and asking yourself “How do I make the right decision?”.
Well, you could do all the research in the world and still get to one conclusion:
There is no single formula for choosing a major.
It’s too much of a complex decision to be put in a line or two, no matter what way you approach it.
That’s why we decided to create this guide. We’re going to teach you some tips and tricks that can make decision-making easier for you.
More specifically, we’ll help you decide your major by going over:
- The importance of your major choice
- 6 Questions to ask yourself before choosing a major
- What are your priorities and expectations?
- 6 decisions you can make if you are still undecided about your major
Let’s get to it!
Just How Important Is Your Major Choice?
Your major is your focused area of study and although it isn’t a final determinant in your career or life, it does have a big impact on where you’re going, and especially how much you’re getting paid.
The difference between a high school and a B.A. graduate's wage is something around $1 million over a lifetime.
On the other hand, the difference between the highest and lowest-paying majors is $3.4 million.
What this means is that if money is the primary motivator for you, your major is going to play a very large part in your future salary.
However, your major doesn’t have to revolve around money, and your career doesn’t have to revolve around a major.
A major doesn’t bind you to a job title for life, especially nowadays when career changes happen all too often. According to a study from 2013, only 27.3% of college graduates were working in a job related to their major.
So what we’re getting at here is, while your major is important, it’s not end-all-be-all for your life (so you can relax a bit!).
6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Major
#1 What Are/Aren’t Your Strengths?
One of the most straightforward ways to pick is a major is to base it on your strengths.
For example, if you find yourself very good with numbers, you might want to look at major options like accounting, economics, engineering, statistics, etc.
This will allow you to excel at your major, make your time in your university easier, and make it more likely that you’ll pursue the major as a career successfully.
Another way you can go at this is by thinking of the things you’re NOT good at or don’t like doing. If numbers are not your forte, then you’ll probably want to cross out any major that strongly revolves around math or physics.
#2 What Do You Enjoy Doing?
Being good at something doesn’t necessarily equate to liking it.
Choosing a major that’s going to direct you to a job you don’t like doing… well, the chances of you being unhappy in the future are pretty high.
On the contrary, you’re much more likely to be happy and engaged in a major/job that revolves around a subject or activity you enjoy doing - something you are passionate about.
You’ll probably be more determined and focused, have a better college experience, and build solid relationships with others in your field who share your interests.
Your passions should pay a considerable role in your major decision, but you should be careful in distinguishing them from your “likings”.
Liking something and being passionate about it are two different things.
Our likings change over time. There’s a big chance that what you like in high school won’t be the same as what you like in college, or even 6 months later that same year.
Your passions, however, are something deeper. They motivate and excite you.
Liking political science isn’t enough to push you towards law school.
Being passionate about justice and doing the right thing is.
#3 What Values Do You Stand For?
What we mean by values is your core beliefs - something you stand for. A mission or an end goal.
Your values are decisive in the way you live your life and the way you measure success, so they should with no doubt influence your major decision.
If, for example, your goal is to help orphan children find better homes, you should consider a major that contributes and directs you towards that mission, like a major in social work.
If you want to participate in the making of better environmental policies, you could consider environmental law.
However, the thing with values and beliefs is that they usually form later in life so not everybody has them figured out when it’s time to decide for a major.
#4 Where Do You See Yourself in the Future?
You probably cringed hard when reading that question.
It’s okay, nobody likes being asked that, especially when they’re trying to figure it out for themselves.
However, as unpleasant as it is, this is something you have to think about when deciding on a major.
Do you see yourself working in a specific field in the future?
Or if you already have a major in mind, do you see yourself committing to it long-term, or do you think you might change your careers at some point?
There is no way to answer these questions with 100% certainty, but you should still give them a thought.
#5 How Much Do You Want to Get Paid?
As beautiful as it would be for everybody to just do what they love and get paid well for it, the world doesn’t run that way. Not every job/industry pays the same, and that’s something you should consider.
This doesn’t mean you should pick the major that promises the highest-paying job. Rather, when weighing your options, know what you should expect money-wise from each major.
What’s the minimum starting wage? What’s the average wage? Is this major in demand, or is it expected to be? Are wages expected to increase or decrease?
There are industries that offer good pay only in some limited positions at the top. That means you should work long and hard to get there. Others have a pretty good average salary that can support you well after only a few years of experience (or even right away).
For example, salaries for social workers vary from $33k to $68k. The higher end of this range doesn’t sound bad at all, but only 10% of social workers have that salary. That means if you’re considering a major in social work, but you also care about a good and secure wage, you should be prepared to work long and hard to make it to that 10%.
Meanwhile, if you work as a tax analyst, you can make $45k from the get-go.
#6 What Universities Are on Your Radar?
It might come as no surprise, but not all universities offer the same quality for every major program.
Some universities are research-oriented and have better programs for majors in fields like engineering, robotics, biology, chemistry, etc. Others are known for their good business programs.
There are several reasons why that matters when it comes to picking a major.
Firstly, attending a university that is ranked high for the major you have chosen gives you better chances of finding employment after graduation.
Secondly, you will probably be taught by excellent professors and enjoy your learning experience much more.
You are also likely to build a large, strong network of like-minded people, which is very important in today’s time.
If you have a few major options in mind, research the universities that offer well-ranked programs and weigh your options.
Or, if you are already set on attending a specific university, but haven’t decided on a major yet, ask about the majors/fields the university is most known for and maybe you can add them to your list of options.
Decide on Your Priorities
University does not represent the same thing to everybody.
