I declared my major almost immediately upon entering college. I was a writer in high school—I tried everything from reporting for the newspaper to writing overly flowery essays to scribbling really bad poetry. I figured I’d do something with that passion, so I almost blindly committed to majoring in communication. Once I started taking classes, I wasn’t so sure. Some of the subject material bored me to tears, some of it I found too hard, and, perhaps worst of all, some I thought just wasn’t useful. I was second-guessing my major through most of my freshman and sophomore years.
I wasn’t the only one questioning my choice—and neither are you. About one-third of college students reported changing majors during their first three years pursuing a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 9% of these students changed more than once. And there’s some evidence that waiting a little longer to pick your course of study might actually be better for your academic career. According to a study by EAB, students who settle on their major between their second and eighth semesters have an 83% graduation rate, which is slightly higher than those who pick their major in their first semester (a 79% graduation rate).
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In the end, I stuck it out and found my niche. I ended up minoring in music, playing my saxophone in a couple of jazz bands, working as an editor for the campus newspaper, and spending lots of time running on the beach. I found a balance that helped me power through and that ultimately convinced me I had indeed picked the right major. But it wasn’t always easy to feel certain.
To help you make a more well-informed decision, we asked Rob Franek, editor in chief at The Princeton Review, for his insights on the subject. Franek and his team surveyed 137,000 students about their college experiences in compiling the annual Best Colleges list, so he’s compiled a ton of input to help students answer this very question: Is this the right major for me? We’re not here to answer that for you—this is your journey, and it’s a highly personal one. But if you’re one of those students looking in the mirror or looking for guidance, here are six questions to ask yourself.
1. Did I choose this major … or did I feel obligated to choose it?
This goes a lot deeper than your mom drilling into your head that you’ll one day be a successful lawyer. Ask yourself when you first decided what your major would be. Was it because you enjoyed history classes in high school and figured you’d see that through? Was it when you were filling out an information card while looking at colleges? Was it literally when you were asked to check a box on your applications?
If it was any of the above, here’s a simple explanation of why you might be reconsidering: You’re not that person anymore! You’re rubbing elbows with hundreds—even thousands—of new people and confronting countless new opportunities. So, you’ve now got access to many more choices.
“We as humans may feel pressure early on to decide what we want to do with the rest of our lives,” says Franek. “The goal of going to college is to follow courses of study you’re interested in, but likely things you’ve never been able to take in the same way a university environment can supply. And that’s a glorious thing. [College is] where you don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
In other words, that nagging voice in your head might actually be telling you that your instincts are right on: Maybe you are gravitating toward new interests.
2. Are a handful of rough classes making me second-guess my choice?
Here’s a hard truth that you’ve probably already realized: Not every course you take is going to be a home run. You may hate some of the subject matter. You might be bored out of your skull during lectures. Worse, you might be so challenged by the class that it makes you question whether you’re cut out for your major. “Maybe this isn’t for me after all,” you think.
This is totally normal, according to Franek. But it isn’t necessarily a sign you’re on the wrong track. Try to focus instead on the skills and knowledge the courses are teaching you. Will they help you be better at a job some day? Will they make you more attractive to a potential employer?
It’s hard to take a step back sometimes, but often you’ll be hit with the revelation that your “dull” class is helping you. Maybe it’s making you a better writer or communicator, or it’s sharpening your ability to present in front of people, or it’s helping you become a more critical thinker. Or, perhaps most important, it’s teaching you how to feign interest in something even if you’re not completely engaged—that’s a life skill you’re going to need no matter where you go to work.
3. Do I have wandering eyes or FOMO (fear of missing out)?
We’ve all been there: You take a class (as an elective or undergraduate requirement) that’s outside your chosen course of study, and you think to yourself, “This is awesome! I want more of this!” This is one of the best parts about going to college. You have the freedom to explore some other ways to educate yourself.
And let’s be honest: You’re going to make yourself crazy if you’re not giving your brain a stretch now and then. A full course load of classes is around 12 hours per week, and the general rule of thumb puts study time at three to four times that—which means you could be spending up to 60 hours a week pursuing your degree. If this were a job, that would mean you’re working time-and-a-half! So, of course you deserve that art class on the side of your biology sequence.
Don’t stress too much over that voice telling you, “Hey, I’m not bad at this graphic design thing.” (And maybe you are pretty good.) It’s also your brain telling you that you’re getting your needed outlet from the intensity of studying one area so passionately. Use those extra units to carry as varied a course load as you can and enjoy the heck out of it. You might even consider minoring in a course of study that grabs your interest, Franek suggests. When you’re out in the world, you won’t get the same luxury.
4. Have I experienced this college major in a workplace setting?
It’s always good to reassess your field of study against the backdrop of how you plan to apply it after school. You might be putting too much pressure on your experience inside the classroom—and not taking enough advantage of what you can do outside of it.
Here again is one of those fantastic advantages of being on a college campus. The career services center provides access to counselors and advisors who can help you make sense of how your classes are helping you build toward your career goals. But better yet, they also can connect you with valuable opportunities to find a part-time job, internship, or volunteer opportunity that will give you a chance to apply what you’re learning in a real-world environment.
According to Franek, most students he works with don’t take advantage of such services until well into their college careers. But it can be helpful to do so as early as your freshman year, especially if you’re looking for validation.
These off-campus experiences are “about getting you out of the classroom and being part of the community,” he explains. “[They] likely will help you create that confidence to say, ‘Yes, this is the major I want. Yes, I see the real-life output of this major.’”
Or you might learn the flip side: That practical experience might convince you that a particular career path isn’t for you after all. Learning how to teach five-year-olds, for example, is far different than being in a room with 20 of them and actually trying to do it.
5. Am I looking at my career concerns from different angles?
Self-reflection is a double-edged sword. When we do it right, it can help us make those tough decisions or reinforce our first instincts. Do it wrong, and we just get stuck in our head, asking the same question over and over again: Am I doing the right thing? The trick is to stop focusing on that one question and figure out different ways to engage with yourself.
If you have an academic advisor, find out his or her office hours and set aside some time to talk. You can also talk to a professor in the field that you’re considering as a new major.
You can also get out of your head a little and have some fun with some of the “choose your major” quizzes that are all over the web. They can be serious, like this questionnaire from Loyola University Chicago, or they can be outright ridiculous, like this quiz from BuzzFeed. It’s all good, says Franek: “Anything that helps you have that conversation with yourself is worth looking at,” he says. These quizzes “are asking you to ask yourself questions you might not normally.” (Reading this article is also a good start.)
6. Am I scared to switch majors because of the costs involved?
The struggle is real. Changing your major is absolutely a healthy thing. But if doing so at this stage might mean you’ll spend another year or two in school, you should really think through how that might impact you financially.
Explains Franek, “We generally tell students [that] if you’re taking on more [total] debt than you think you’ll make as a starting salary your first year out of school, it’s going to create some hardship for you.”
Remember: You can switch direction now … or later
Whatever you decide, just know that no one is going to fault you if you do end up switching your major like the majority of college students. As Franek says, “There’s no demerit if you want to make that change. You’re not failing if you don’t stick to your original thought of what you wanted to do.”
And even if you ultimately decide not to make a change, that’s not necessarily going to box you in you for the rest of your life. Plenty of the world’s most successful people majored in subjects that weren’t related to their eventual careers. Take Howard Schultz, for instance, who majored in communications at Northern Michigan University and took a few elective business classes toward the end of his college career. Now he’s the CEO of a little company called Starbucks.