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Choosing Your Undergraduate Major

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When to Choose?

Many high school students choose a major as part of their college application; and some colleges prefer this, while others don't. And still others don't even allow you to declare a major in your first year.

It's generally not a great idea to declare your major earlier than necessary, even if you're positive that's what you want to study. Why?

  • If you declare a major, you will be required to take certain prerequisite classes. If you don't declare, you can take those courses anyway, to be sure that you enjoy them and do well in them. If not, you can try another subject without penalty.
  • Many schools that ask you to declare a major don't accept students to difficult majors unless their grades and test scores are above a certain level. you can get rejected from a school, when, if you had chosen "major undetermined," you would have been admitted.
  • Students often find that a subject they enjoyed at the high school level is not at all what they expected at the college level. We often have a tendency to struggle to meet a commitment when we'd be better off cutting our losses; and we're psychologically more capable of changing when we don't perceive it as "failure."

What to Choose?

Many students try to choose a major that perceive as "cool;" others look for the highest salaries. Very few students understand that, at the undergraduate level, the major isn't going to get you that result. A bachelor's degree (B.A. or B.S.) in science isn't likely to get you a great job; a degree in any kind of arts or entertainment will at best get you an internship -- a foot in the door.

Also, so long as you have certain prerequisite courses, you don't need to have the undergraduate major. For instance, you can major in English, art, or psychology as an undergrad and pursue a graduate degree in drama. (You could probably major on science, if you want; but you'd have a lot of explaining to do on your graduate school application.)

Despite thousands of advisors' giving bad advice to millions of students, you don't need to study political science to be a lawyer (or politician); you don't need to be a biology major to attend medical school; and you don't need to major in entertainment studies to work in TV.

How Many Majors?

Many students think that multiple majors will make them more attractive to the job market or to graduate schools. This is rarely true. Employers and admissions committees will pay attention to your entire transcript, and won't care about a major so much as the particular courses. One major, maybe a minor, and eye-catching activities will serve you much better than two majors and no room on your schedule or time in your day for a provocative hobby.

The Non-Major Course of Study

The one major that employers and graduate programs don't like is the "non-major" major. These can be collected courses labeled pre-med or pre-law, or an "independent program" comprised of three minors. The reason they are viewed dimly is that there is no senior seminar or capstone project, so there's no evidence that you can write and analyze at a level that prepares you for graduate programs. Employers may share this disregard if they're hiring for a specialty job: most employers hire editors from among English majors, not from someone who studied English, art, and psychology.

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