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How Important Is It To Pick A Major For Freshman Year?

There are two major decisions that can haunt rising high school seniors as the college application process draws near — what college or university is the best fit for them, and what should they major in?

Some students seem to know exactly what they want to pursue, but for others, it can be quite stressful and overwhelming to decide. After all, they never really had a say in their courses or fields of study until now.

Before you place too much pressure on the decision-making process (or recklessly check off any major you think might interest you), it’s important to research how important it is to choose a major for your first few semesters.

Is it really important to pick a major in time for freshman year? 

We spoke with Lisa M. Burns, Ph.D. Professor of Media Studies at Quinnipiac University, and Natalie T. J. Tindall, Ph.D., APR Chair, Department of Communication and Media at Lamar University for their expert insight. Here’s what they had to say:

How important is it, really?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question because, as Burns explains, it all depends on the major.  She says, “For many fields including communication, business, and those in the liberal arts, you have some time to try out courses to see if they are a good fit for you. Most of your first year classes will be general education courses, so you’ll be exposed to a variety of fields.”

If you’re leaning more towards a career or program in the sciences, including health professions or engineering, those programs are much more structured. “You need to declare those majors from the outset in order to stay on track.”

Yet, even in the most structured programs, you’ll still take mostly general education courses in the very beginning, along with more introductory courses to the field of study. So, she says, “ If, for example, you discover that you aren’t as strong in college-level science as you were in high school, you can always change your major.”

The Benefits of Knowing Early

As with most things in life, there are some benefits to having your major secured right from the get-go. Aside from having the chance to interact with faculty and students in your program early on, Burns explains, “there’s a lot of programming and advising focused on first-year student success. Students who switch majors sometimes find themselves playing catch-up because they weren’t exposed to all of this information coming in.”

Tindall says that, “In a perfect world, students would enter college knowing what is best for them and knowing what they were going to do 10, 15 years after graduation. However, no crystal ball with that information exists.”

She adds,”Not knowing your major is fine, but don’t think that you can stay in a holding pattern. Eventually your credits will accumulate and all majors won’t take everything you have ever taken.”

Relax a little.

Both experts agree that students tend to put too much pressure on themselves regarding their area of concentration.

“Both students and parents seem to think that you need to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life at 16 years old. That’s a lot of pressure!” says Burns.

When students already know what they want to do, that’s great. But, Burns adds, “It’s O.K. to be undecided. All universities require students to take general education courses. These courses are not only foundational knowledge, but they also allow students to find out what subjects they really like and which professions appeal to them. You can use those courses to ‘shop around’ for a major during your first two years.”

If you are entering college with truly no idea of what you’d like to pursue — there are options for that, too.  It is perfectly okay to enter with an undeclared major. Burns says that doing so will give you time to explore all of your options, and Tindall believes entering undecided and doing some career and course exploration early on is a perfect route to take in this situation.

Find The College Where You Belong

Exploring co-curricular organizations is also an excellent way to get a feel for what piques your interests and passions.

Burns says, “At Quinnipiac, we have a student newspaper, TV station, radio station, yearbook, literary magazine, and a group dedicated to covering sports. We also have a film society, an Ad Club, a student-run public relations agency, a gaming club, and affiliate chapters of professional groups in the areas of journalism, PR, advertising, graphic design, and sports media. All of these groups welcome first-year students, and you usually don’t need to be a particular major to join a student club.”

Activities such as these are an excellent way to enjoy hands-on experience without the “pressure” of being enrolled in a course.  Burns points out that it also allows you to build your resume and make friends.

When to Switch

If you find yourself in a position of wanting to switch your major, you’re not alone. Both experts say that students end up switching their majors more often than people think.

In fact, recent research shows over a third of college students will change their major at least once.

Tindall says, “I often meet with students who want to switch because they encounter a barrier to entry (a class or an exam) that barred them from a major or because they are in classes that fit like an uncomfortable shirt.”

When this happens, she explains that she talks to the students and asks them about their ultimate goals and what they would like to achieve. “My goal is to make sure that the students feel empowered and make the decision in their best interests. Students need to find the best match for their interests and concerns, and every student has a unique mix of interests and concerns (e.g., money/salary, prestige, curiosity and innovation, desire to help and serve).”

Burns shares a personal anecdote as well.

“I had an advisee who switched her major to communications as a junior. She started as a business major because that’s what everyone told her to do. But math wasn’t her
strong suit and she was struggling in her classes. So, she switched to Biology with plans to eventually go to dental school because her uncle’s a dentist. Yet,  she didn’t really like her science classes either. Her Biology adviser asked her what she wanted to do. It turns out that she loved fashion and wanted to work for a women’s magazine, but she was told that wasn’t a realistic career path. Her adviser (a friend of mine) sent her to me. She had no idea that we had a major where she could learn about the magazine industry and things like branding and advertising. She ended up interning for a fashion magazine and landed a job right after graduation working as a media buyer for a women’s magazine. She’s still in the industry today and is very successful. It turned out that the third time was a charm when it came to her major. But I think she would have been much happier throughout college – and had much better grades – if she hadn’t been pressured into majors that other people thought would be good for her.”

The Bottom Line

Some degrees are versatile and can lead to a variety of professions and opportunities. Other degrees are more rigid and have limits on what you can do with them upon graduation.

“If you want to be a civil engineer or a physical therapist or a pharmacist, you’ll need to have a degree in that specific area. And, in many cases, graduate school is also required. But there are a lot of fields where the degree isn’t as important as so-called ‘soft skills’ that can be applied to a variety of jobs,” Burns says.

While it may feel like a life or death situation, picking a major does not have to be stressful. In almost all situations, nothing in academia is ever final. Even with graduation looming, you can always take an extra semester or two. With time, you will find an area of study that you enjoy and that is fulfilling.

Have an open mind,  utilize your advisers’ expertise, and be open to trying new experiences. Everything will fall into place.

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Author: Erin Nicole Celletti

Erin Celletti is a freelance journalist and the Director of Communications at Integration Charter Schools. With seven years of classroom teaching and leadership experience, Erin has a BA in Journalism from Quinnipiac University, as well as a M.S.Ed. in Childhood and Special Education from St. John's University, and a M.S.Ed. in School and Building Leadership from Wagner College. Erin lives in Hoboken, NJ with her husband, and baby girl on the way. Her work has also appeared in BRIDES, Teen Vogue, Allure, and TODAY Parents.