Some people view it as an opportunity to learn more about a subject that interests and excites them.
Others (most people) are more focused on the financial aspect of it. They want to study hard, get a good degree and then be rewarded with a good paycheck. And that’s normal.
After all, the university is somewhat of an investment and a very expensive one at that. So, it makes sense that a lot of people would base their major decision on potential earnings.
Having a clear idea of your priorities and what you expect to get out of these years of studying is a determinant factor for your major decision.
In this section, we’ll cover all you need to know about the 2 primary motivators for picking your major:
- Salary as a motivator.
- Passion as a motivator.
#1. Salary as a Motivator
If you’re trying to get the best return out of your education investment, you will probably begin your search by looking for the majors/fields with the highest salaries.
As of 2020, the following data has been recorded by the US Census Bureau:
Science or engineering graduates figured to earn a higher annual income.
More specifically in terms of majors, health and medical preparatory majors were at the top of the list with an average annual total income of $165,400.
The second on the list are petroleum engineering majors with an average annual total income of $156,089.
Third, which might come surprising to many, we have zoology majors with a $141,800 average annual total income.
Out of the 20 top-paying majors, 17 are in science, engineering, medical fields, so that gives you a pretty specific idea on where to focus if you’re aiming for that good paycheck.
The following table shows you these 20 majors and their respective average annual total income as of 2020:
Choosing a major simply because it’ll make you more money is nothing unusual nowadays. However, you should still weigh this decision very well before making it final.
Don’t base your choices solely on today’s market and salaries. What pays well today might not pay the same tomorrow, so you need to make an analysis of the future as well. Or, to put it in simpler words, try to predict it.
And lastly… make sure you REALLY want this.
What happens if you pick a major in engineering, take a loan to pay for school thinking that you will pay it back with your awesome salary, and then… two years into the university you drop it because it’s something you don’t enjoy doing? That’s not an uncommon scenario, unfortunately, and usually results in a lot of monetary losses.
The lesson here is that sometimes, choosing based on salary can backfire. So, don’t rush your decision.
#2. Passion as a Motivator
If salary is not your priority and you want to choose a major you are passionate about, something you should add to the equation is employment (or unemployment) rates.
Matter of fact, even if salary IS your priority, you should still look into these rates. A well-paying job does not guarantee stability.
You should know what to expect from the job market you are heading into.
As of July 2020, medical technicians had the lowest major unemployment rate at just 1.1%.
Right after them, we have majors in early childhood education (1.4%), theology and religion (1.5%), civil engineering (1.5%), and secondary, elementary, and general education at 1.7%.
Can you guess which major had the highest unemployment rate out of the ones surveyed?
We’ll give you a second to guess…
It’s physics. Surprising, right?
Physics majors had an unemployment rate of 7.7% this year. Even more than mass media majors, who were at 7.3%.
This goes to show how you might struggle to find a job even with the toughest and top-paying majors.
Again, like with salary, you need to have a little perspective and try to predict the majors whose demand will increase.
Jobs in healthcare, community services, and STEM are expected to grow the fastest in the future.
Still not sure which major to pick? Here are some other things you can do to help decide:
#1. Create Your Own Major
A lot of universities will allow you to design your own major according to your career goals, preferences, and personality.
This is an interesting option to consider if none of the standard majors seem to attract you.
However, it requires a lot of effort on your side, as well as a lot of close work with faculty members, as you will have to construct a customized program and curriculum.
#2. Choose a Broad Major
If you have a general idea of a field you want to study, it’s a good tip to choose a major that covers as much of it as possible.
Unless you’re very very determined on studying a specific, narrow part of that field, it’s best to give yourself a broader horizon.
For a bachelor’s degree, choosing a broad major means you can be flexible to work in different areas of that field. For example, if you know you like biology, but don’t have a specific interest, it’s best to stick with a major in biology instead of one in molecular biology or genetics.
You can always get a more focused qualification later on when you have a better idea of what you want to do.
#3. Consider a Minor
If you can’t make up your mind on which major to choose, you can declare one of them as a minor. Even though this means you’ll be concentrating on one of them more, you will still have the opportunity to study both.
The majors don’t necessarily have to be related. For example, you can choose a good-paying major like economics and do a minor in something you are passionate about, like fine arts.
#4. Give Yourself More Time
The usual practice is to declare your major in your sophomore year. However, you can take longer, explore some more courses, and discover what you like and what you’re good at.
This might mean you’ll take longer to graduate, but it is much more worth it than rushing your decision. Take a semester or two to explore all the options your university offers, consult with your advisor, and be sure about your choice.
#5. Take a Personality Test
A lot of employers use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test to determine if an applicant is a right fit for a job.
Similarly, you can use it to help yourself with your major decision. We wouldn’t recommend basing your decision on the test results, but they can certainly help you get an idea of what areas would align with your personality.
You need to pay in order to take the MBTI test, but here’s a free alternative that you can try instead.
#6. Ask For Help
Your major is certainly your decision to make. After all, you will be the one studying and working on it. However, second opinions never hurt, especially from people who have already passed this phase. You can meet and consult with your:
- College Advisor
Remember to take their suggestions, but don’t let yourself get too influenced by them.
Deciding what you should major in is far from easy, but honestly, there is no right or wrong choice.
This decision is about finding what is most suitable to you and your priorities, and to discover that you need to evaluate:
- Your strengths and weaknesses
- Your interests and passions
- Your core beliefs and expectations for the future
- Whether you prioritize salary, employment rate, or enjoyment