Choosing a Major

The second most important decision of your life

"I’d listen to him if I were you. He’s pre-med."
"I thought you were pre-law."
"Same thing."
-- Animal House, 1981


As the above quote demonstrates, college majors can be quite confusing. Then again, if you have a grade point average of 0.00 like Charles Blutoski (Bluto in Animal House), it really doesn’t matter what your major is.

If you’re the type of student who has higher hopes for your college career, the following is a list of frequently asked questions about college majors that should help reduce some of the confusion.


What is a major?

In many ways, a major is like a contract between you, the student, and the school you attend. By declaring a major, you the student agree to perform certain work, (i.e. classes) in exchange for a college degree.

In looser terms, a major is simply an organized collection of classes, either revolving around a subject (e.g. mathematics), theme (e.g. peace studies), or professional field (e.g. Pre-Med, Pre-Law, Engineering, etc.)

Note: Not all schools have majors. The ones that do simply have them to insure that students live up to a minimum standard of academic work and pursue a curriculum with some form of intellectual structure before they acquire their bachelors degrees.


Is choosing a major the second most important decision of my life?

Well, yes and no. While it is true that choosing the proper major early on can help spare years, possibly even decades, of personal agony, the major you choose will neither predict nor guarantee your future.

Fact:

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average college graduate changes jobs once every three years and changes career fields two or three times in their lifetime. So, for those of you who think choosing a college major locks you into a specific career for the rest of your life, think again.


When do I need to choose a major?

It depends on the college and the major. Most schools prefer that you start looking at a major at least by your sophomore year. Some schools, such as the University of California at Berkeley, actually require you to list a major choice on your college application (Fortunately, "undecided" is one of the available options).

If you are interested in a major that requires a lot of classes, or classes that are limited to students in that major, you might have to declare earlier than usual (i.e. Fall semester of your sophomore year).


What if I declare early but I change my mind?

Most American universities are founded on the belief that incoming students are barely capable of writing a proper sentence much less making monumental decisions such as a college major. In other words, students’ indecisiveness is built into the system. That doesn’t mean they make it easy, though.

For some majors, you must take specific courses (prerequisites) during your first and second year before you can even be considered eligible for upper level courses. So, changing your major from, say, Electrical Engineering to French Medieval Literature can result in a substantial time penalty, especially if you’ve never taken French!


How do I find out what these prerequisites are?

The best way is to get a copy of the courses and degrees catalog published by your school. Usually sold in book form, these guidelines provide a list of required classes, class descriptions and any other requirements you might need to fulfill (e.g. senior thesis) in order to graduate.

Course guidelines are revised yearly, so make sure to get an updated version. Some schools are kind enough to provide incoming students with free catalogs. Others will sell them to students through on-campus or off-campus bookstores or mail order. A growing number of colleges are placing catalogs on their World Wide Web sites for online access by students.


What is a double major?

Many schools offer the chance to major in not only one but two subjects. Some even give you the chance to earn two separate degrees. Again, rules vary from school to school on how you can pull this off.

At Stanford University for example, students can receive two separate degrees provided one degree is a bachelor of science (B.S.) and the other is Bachelor of Arts (A.B. at Stanford, B.A. at most other schools).

At nearby UC Berkeley, students can major in two subjects and receive two degrees provided they aren’t both from the same college within the university (e.g. a B.A. from the College of Letters and Sciences and a B.S. from the College of Chemistry.)

Pursuing a double major is an effective way to get more out of college and improve your chances of future success, but it can take a lot of effort and dedication. It helps to know ahead of time what type of workload you'll be expected to handle. Read the article on "Double Majors" as well as your college catalog for more information.