Declaring versus Choosing a College Major

Declaring versus Choosing a College Major

When you declare a college major, you are making it official that you intend to get a degree in a particular discipline. For example, by declaring psychology as your major, you are letting it be known that you aim to get a degree in psychology. What’s more, if you finish that major, your diploma will say that this is the field in which you’ve earned your degree.

To declare a major doesn’t mean you are stuck with that major for the rest of your college education. By some estimates, 75 percent of students end up changing majors. But the longer you take to switch majors, the the more time it’s going to take to retool and complete the courses you have to take in the new major. In that case, it might take you longer than expected to finish your degree. So changing your declared major is possible, but there is a cost. Better to get it right out of the block.

By declaring a major and then taking the courses required for your major, you are attempting to achieve a thorough understanding of your chosen discipline. The expertise you gain through your major will typically have a direct bearing on your career. The exception is if you get a job completely outside your major, which does happen.

Even though a major can be changed, it’s important to do your research and think through your choice of major carefully. Does your major focus on a subject that really really interests you? How important is finding a job once you get a degree in a given major? For instance, you are much more likely to find a job in computer science after finishing a computer science major than in psychology after finishing a psychology major.

When it comes to college majors, you have two things to do:

  • Choose a Major; and
  • Declare a Major.

Choosing a major means looking into yourself and asking what you want to spend a lot of time and energy studying. Declaring a major then means making your choice official. Always remember that declaring a major sets nothing in stone—you can always shift gears and try something else. But also remember that shifting gears usually incurs a cost in time and energy, especially the later you make the change in your education.

What does it mean to declare a major?

Declaring your major is an important step in advancing toward a degree. In order to actually begin your degree program, you’ll need to declare your major. This declaration is the official notification to your university that you intend to pursue a degree in your area of study. Typically, you’ll need to apply for admission into your intended program.

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How do I choose my major?

Before you can declare a major, you’ll have to choose a major. Selecting a major should be based on several important factors:

  • Professional goals: You don’t have to pursue a career in your major, but your major will determine the degree that you earn, so you will need to factor your professional goals into the decision. If you plan to enter certain professions—such as law, engineering, or education—you may need to earn a degree in that subject area. By contrast, a degree in political science, business, or liberal arts could lead you down a wide range of professional paths. As you choose a major, consider how this decision relates to your post-graduate plans. If your field requires a specific degree, this should be the top consideration in choosing a major. If there are various educational paths to your field, you will likely have more freedom when picking a major.
  • Personal Interests: Whatever your intended profession, major in something you actually care about. If you find your courses boring or uninspired, imagine how you’ll feel going to work every day. Start with a list of subjects you’re passionate about first, then think about how each of these subjects might align with your professional goals.
  • Career Opportunities: Once you have a list of subjects you’re passionate about, consider the career prospects connected with each subject. Research each career sector to learn about job variety, number of job openings, and rate of industry growth. You’ll get a good sense of the opportunities and obstacles that await you in a job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a great resource for information about most career paths.
  • Earning Potential: The BLS can also provide you data on earning potential in an array of fields. Take a look at the median earnings for somebody with a degree in your field. This is a window into what you are most likely to earn with the same degree. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about earning potential. You could excel in your field, or struggle to get a foothold in a tough economy. In other words, the BLS offers no guarantees, but it will give you a sense of what most graduates are earning in a given field. Earning potential doesn’t have to determine your ultimate career path but you should know what to expect from the job market before investing in your degree.
  • Advanced Degree Opportunities: Your immediate education goals could require you to declare a specific major. For instance, if you plan to advance into a post-graduate program, you’ll need to factor this into your choice of major. Some advanced degree programs will require that you’ve earned your undergraduate degree in a correlated subject area. For instance, students applying for graduate degrees in engineering may be required to have first earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Your ability to earn required professional certifications may also hinge on your undergraduate concentration. If you plan to pursue an advanced degree or earn certain licenses or certifications, be sure that your choice of major corresponds with this goal.

For help narrowing down your options, use our By Discipline tool to see where your college ranks in the majors on your list.

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How do I declare a major?

Once you’ve chosen your major, you will likely need to apply for admission into your program. This will require you to submit an application to either your university, or directly to your program. In some cases, you’ll actually be applying to enter a school or college which is housed within your university. The application to declare a major may be available to download online, but in most cases, you’ll need the signature of an academic advisor before you can submit.

