5 Ways to Pick the Right College Major

Students should follow their hearts, not simply choose a major that betters job prospects.

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To be an English major or not to be? That is the question that plagues thousands of newly minted college students each year, who have nightmares of walking off the stage at graduation directly into an unemployment line. But students who don't follow their hearts by delving into subjects they're most passionate about will ultimately hurt their chances of a successful—and satisfying—career in the long term, college officials say.

College can be a sizeable investment: The average student loan debt for students who attend private universities is nearly $30,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. Still, picking a major simply to secure a job that enables a student to pay off that debt as quickly as possible isn't the right approach, college advisers agree.

"It's an artful balance of synthesizing interests, skills, and personality strengths while acquiring experience outside of the classroom—in the first four semesters, if possible—that will lead to a more informed major choice," says Darin Ford, director of the Hegi Family Career Development Center at Southern Methodist University.

[Explore college majors with the best return on investment.]

Use these five tips to decide when, and how, to choose the major that will be best for you:

1. Wait until college: With near-record levels of unemployment weighing on students' minds, an increasing number are starting to worry about their professional lives before they've even set foot in a college class, experts say. But students shouldn't let this pressure affect their decision making. Instead, students should give themselves ample time to try a diverse set of classes in their first year or two of school before deciding what field of study most appeals to them, says Christine Richardson, director of career services at Cazenovia College.

Brad Williams, dean of student affairs at Nova Southeastern University notes that "an amazing number of students feel pressure to select an academic major early. Name … one 18 year-old that can say, 'For the rest of my life, I want to do this.'"

[Learn the right time to choose a college major.]

2. But don't wait too long: While college officials tend to agree that students should wait before they make a decision that has the potential to affect the rest of their scholastic and professional lives, they shouldn't wait too long—unless they've got a sturdy trust fund. "If it takes until your junior year to find your niche and you really love what you're majoring in, then it might not be a terrible thing," says Katharine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas—Austin. "Keep an eye on the money though—college is expensive and you don't want to waste too much time."

3. Curiosity won't kill you: Students and parents alike should pepper their college with questions about individual majors, says Andy Chan, vice president of career development at Wake Forest University. See if the school offers any assessment tools that help you find a major that suits you, and speak with officials in the career services offices and the departments themselves to learn as much as you can about the major before you commit, he says.

4. Make sure it's your passion: After students have had time as high school seniors and college underclassmen to explore various fields of study, it's likely that they've found one that greatly appeals to them. Follow that path, experts say, even if you're unsure about where it might lead, and what starting salary it might yield. Those factors won't matter in the long run, advisers say.

"The tough idea for students today to grasp is that they can choose to study something that they are passionate about, an academic area that they love, without knowing what vocational path that might lead to," says Carmen Varejcka-McGee, an academic adviser at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. "Many students get stuck on the idea that they have to have a clear vocational goal in order to choose a major."

[Discover nine hot college majors.]

5. Be aware of the exceptions to these rules: Students who wish to attend medical school will need to make that decision as early as possible, says Matt Sanchez, assistant director of recruiting at the University of Texas—Dallas. That's long been the case, and new additions to the MCAT will only exacerbate the need to plan out premed classes well in advance.