major Credit: Nerthuz | Shutterstock.comIt’s that magical time in your life!

You’ve been in college for a few semesters, had some fun times, and taken a handful of classes, but the days of being a wild and free undeclared major are over. Now it’s time for you to settle down with a nice degree you can start a career with. For some, this is a total walk in the park. These people know exactly what they want for their education and career, and they’re going to fill out their major-declaration form with such style, flair, and confidence that it’s almost awe-inspiring. For others, this is one of the most intense sources of dread, confusion, and utterly primal fear that it would give H. P. Lovecraft a run for his money. And for those of you who fall somewhere in between, you might have a fairly decent idea of what you want to do but aren’t quite sure how to make that commitment. This is for everyone in the latter two categories.

Regardless of how confident you are, choosing a major can feel like a life-or-death decision that’s going to impact your career for the entirety of your working life.

The way we think about majors is heavily influenced by these nightmarishly dominating external forces: media and job-market demands to select an “employable” major, not-so-subtle encouragement from teachers and counselors to follow through in subjects that you’ve excelled in but have no desire to pursue, and family expectations to carry on some professional legacy. You get all kinds of pressure from all kinds of places both before and after you declare your major, so it’s a lot to ask of yourself to completely alter your mentality and to do so with confidence. But I’m going to urge you to try because I can say firsthand that shifting your perspective on choosing a major will completely alter your college experience for the better.

So what does a major really mean?

If you ask any of the people mentioned in the above paragraph this question, they’d probably tell you, “You learn to do a thing in college, you get a job doing that thing, and then you do work related to that thing for 50-something years.” However, unless you know you want to pursue a career that requires a certain kind of education, like a doctor, this usually isn’t the case. So if the point of a major isn’t to get a job directly related to it, then what exactly is the point?

The point is to build a résumé, not to pick a career.

Different fields of study are going to cultivate and employ different skills, modes of thinking, and approaches to problem-solving. Selecting a major is about developing your weaknesses and playing to your strengths. This is what’s going to have an impact on your career, not what’s written on your diploma. It’s not just about what you majored in but how you majored in it. Someone who got a degree in electrical engineering by abiding by the “Cs-get-degrees” mantra and didn’t spend a single day of their college years getting any work experience is going to have a very different road ahead of them compared with someone who majored in history and interned with a museum, studied abroad, and worked for the local newspaper. Work ethic and application of skills are going to take you farther than a piece of paper. In fact, after your first postgraduation job, your education is going to get moved down on your résumé, usually going from second to second-to-last. Why? At that point, experience and skills are what employers are looking for because that is what tells employers about your ability to do the job. 

How to know what you want and what you don’t

Understanding those two things is key to getting a clearer picture of what you want to major in. But it’s definitely easier said than done. Sometimes, you’ll have an epiphany; other times, you’ll just have to just throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. But here are the two most important questions to ask yourself:

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you enjoy?

Those may seem like pretty basic questions on the surface, but if you’ve ever been asked, “What do you like to do?” in a casual conversation and been totally paralyzed by it, you know that they’re pretty tough. Knowing yourself can be hard! 

It’s also important to note that things you are good at do not always overlap with things you enjoy. You can have natural affinities for doing things but derive zero enjoyment out of doing them. 

And what do you do if you list out all the things you enjoy doing but can’t see a clear-cut connection to academics? Or the connections you do see aren’t appealing? For example, let’s say playing video games is your absolute favorite hobby, but you can’t think of anything you might major in besides something relating to computer science or software development, which you know don’t interest you. What do you do? 

  • Don’t just ask yourself what you enjoy; ask yourself why.

Instead of just drawing a line from “I like video games” to “I’ll be a game developer,” question yourself and your interests. Are there certain types of games you gravitate toward? What is it about them that draws you to them? Is it the social aspect? Art direction? Environments? Voice acting? Story? And what do you find attractive about those things? The reasons why we enjoy things can lead us down interesting and unexpected paths and uncover interests we weren’t aware of before. Question yourself, and let yourself fall down these kinds of rabbit holes. 