Sit down with your academic advisor early in the process—preferably even freshman year—to discuss your goals. Entering into a specific major may require you to complete certain prerequisite courses, attain a certain number of credits, or maintain a certain GPA. Be sure that you understand these requirements before applying for your program. The sooner you learn about these requirements, the sooner you can get on track toward your declaration and, consequently, your degree.

You may also be required to meet with personnel from the department or college which houses your program. Treat this meeting much as you would treat an interview for admission to your college or university. Dress, speak and behave professionally.

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When should you declare your major?

Some colleges give you the freedom to declare a major as early as your first year, though you would likely still have to wait until you’ve earned a certain number of credits, or completed all prerequisite courses, before actually entering into your program. Other colleges may require you to have earned a specific number of credits both before you can declare your major, as well as before you can enter into the program and begin earning credits toward your major.

Most schools expect you to declare your major somewhere between Spring Semester of your sophomore year and Fall Semester of your junior year. If you are having trouble deciding, or you are unable to gain admission into your intended program by that time, speak with your academic advisor about other options.

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What happens if you don’t declare your major?

Every school has a different set of rules for how and when you must declare a major. Likewise, each school has its own rules about what happens if you don’t declare your major by a specific deadline.

  • Financial Aid Withheld: Some schools may prevent you from receiving your financial aid if you miss the deadline to declare a major.
  • Frozen Status: For schools that require you to declare before entering your junior year, failure to declare may cause you to remain at sophomore status.
  • Lost Educational Opportunity: In nearly all cases, whether or not there is a penalty for failure to declare, you would likely be limited in your access to certain courses or opportunities. Declaring a major gives you access to your department’s course offerings, academic mentors, internship opportunities, networking connections, and more. If you do not declare a major, you will miss out on many of the unique opportunities associated with your intended degree program.

Most importantly, failure to declare a major will likely prevent you from earning the degree of your choosing.

If you haven’t declared because you’re having a hard time choosing a major, consider pursuing a Liberal Arts degree, which provides greater educational variety, but still creates the same educational opportunities that come with major declaration.

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What is a minor?

Your major is a big part of your college education, but it isn’t everything. In addition to your general core courses and electives, you’ll also have a chance to declare a “minor.” This is a secondary area of concentration, one which can help to shape your course load outside of your major.

A minor may not be required by your college or degree program, but it may be a useful way to either supplement your major with a correlated subject area, or a way to produce a more well-rounded education with an emphasis in an area of personal interest. For instance, if you are working toward a career as a history teacher, you could advance your career goals by majoring in education with a minor in history. On the other hand, if you are an aspiring graphic designer who also happens to love Greek mythology, you might major in Art & Design while minoring in Ancient Literature. Your minor could be an opportunity to further shape the focus of your education, or a way to add greater variety.

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Should I do a double major?

In some instances, you may feel that your educational and professional goals require you to incorporate two areas of equal focus. You may be a candidate for a double major. With a double major, you’ll still earn a single degree, but it will list two areas of concentration. Roughly 20% of all bachelor’s students will earn a double major.

Many double majors will choose two courses of study that relate to one another—such as education and childhood psychology; or business and economics. This approach will not only give you a broad base of knowledge in two closely connected subjects, but there is also a stronger likelihood that there are some overlapping prerequisites or course requirements. This can save you time and money in the long run.

Many students also view the double major as a way to be more competitive in the job market. According to U.S. News & World Report, students who choose double majors wisely can be more attractive to potential employers.

However, earning a double major can be hard work. Before you decide to go this route, be sure you have the bandwidth, stamina and time to handle the added workload.

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What if I don’t like my major?

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. According to the New York Times, in a national survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, “Of students who said they felt committed to their major when they arrived on campus, 20 percent had selected a new major by the end of their first year.”

In other words, don’t be afraid to shift gears. Whether you feel like you’re struggling in your major, or you find a new area of interest, or you’re just plain bored in your classes, now is the time to make a change. Switching majors may require you to go back, complete additional prerequisites, and even spend a few more semesters in school. But that certainly beats working toward a career where you won’t be happy.

If you’re not enjoying your major, or you feel your abilities would be better used in a different subject, get in touch with your academic advisor right away. It’s ok to switch gears, but if you’re thinking about doing it, don’t waste any more time pursuing a degree you don’t want!

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Popular majors include reliable standby degrees like business, engineering, and education as well as growing fields like computer science, healthcare, and communications.

If you’re not sure where to start, dig in and find out what you can do with a degree in these popular subjects and more!

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