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How to choose the right major for you

Whether you’re a high school senior or college sophomore, chances are you’ve considered which degree to pursue. Some people know what they want to do with their lives from the time they’re in elementary school, and good for those people. If you’re not one of them, check out this guide to choosing your major.

First of all, what’s a major? And what’s a minor?

A major is just a different name for the type of degree students specialize in. It’ll be on your diploma, dictate which kinds of classes you take, and what kind of jobs you’ll get (mostly). Some degrees are more specialized than others, but they all require some basic courses to ensure students get a well-rounded education.

A minor is a little different because you can’t have a minor without a major but you can have a major without a minor. If you choose to pursue a minor, it doesn’t have to be related to your area of study. You can major in nursing and minor in music if you’re just that passionate about music. Students who plan to pursue a career in the medical field or in legal studies can minor in pre-med or pre-law, for example. Minors can be just for fun or help you prepare for graduate studies or your intended career.

When do I have to decide on a major?

If you’re an I’ve-known-since-elementary-school person, you can decide before coming to school. It’s as easy as writing it on your chosen universities’ applications. It’s generally easier if you decide early because you know which classes you need to take going into your freshman year and won’t risk taking classes you won’t end up needing in your degree once you do choose. However, it’s better to start taking basic (non-major-related) classes and decide after a semester or two than to pick a degree you aren’t happy with. This even gives you a chance to try out some courses and see what piques your interest. Most schools will let you stay undeclared until the end of your sophomore year, so you have some time if you haven’t decided.

How do I choose?

This is a really big step, so make sure you’ve thought through everything. You’ll need to consider a few things:

1. What do I like to do?

There’s more to this question than “What do you do in your free time?” Take some personality tests, try to figure out how your brain works, and decide how you would like to spend your days after college. For example, consider if you like formulaic puzzles, connecting with people, or creating art.

After high school, you’ll probably have a feeling that you shine in one type of area more than another. Did you find dissecting animals in anatomy fascinating or revolting? Was sitting through poetry analysis tortuous or riveting? Are you the kind of person who really got trigonometry or preferred learning about past presidents’ impact on the economy? Figure out what subjects in school or activities outside of school you’d like to pursue:

  • List what you enjoy. If you like acting and going to the movies, consider a B.F.A. in Acting with an option to pursue an M.F.A. in Screen Acting. If you've always wanted to open your own business, entrepreneurship might be a good fit. If you like learning about other cultures and asking tough questions, look at majoring (or minoring) in religion or philosophy. There’s something for everyone. It’s just a matter of finding your thing.
  • Figure out your strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. Capitalize on your strengths; your lifetime of playing video games might make you the perfect game designer and animator or esports manager. And if you nearly pass out while talking to a large group, maybe choose a path that doesn’t require public speaking. Alternatively, you can use the classroom to work on skills like public speaking and turn them into opportunities. Now’s the time for exploration!
  • Use your resources. If you took the PSAT, SAT, AP tests, or other career predictive exams, you should have some idea of what your aptitudes show. CollegeBoard has a Roadmap to Careers at your disposal that can be quite helpful if you’re not sure where you’re headed. However, you’re not obligated to pursue only the careers listed on your standardized test results; it’s hard to convey your passion for a subject on a piece of paper. They’re helpful tools, but you’re in control of your career.

2. What do I want to do with my career?

After you know what you’re interested in and potential career options, the next move is deciding what you want to gain from your career. Consider things like how much time you’d spend traveling away from home and how easy or difficult it might be to find a job with your potential degree.

If you know what you want to do, it’s just a matter of finding the right degree program to support your intended career. If not, you can pick a less-specific major that will prepare you for a career in a broad field of options. It’s helpful to know ahead of time what degree you’ll need for the field that interests you:

  • Associate Degree This type of degree typically takes two years to achieve. Some students who earn this degree transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program; others use it to go straight to work. Community colleges, career technology centers, and some four-year colleges offer associate degrees.
  • Bachelor’s Degree This degree requires completing a four- or five-year college program. Most students earn a bachelor of arts (B.A.) or bachelor of science degree (B.S.). You can also study toward a bachelor of fine arts, bachelor of nursing, or bachelor of music at OCU.
  • Joint Degree Students can earn a bachelor’s degree plus a graduate or professional degree in less time if they combine them. A student on this track may apply to a graduate program as an undergraduate and begin the graduate program in their fourth year of college. For example, OCU offers a pre-seminary track that allows students to complete a B.A. and M.Div. in just six years and a philosophy, political science, and economics (PPE) degree that fast-tracks students toward a JD in the OCU School of Law. We've also partnered with Washington University in St. Louis to offer a "3+2" pre-engineering program. This type of degree can be helpful for you if you know what you want to do and can get you there more quickly.
  • Graduate Degree Graduate degrees are advanced degrees pursued after earning a bachelor’s degree. Students generally earn a master’s degree after two years of study, but each program is different.

3. Is there someone I can talk to?

By the way, the short answer to this one is “yes!” Each university has several advisors to help you decide what to study and how to succeed once you have. If you haven’t decided on a school yet, don’t worry; you also have a school counselor who can help. High school counselors are trained to help students who are considering the same stuff you are. Here are some questions to ask your counselor or advisor:

  • Are there any college or career fairs coming up?
  • What are the requirements I should be aware of for getting admitted to my wishlist schools?
  • What should I major in if [insert job] is what I see myself doing in the future?
  • I’m thinking of majoring in [insert field]. Is that the best path for the job I want?

Use your resources. (That’s right; this is so important it’s on here twice.) Reach out to professionals working in your potential field to see if it’s a good fit and how they got there. They can tell you how they got from where you are to where they are now. Family members, teachers, and professional acquaintances can all be helpful resources. They might even let you in on things they learned along the way through trial and error, which lets you learn from their mistakes. Just be prepared with a set of questions!

4. Is there anything I’d like to do as a backup?

Once you have a major in mind, consider choosing a backup in case you decide to switch your major later. If the one you chose isn’t a great fit, you can change to a different program that might be better for you. It might mean staying in school a semester or two longer, but it’s still better than feeling stuck. Studies find that most students change majors at least once and many students switch several times. If you decide to change your major, talk to your advisor to make sure you’re aware of all the changes you’ll need to make to your degree plan.

You can also take on a double major, studying two areas instead of just one. Some are easier to double up on, such as a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Psychology, but some will require more time spent in school. If you wanted to double major in business administration and computer science, for example, you’ll be working toward two different types of degrees that don’t overlap as easily. As with most things, it can be done with patience and determination!

What if I still can’t decide?

It’s okay to come to school with an undecided major. You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life the minute you switch your tassel over at graduation. Basic courses give you the opportunity to explore what you think you enjoy or even topics you’ve never considered.

Find an internship or volunteer in a career field you’re considering. Shadow days are a great way to see the day-to-day experience of someone in the field, and internships let you do the work to test out your interests. These hands-on options give you a more realistic idea of what it would look like to be a professional in your potential career.

It’s also important to consider logistics: Do I intend to go to graduate school? How difficult is it to get into this field with this degree? Will I make enough money in this field to support my anticipated lifestyle? (Tip: Many career paths have projected growth timelines and incomes reported by reliable resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Take a deep breath.

Lots of people dislike their jobs, but you don’t have to be one of them. Taking the time to choose the right major for you is the first step to finding a career you love. Rest assured that there are resources for you at every step of the way, whether you’re still in high school or going back to school after deciding on a career change.

If you’re ready to start pursuing your degree, we can help. Learn more on our website or request more information about OCU’s degree programs.

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