How to Choose, Declare a U.S. College Major

Choosing a major can be a different process at a U.S. college than in your home country.

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At many U.S. colleges, students don’t declare a major until their second year, and can even complete two.
At many U.S. colleges, students don’t declare a major until their second year, and can even complete two.

Picking a major was one of the most difficult, yet exciting, decisions I had to make in college. As an international student, I found this process particularly unfamiliar since the major system in Vietnam is completely different.

At home, universities are divided into different fields of specialization, such as the Hanoi Foreign Trade University or the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science. So in the process of picking the schools you apply to, you essentially have already picked a major. Many of my international friends talked about a relatively similar process in their home countries. 

Most U.S. colleges don't require you to declare a major until sophomore year. The great thing about this is that it gives you some time to explore different academic subjects before you make a decision. It can be a difficult decision to make, and it's a big one that is likely to shape your future. Below are some tips that might help you navigate through the major system in U.S. colleges. 

[Learn to understand the U.S. academic system.] 

1. Spend your freshman year researching subjects that interest you: Take as many courses in as many different departments as you can. This is not just a great way to fulfill your elective requirements, but also a great way to find out which major will be best suited for you. 

You might already know what you want to major in, but don't be set on that decision until you know about all your options. I was very sure that I would become an economics major, but ended up in the math department. I absolutely loved the way math was taught at Colorado College. It included small classes, many interactions between students and professors, ample research opportunities and I got along famously with everyone in the department. 

I never would have made the decision to become a math major without taking calculus out of curiosity during my freshman year. Do the same thing, and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you are good at, or what gets you excited. 

[Ask yourself 10 questions before picking a major.] 

2. Talk to your academic adviser, professors and upperclassmen: Academic staff members have a good understanding of the majors offered by the school, the requirements for each major and of you as a student. They will be able to give you some valuable information that might not be clear to you from the departments' website or from a class syllabus. 

For example, I found out from talking to some professors that I could do a joint thesis that fulfilled both an economics and a math major. I learned from talking to an upperclassman that many economics students spend a semester at a university in Sweden that had a joint program with our school. 

[Find on-campus support for international students.] 

3. Map out which classes you will need to take and when: The sooner you have a plan to fulfill your major, the better. This will help you avoid any surprises – you don't want to show up in a class only to be turned away because you haven't taken a prerequisite course.

Additionally, when you have a roadmap of classes, you can build in additional time to take other classes not in your major, have a minor or a second major or study abroad

Another International Student Counsel post recommended picking a major that you love, not one that you think will get you a high-paying job. I could not agree more. 

Remember that even though this is an important decision that might affect the outcome of your life, many people end up with a job outside of their majors. College is time to learn the skills that will prepare you for life, such as thinking critically, writing a research paper, giving a presentation and making lifelong connections. Almost any major will teach you these things as long as you are willing and open to learning. 

If you really absolutely need to major in biology and become a doctor like your mom had hoped, then you still have the option of having a minor or another major in a subject you enjoy. Good luck! 

Tra Ho, from Vietnam, received full financial aid to attend Colorado College in 2004. She graduated magna cum laude in 2008 with a degree in mathematics and is currently working as an actuary for a consulting company Washington, D.C.