10 Questions to Ask Before Picking a Major

This is a huge choice, so know what you're getting into before making a decision.

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After picking the college itself, picking a major is the biggest choice you're going to make in college. But as often as not, students have almost no idea what they're getting into when they declare a major. To help you be an informed consumer, here are 10 questions to ask yourself—and others who might know—before signing on the dotted line:

1. Why do I want this major? It's not at all uncommon for a student to pick a major because someone else—almost always a family member—thinks it's a good idea. Maybe that's what mom or dad majored in, or maybe they see the chance to turn you into the biggest earner in family history. But someone else's wishes really shouldn't dictate what you decide to do at college, not to mention, possibly, the rest of your life. That's especially true if it's something that doesn't interest you at all and that you would never have chosen for yourself.

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 2. Do I know enough about this major? Some majors sound a lot better before you start taking courses in them. In some cases, that's because the field is something you've never studied before and you don't realize what's involved in the discipline. In other cases, it's because you've studied the field and done well in it, but once you hit college, the level of difficulty goes off the deep end in ways you never anticipated. So don't marry the major before you've done some serious dating. That means taking a number of representative courses—that is, upper-level courses in the field, not just the introductory courses.

3. What are the requirements for this major? Some majors sound like a lot of fun at first glance but quickly sour when you realize all the courses you have to take. Child psychology might seem enticing, but after the required courses in cognitive psychology, deviant psychology, social psychology, and who knows what else—not to mention statistics—you might wind up wondering why you chose psychology in the first place. This doesn't mean you should reject a major just because it has a requirement or two that you aren't crazy about. But it does mean you should acquaint yourself with the required program and, if more than a few courses don't grab you, rethink your choice of major.

4. Is my college strong in this major? Especially in this time of budget squeezes, not every college is strong in every major. Even good colleges can have some abysmally poor departments. Some signs of looming trouble: only one or two faculty members in the area, very few courses offered in the field, and faculty teaching who do not have advanced degrees in the discipline. Look before you leap.

5. What are the career opportunities for this major? These days, most students consider what they're going to do with a degree in major X before they declare that major. But, unfortunately, many students base their assessment of job prospects on current conditions, not the time two to four years from now when they'll complete their degree. Make sure you're not planning for a career that will be in its dying days by the time you're trained for it.

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6. Is this the right–and only–major for my career path? It's always a sad sight to see students who take the wrong program for their career goals, like the student who wanted to become a college professor but took a program designed to prepare folks to teach in the elementary schools. Check with the undergraduate adviser or career counseling center to be sure the major you pick is on the track to the career you want

Extra Pointer. There are many careers for which any one of a number of undergraduate majors would be appropriate. Don't box yourself into a major you don't like, thinking (wrongly) that it's the only path to your career of choice. You don't have to major in business to go on in business (many business people majored in a variety of liberal arts areas). Nor do you have to major in biology to be a doctor, or political science to be a lawyer.

7. Have I talked to someone in this major? No one should commit to a major before talking to a live human being who has actually taken this major and a professor who's actually taught in it. Ask an advanced undergraduate or (if they have them at your school) graduate student—and a professor or undergraduate adviser—what's in store for you if you sign on to that major. You want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

8. Am I good at this major? Under no circumstances should you major in something you don't have the skills and gifts for. Even if being a molecular biologist, creative writer, or international journalist sounds like the coolest thing on the planet, it's not going to help you if you have no ability in that field. And doing a major you're not good at consigns you to 10 courses of stress, frustration, and, in the worst case, despair.

Rule of thumb. Getting lots of A's in a field = good choice of major. Some A's and some B's = not a bad choice. All B's = there might be a better choice. Lots of C's = fuhgeddaboudit.

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9. Do I want to pick a traditional major at all? Some schools allow you to construct your own major, perhaps in an interdisciplinary field. And at other schools, you're allowed to take a series of minors, rather than picking one single major. Such alternative paths can be great opportunities if you have a clear idea of what you want to do after college and the skills you will need to do it. If you really are certain about your life's path, don't overlook any possibilities your school offers to have it your way.

10. Is it the right time to declare a major? Many colleges today encourage students to declare a major right at first-year registration. Resist the temptation to sign on just because the adviser is pressuring you or the college is offering you some perks to declare (like guaranteed enrollment in hard-to-get-into courses or some special dorm space). On the other hand, if yours is a major with boatloads of requirements (like music or a foreign language or a premed program)—and if you're 100 percent certain that this is what you really want to do (no if, ands, or buts)—it can be a good idea to declare right off the bat.

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