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How To Pick A College Major



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Ted Turner, founder of TV networks TBS and CNN is widely regarded as an American Business success story. After choosing to major in Classics, he received this letter from his father, “I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on my way home today.”

Was Turner’s father, a practical man, right to chide his son for choosing an impractical college major? Or is it better to figure out your major based on what your interests are, regardless of the earning potential?

Below, we compare both options to show their pros and cons. We’ll also briefly explore a third option: simply choosing an easy major to give yourself the simplest path to earning a degree. Keep reading to see all our top tips for how to pick a college major.

1. Pick A College Major Based On Employability

In the personal finance space, it’s common to advise students to select a major based on income potential. According to this philosophy, good majors are considered those associated with high earning potential and bad majors have low earning potential.

A recent study from PayScale found that the top five majors for earning high salaries include:

  • Petroleum Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
  • Applied Economics and Management
  • Operations Research
  • Public Accounting

These majors are associated with above-average pay early in a graduate’s career and pay above $100,000 annually in mid-career earnings.

If your primary goal in college is to realize a high return on investment, one of the “top college majors” could be an excellent choice. However, this advice ignores two important factors.

Can You Succeed In An Associated Career Field?

Generally speaking, the top majors lists are dominated by engineering, nursing, and “business” related degrees. Several of the top majors are more than just courses of study — they’re requirements for certain careers (such as careers in engineering, accounting, actuarial work, and nursing).

These careers may be high-paying. But they can also be rigorous or have high burn-out rates. If working on an oil rig doesn’t appeal to you, then Petroleum Engineering probably isn’t a good choice of major.

Employers May Not Care About Your Major

If you’re going to become an engineer, an accountant, or a nurse, you need a specific credential. But not every job has prerequisites that are so precise.

Java developers need the ability to work within certain development frameworks, write unit tests, and develop high-quality code. But they may not necessarily need computer science degrees. They may able to learn the skills they need in a coding bootcamp or during an internship.

Research published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank in 2013 found that only 27.3% of employees worked in fields with a “college major match.” That means nearly three-quarters of people were employed in unrelated fields. Throughout your career, college coursework tends to matter less than experience.

That’s not to say employers don’t care about majors. Employers will recruit based them. But they typically won’t rule someone out if they majored in Biology rather than Business.

2. Pick A College Major Based On What You Love

Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich once said, “I never thought of my university education as technical training. If it was, why wouldn’t I just go to ITT Tech?” He often praises his time at Stanford as an important time where he learned, grew and challenged himself despite his impractical major.

People in Sethi’s camp often advise students to pick a college major in what you love or at least to pick a major based on your interests. In some cases, this advice could work out. It can be valuable to learn about big picture thinking or to refine certain skills.

But in other cases it could could lead a student into a high-cost school with low-paying job prospects (for example a degree in the Culinary Arts from an expensive private university). Overall, there are a few times when I think the interest-driven approach to school can make a lot of sense.

You Know What You Want To Study

College is a short time where you can study just about anything. If you’re interested in the humanities, paleontology, or fine arts, this is the time of life to pursue it. Just be careful to not accrue too much debt during your studies.

You Know You’ll Need Further Education

If you have to go to law school, medical school, or graduate school to get a job in your field, your undergraduate major isn’t as important. Make sure you cover the pre-requisites for your subsequent schooling. But you may want to pick a major based on your interests rather than the “prescribed” routes.

You Want To Double Major

Some students (especially those who enter their first year of college with many credits) have the bandwidth to complete two majors. If you have that type of bandwidth, you may find that it’s rewarding to pair Music or Fine Arts with Business or Computer Science.

You Hope To Remain In Academia

A professorship isn’t always lucrative. But if you want to stay in academia, make sure that you love your field. Becoming an academic requires many years of study, and it often involves low-paying graduate jobs. However, the only way to become a Professor of Archeology is to have a relevant Ph.D.

3. Pick An Easy College Major

It’s increasingly popular to characterize college as an expensive sheet of paper, but lament that it’s required for almost all jobs. People who have this view of college often advise picking an easy major and finishing college as quickly and cheaply as possible.

This view saddens me, but it’s not without merit. Only about 62% of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree finish within 6 years. Students can put a lot of time and money into their college education only to drop out short of that bachelor’s credential.

If you’re only attending college for the credential, then choosing an easy major may be the right choice for you. It can allow you to complete your degree while working full-time or pursuing other facets of life.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Education (Regardless Of Your Major)

Regardless of your college major, it’s important to consider how your college experience will affect your future earnings and wealth-building potential. To maximize career opportunities, students will need to think about their education holistically.

Coursework, jobs, internships, and experiences outside of the classroom all influence your future employability. These are a few things that can help you maximize the value of your education.

Minimize Debt Whenever Possible

Student loans can stick around for decades, especially if you take out large amounts to cover an expensive school. During college, try to minimize debt by applying for scholarships, working, and cutting costs where possible.

Take Coursework Relevant To Business Careers

Regardless of your major, take a few business basics. Courses like Accounting, Marketing, Speech, and Intro to Computer Science can help you pursue a career in business or technology. New graduates often add relevant coursework to resumes, especially when their major isn’t immediately applicable to certain entry-level jobs.

Invest In Your Area Of Study

College is a dedicated time to grow and think. But this time is more profitable when you’re fully invested in your studies. If possible, publish papers, do research, and attend conferences related to your field. When your school hosts speakers, try to join the welcoming committee so you can talk to interesting people.

Pursue Career Experiences

Whether you major in Computer Science or Underwater Basket Weaving, career experiences are important when you enter the full-time job market. If possible, pursue paid internships during the summer.

But don’t forget about part-time internships that you can pursue during the school year. Many smaller companies and non-profit organizations are more flexible and allow part-time internships during the school year.

Build Communication Skills

Communication skills like responding promptly to emails, asking compelling questions, listening carefully, and presenting are incredibly important. You can learn these skills through formalized learning (such as a Speech class or Toastmasters), or informally by working on a business or at an internship.

It’s also worthwhile to read classic business books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that can also raise your awareness of your communication style.

Do Hard Things During College

During college, you need to develop confidence in your ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles. The best way to do this is to do hard things that include a likely risk of failure.

Work with a non-profit to help them achieve their objectives more efficiently. Start a grassroots effort to promote art in your city. Volunteer on a political campaign, start a business, or conduct research in an under-funded lab.

Specific objectives matter less than learning to try hard and solve problems. The confidence you gain from developing these skills will translate to long-term confidence in your career.

Final Thoughts

Your college major is likely to dictate how much you enjoy college and it may be your ticket into certain careers. So you don’t want to pick a college major flippantly.

However, your major doesn’t define your career destiny. Whether you choose your major based on career prospects, passions, or ease matters less than committing fully to your total education. 

And regardless of which major you choose, it’s important to think through how you’ll pay for it. For a full breakdown of all your options, check out How To Pay For College: The Best Order Of Operations.