Making decisions 

Even if you have a somewhat clearer picture of what you’re good at and what you enjoy or vice versa, that alone isn’t sufficient to make it through the major-declaring process. You have to be able to effectively apply what you’ve learned about yourself and approach choosing a major in a way that’s going to both be fulfilling and enable you to graduate. Maybe you’re considering a few majors that you think you might enjoy, but you still aren’t totally sure what’s best for you. Here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t assign a “practicality hierarchy” to interests. If you like both art and psychology but you’re far more passionate about art, don’t devalue art because you think psychology is more “employable” or “practical.” Be honest about what it is you really want to learn and dedicate time and hard work to.
  • Don’t base your decision on what you think is going to get you a high-paying career. Those statistics you see about what majors end up getting paid paint a painfully incomplete picture. Those vague statistics regarding the median income of x major don’t account for a lot of things: what’s going on in the economy at large, the varying cost of living based on location, different companies’ starting pay, or how quickly people get promoted. While it may generally be true that certain jobs pay better than others, there are so many variables at play that your major cannot predict or guarantee your future income.
  • Look at sample degree plans. Get a sense of what the majors you are considering have to offer in terms of classes and whether the workload is proportional to your desire to pursue the major. This will also give you a timeline for the degree. Some programs require more classes, so you’ll need to start taking classes for it earlier. 
  • Test the waters early. Take the bulk of your general-education classes your first year. Beyond being a graduation requirement, these courses are a good sample platter of the different fields of study offered, and this is intentional. Exposure is the best way to know whether it’s right for you.
  • If multiple majors sound equally appealing, you can choose to double major, minor, double minor, triple minor, etc. Again, make sure you’re keeping track of the time and level of commitment doing so will require.  
  • Talk to people! Talk to your advisor first and foremost. They aren’t going to be able to tell you exactly what to do, but, as their title implies, they can give you advice. Even if you come to them and say, “I’m totally lost and have no idea what I’m doing,” they can at least ask you the right questions to point you in some sort of direction or tell you what other students who share your interests have done.

Proceed with confidence

At this point, you’ve asked yourself the right questions, talked to some people, figured a few things out, and declared a major that feels right for the time being. But maybe you still have some doubts. Maybe you’ve spent hours, days, or even weeks meticulously planning and settled on what you thought was perfect, but now that you’ve actually committed yourself to a major, you’re finding yourself pulled in a different direction. My advice to you is this: 

  • Plan to the best of your ability, but let yourself be surprised. Life is going to throw you curveballs. You could take three history classes one semester and one political science course just for fun, but that one course could be so enjoyable for you that you want to pursue that instead.
  • You can change your mind. In fact, it’s great if you do! That doesn’t mean you’re lost; it means you have a better sense of direction than you did previously. Again, knowing what you don’t want is just as valuable as knowing what you do want. And don’t feel guilty for not wanting something. There are always going to be moments when we thought we made the right decision, but then we gain a little experience, have some time to think, and come to a different conclusion. 

Or maybe you do know that the major you’ve selected is the right choice for you, but the doubts of other people are starting to get to you. Maybe your family, friends, or even total strangers are hitting you with that look and asking, “What are you going to do with that?” when you tell them what you’re majoring in. The answer I like to give (just kidding—I hate answering this question, but sometimes you have to) is, “I’m not sure yet, but whatever it is, I’ll be prepared for it.” Again, your major is not about what’s written on your diploma; it’s about building an arsenal of skills that can take you in any direction that will make you successful and happy on your own terms. And if you’re still struggling to dismantle the narrative of “this degree equals this career,” just look up any number of traditional or social-media celebrities, and you’ll find hundreds of people whose educational backgrounds are wildly different from their careers.

And if that still isn’t tangible enough for you, look at your school’s alumni page. You’re going to find real people who are employed in a wide variety of fields that, on the surface, might look like they have nothing to do with their majors. There is no one-size-fits-all college or career narrative, and there is no singular “best” or “most employable” major. To quote one of the most influential voices of our generation, Peter B. Parker from Into the Spiderverse, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”