A college major is a subject area that students can specialize in and build job skills.
HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES are often faced with two significant decisions that will shape their futures: which college to attend and what to study.
Similar to the vast number of colleges, options for a major are numerous and wide-ranging. The decision on what to study can have a lasting effect, shaping future work experiences, earnings and other choices connected to a profession. Because of the importance of the decision, some advisers urge students to pursue their passions.
“You have to enjoy what you’re majoring in. That is key,” says Erin Moriarty, dean of undergraduate admission at Loyola University Chicago.
Typically a bachelor’s degree requires four years of full-time study, with a portion of that coursework dedicated to the student’s chosen major. The number of credit hours required for a major in college can vary depending on the program. Students may also choose to double major in college, studying two disciplines simultaneously, which requires coursework for both.
Work on the college major can be spread across the four years if a student chooses his or her field early on, or it can be concentrated in the junior and senior years, experts say. According to admissions officials, either way is fine for most programs.
Moriarty says some academic programs may require coursework in the first year, citing education, nursing and engineering as examples of majors requiring instruction from the start.
It’s important for students to decide on a major by the end of their sophomore year, notes Brian Troyer, dean of undergraduate admissions at Marquette University in Wisconsin, because “the upper division coursework within a particular major is going to be pretty heavy during junior and senior year.”
The most popular college majors, based on National Center for Education Statistics data on degrees conferred in 2014-15, were “in the fields of business (364,000), health professions and related programs (216,000), social sciences and history (167,000), psychology (118,000), biological and biomedical sciences (110,000), engineering (98,000), visual and performing arts (96,000), and education (92,000).
College majors can be conventional, such as business, or off the beaten path. California State University—Fresno, for example, offers majors in viticulture and enology through its agriculture program, where students learn about grape cultivation, wine production and the industry.
In a region ripe for wine production, graduates work in vineyards cultivating grapevines, working in pest control or making wine, says Sonet Van Zyl, associate professor of viticulture at Fresno State.
“There are more job opportunities than there are people available,” Van Zyl says.
That shortage of workers sounds familiar to Tom Cortina, assistant dean for undergraduate education and teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.
“We, meaning academia, are not actually graduating enough computer scientists to fill all of the positions out there that are computing related. That’s how in demand (computer scientists) are,” Cortina says.
He adds that interest in the computer science major has spiked in the last decade. But even with an increase in the number of graduates, he says it isn’t enough to keep up with a booming industry. Cortina believes the need for workers in computer science will continue to grow. As it does, schools will need to produce more graduates to keep up with the already high demand.
Another field experts expect to grow is unmanned aerial systems, often referred to as drones.
“We’re coming up with new ways to use unmanned aircraft systems in everyday life all the time,” says Paul Snyder, assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota. Snyder says uses for drones include agriculture, real estate, medicine, security and more.
Another in-demand major at the University of North Dakota is petroleum engineering, which fetches the highest median earnings among college majors, coming in at $136,000 annually, according to research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“Our graduates make a good amount starting out and move up quickly to make more,” says Bailey Bubach, a petroleum engineering instructor at UND.
While petroleum engineering comes in as the highest-paying major, social work is an example of a career track on the lower end of the scale. Georgetown research shows that entry-level psychology and social work graduates earn a median annual income of $28,000.
However, social work advocates say the field isn’t about the money. “It’s really hard work, but it’s incredibly satisfying. You get to help individuals and communities turn their lives around,” says Anna Scheyett, professor and dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia, adding that the “rich and meaningful” career trumps money. Declare Major on College Applications Three current college students share insights on this necessary application decision.Caroline Duda July 3, 2017
Like her peers in other fields, she sees her industry as one that will continue to grow. “I wish I could say that we are going to become obsolete because social problems are going to go away, but I think we’re a growth profession,” Scheyett says.
To help students narrow down their college major options, some schools offer online quizzes. Loyola University Chicago has a 35 question online quiz to help students learn more about potential majors. Moriarty says it’s built around common questions admissions officers hear from applicants, and students can match with more than 50 different majors.
“The goal of (the quiz) isn’t to say that this should be your direct path, but to provide options based on someone’s interests, to get someone to think outside of the box and understand what majors are really out there,” Moriarty says.
Marquette offers a similar quiz, but instead of suggesting individual majors, it groups students into categories such as communicator, entrepreneur, helper, problem-solver and thinker. When a student completes the college major quiz, suggested disciplines are matched to their results.
Troyer says offering this range helps students think about what’s out there. “Framing it in this way helps them think a little more outside the label of a particular major that a university may have or not have and makes them think about who they want to become,” he says.
While admissions experts say it isn’t necessary for students to know their college majors until the end of their sophomore year, there are advantages to deciding early. Troyer says students can research programs in their majors to help them choose a college, which also allows them to take high school classes that will complement their future studies.
[Read: Find the Best College for Your Major.]
While selecting a college major is an important choice, admissions officials say students shouldn’t feel locked into a major they don’t enjoy or struggle with. Students who wish to change career tracks can do so in college, shifting into another major that better suits them.
Moriarty urges students to discuss the decision with their advisers as soon as they can.
“You need to have those conversations with your academic adviser,” Moriarty says. “A lot of times, if you change early enough it doesn’t affect your four-year plan. It depends on what you’re changing to and what you’ve taken, and that’s where academic advisers are so crucial.”
And for prospective students feeling the pressure to choose a major early, Moriarty says they shouldn’t worry about their choice being factored into admissions decisions.
“For us, it doesn’t hinder their application or chance for acceptance,” Moriarty says.
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Josh Moody, Reporter
Josh Moody has covered college admissions and international education for U.S. News since … READ MORE