What Is a College Major? Definition, List, How to Choose a Major, and More

“What’s your major?”

This question can build anxiety in late high school and early college students more than any other. Choosing a major can seem like a task more daunting than even choosing a college and even a spouse. For many students, a major seems like a long-term commitment, one that will determine the course of not only their college years, but even their future career and family lives. 

While your major can certainly influence all those other parts of life, it need not be so scary or limiting. Not only can college students change their major (and many do!), but the process of determining a major can be an exciting journey of self-discovery and personal affirmation.

Because majors matter most in your last years of college, the process of choosing a major, and even your first classes in that course of study, can be an exercise in constructive dreaming. As you think about what you want to study in college, you’ll start deciding what you want to get from your college experience. You’ll set your goals and expectations for the next few years of your life. You’ll even begin to see yourself as an adult in your career. 

In other words, declaring a major is your chance to tell the world who you want to be. Even if you end up changing your major or entering a different career, the major you initially choose will always be a statement of purpose regarding your values and goals. 


Definition of a College Major

College students and college majors
photo via Wikimedia Commons

Before we go too much further, we need to clarify the definition of a college major.

Simply put, a college major is the subject that a student will study most while earning their degree. Although every student will take classes outside of their major, anywhere between a third and a half of the classes will involve their major subject. 

Majors matter because colleges put priority on specialization. A liberal arts college will strive to create well-rounded students who know everything from mathematics to literature to science. But they also want to make experts. To become an expert, you need to look at a subject from multiple perspectives, which requires several courses in a given subject. 

While a major will determine your course of study in college, many students do change their majors or go undeclared during the first year or two. In fact, some scholars have found as many as 20 to 50% of freshmen enter university without deciding upon a major.

By entering college undeclared, you spend your first years completing pre-requisites (the basic courses every student has to take, regardless of their course of study) and getting a taste of several subjects. Once you find a topic that excites your passion or a teacher who inspires you, then you can declare that subject as your major. 

Many students also change their majors after taking a few courses and realizing that it’s not for them. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 30% of students change their major at least once during their college career, with 10% changing two times or more. 

That said, the U.S. News & World Report has found that declaring a major early offers advantages, such as the ability to take specialization classes with limited enrollment and a stronger college resume. 


How to Choose Your College Major

Some might think that choosing a college major is as simple as answering that classic kindergarten question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” To be sure, you should absolutely consider your passions and dreams when deciding upon a major. If you hate the subject you’re studying then it doesn’t matter what other advantages it offers. 

But it would be naïve to assume that passion is all you’ll need for a successful college career. Here are some other things to consider when deciding upon your major: 

School Emphasis

You may have your heart set on going to a specific university or college but find that it does not have a strong program in (or even offer) the major you want. Look at rankings such as those from U.S. News and Washington Monthly to determine what you can learn from your chosen school. 

Available Jobs & Careers

While it’s pretty clear that someone majoring in Education will become a teacher, those majoring in English, philosophy, or even chemistry do not have such clear career paths. Using sources such as Talent Desk’s Career Finder, look at what kinds of majors are valued by those in your desired field. 

Consider the Course Requirements

While a degree in your major will indeed carry a lot of weight, many fields also have additional requirements beyond a major. Those who want to be teachers must also earn a license. Computer science students often must get certifications in different types of software. If you don’t want to spend more time studying beyond your college years, be sure to choose a major that requires only a degree. 

Economic Value 

I know it sounds drab, but the fact of the matter is that you’ll want to make money in your future career. Even if that isn’t your driving motivator, you should still know how much you’ll earn in the field you’re preparing to enter. 


College Majors That Make the Most Money

Some people list passion and personal satisfaction as the most important factors when deciding upon their major and future career. But others want their hard work and knowledge to pay off in financial terms. Those who wish to be financially successful after college would do well to consider studying these lucrative fields. 

Computer Science

Unsurprisingly, a computer science major leads to some of the most lucrative careers. After all, we use computers every day; you’re probably using at least one computer right now. Those who major in computer science can work in programming, software design, network administration, and so much more, jobs that earn up to $100,000 and even $120,000 a year

 Petroleum Engineering

While other fuel sources are available, the world still largely runs on gas, which makes petroleum engineering one of the most important and necessary degrees. CNBC.com reports that workers who major in petroleum engineering begin with an average salary of $94,500 a year and can earn up to $176,900 yearly. 

Math 

A math major prepares students for a wide range of practical careers. With this type of degree in hand, students can become statisticians or actuaries, fields that earn average starting salaries of $60,153. Math majors also transition well to business roles. 

Science 

As with math, majoring in science can lead to many needed and financially satisfying jobs. Science majors can specialize in biochemistry, environmental science, forensics, and more. According to job site The Balance, these jobs have median salaries of $53,000 to $98,000. 

Social Sciences

While it might come as a surprise to some, the social sciences fill just as many needs as the hard sciences, and therefore fetch a desirable salary. With a social science degree, students can become anything from a sociologist to an economist to a political scientist, jobs that earn on average $40,700 to $99,000 annually


What is the Difference Between a College a Major and a Minor?

In addition to a major, many students choose a minor as well. Like a major, a minor identifies a subject on which the student will focus throughout their college career. But as its name suggests, the minor is less intensive than a major. 

A minor allows students to further develop their skills and understanding. It provides depth to one’s education, showing a student to be a more well-rounded person. Many employers appreciate workers with a minor, as most jobs require knowledge outside of a specific field. 

According to U.S. News & World Report, students considering a minor should “find ways that their minor can connect to and reinforce their major.”

That reinforcement could include filling in a gap common to your major. So if you’re majoring in English, you might consider a math or science minor to demonstrate your understanding of practical logic. 

Reinforcement might also include studying in a field adjacent to their major. For example, those studying history may also minor in economics to understand the relationship between financial forces and world events. 

Finally, many students choose a foreign language as their minor, especially if it helps them understand important parts of their field. A philosophy major would do well to minor in Greek, French, or German, so they can read the works of important thinkers. 

Petersons.com puts it best when they advise readers to choose a minor that “will be beneficial to you in some way personally or professionally.”


List of Popular College Majors

Now that we have a full understanding of what a college major is and why it’s important, it’s time to start looking at possible majors for you. One of the best ways to choose a major is to look at what others have chosen. After all, these majors are the most popular for a reason. 

Business

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 400,000 business degrees were awarded in 2017-2018. And we can see why. As much as the times change, people still need to buy things or hire services, and anyone with a business degree can meet such needs.

Nursing

Once a lower-ranked degree, nursing and other health degrees have become increasingly popular over the years. Niche.com reports that 141,632 people earned Nursing degrees in the last year. That number is sure to go up as the world faces new health crises. 

Psychology

Surprisingly, Psychology remains not only the most popular social science degree but one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. With more people taking self-care seriously, there’s undoubtedly sufficient demand to justify the increase in students. 

Computer Science

As mentioned earlier, nearly every part of modern life involves computers. But the more we use our phones, tablets, and PCs, the less we understand them. It’s a good thing that thousands of students are studying Computer Science every year.

Communications

In addition to being one of the most popular majors, Communications is also among the most versatile. As the National Communications Association contends, graduates in Communications “demonstrate strong verbal, nonverbal, and written communication skills and have considerable expertise in speaking well in front of small and large audiences.” Students with those abilities are well-suited to nearly every job. 

Whatever major you choose, remember: it’s your decision. Think about who you are and what you want to be, and the perfect major is sure to follow. 

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