Choosing a Major in College

Parent Q&A

  • My family recently went to an open house for new and prospective students at Oregon State University with our son, who's a high school junior.  OSU has what sounds like an excellent program aimed at helping students decide what they want to major in.  The core of it is a 2-credit course that includes self-assessments of various kinds, exploration of different majors, learning how to research careers, and a variety of guest speakers.  They say that 90+% of students who go through the program declare a major within a term or two.

    This struck me as a perfect program for my son, but for other reasons Oregon State didn't appeal much to him (though I loved it for the many opportunities undergrads have to participate in research with faculty members, and for the wide range of academic support available).

    I'm hoping parents here who've been down this road before us will know about other colleges that have strong programs for helping students decide what to major in (or maybe feedback about the OSU program).

    Thanks in advance.


    I am a College Advising Specialist who taught in the English and University Studies departments at Sonoma State University for ten years. During my time at Sonoma State, I taught many first-year student courses designed to help them matriculate into college. What I noticed immediately was that over half of the students in my classes were undeclared, and I came to discover that being undeclared was actually a good place for most of them to be. When your son goes to college, he will have two years of general education courses that he must take, and during that time, he will notice what subject matter interests him. Many of the first-year students who had declared a major switched it once or even twice before graduating. College is a time of exploration and growth, so it isn't a surprise that they don't stay with a major that is chosen early on. Encouraging your son to form bonds with professors teaching classes that he finds interesting is a great way to help him navigate through the process of choosing a major.  Also be certain to counsel him to meet often with his academic advisor so he's getting good support. Today, more than not, students are either double-majoring or declaring a minor so that they feel more well-rounded at the end of their undergraduate studies.    Wishing you and your son all the best! 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


College freshman with law school goal is worried about major

July 2014

My daughter just graduated from high school. She is already SIR'd to Cal Poly SLO, but now she thinks that she should not major in a technical subject but rather be a Political Science major with the goal of eventually attending a law school. She is now torn between the two choices:

1. to proceed with Cal Poly and receive a non-technical degree from a university technical specialty (she is afraid that such degree would not lend her enough credibility), or
2. going to a community college and transferring to a UC for junior year.

She needs professional counselor's advice to help her finalize her decision as soon as possible and does not want this advice to come from a specific university's counselor or her parents, to keep the advice unbiased. Where can she go for such help? Anon

I can't give her the specific advice she needs, but I hope your daughter doesn't think that she needs to have a Poli Sci degree to go to law school. All kinds of majors go to law school, and employers love science majors with law degrees. Lawyer Mom

I'm sorry I don't know a college counselor for you, but I'd like to share some thoughts.

Your student shouldn't count on being able to change her major at Cal Poly-- it's VERY difficult-- although she could add a minor to explore other interests. Cal Poly has a tiny enclave of about 1000 liberal arts students. It's a respected school, where she could get the four-year college experience (with a surprisingly conservative and Christian student body). And a technical background doesn't keep you out of law school: I personally know architecture and electrical engineering majors who went to law school.

If your student hasn't already taken a Meyers Briggs test, she can do one online (or perhaps the college counselor you find can administer one). She should at least see if she would probably be happy practicing law: Is she hard-working, organized, confident, detail-oriented but able to see the big picture, good at thinking and speaking on her feet, good at reading and writing, assertive and not easily intimidated? Three years of law school is an expensive way of finding out that practicing law is not for you; and women drop out of law practice disproportionately. Best of luck.

College Freshman has no major/career interest

April 2013

Our soon-to-be 19 year old son is finishing community college in another town, living in a rental company house with 5 other boys. He is not doing well academically but has learned to navigate being on his own and surviving ok. He has some friends and a life. He is stressing out about not having a definite career path. Or some direction. He loves cell phones and games. He has taken basics this year in college. He was a preemie and has some educational/vision problems. Who can I refer him to for testing in late May when he is home again? He went to career dept. on campus recently and took tests telling him to become a paralegal or florist. Neither are good for him...he has no idea about flowers/gardening and is not detail oriented to become a paralegal. Any suggestions for assisting him? Son needs a path

My brother didn't decide on his degree at a CSU until all his GE classes were done, and then studied photojournalism, interned, and started on his career. He is a photographer for a major daily newspaper now. I remember how my mother stressed about his ''aimlessness'' in college!

I realize it's your son who is stressing, maybe more than you, but I would encourage him to keep taking his general education requirements and not stress too much about his career yet. Going to school, working a part-time job, and growing up are important growth steps also.

''A career'' is such a monolithic idea, it can seem very esoteric. In reality, most jobs are not well-known, like police officer or fire fighter. I work as a writer for nonprofits, assisting the fundraising departments--a job that my journalism teacher had never heard of when I asked her for ideas of non-journalism writing careers. Your son can look at local job listings and read the descriptions to learn more about what people do in their careers. Encourage him to attend job fairs on campus an elsewhere and chat with the people at the tables. Have him ask people what they do for a living. Internships and volunteering are great ways to test drive jobs.

Most 19-year-olds don't know what they want to do for a living yet. Ironically, I did--I'd always wanted to be a writer. And everyone discouraged me! We all have different paths to our adult jobs. time and patience

For enormously valuable testing related to career choice go to Johnson O'Conner Research Associates in San Francisco. It's not cheap but worth every penny. Been there

Sophomore is having trouble picking a major

Nov 2010

My young adult started sophomore year in college and is having a difficult time choosing a major, torn between English courses that she enjoys and the feeling that she should major in the far more rigorous sciences because she would really get to know a subject in depth. While I'm happy to have her pursue either direction, I think she could use some guidance as she seems increasingly upset about her indecision. Her university doesn't provide much in the way of advising and I wonder if there are other resources that she should consider. Or should I just let her deal with it? Wondering the best way to be supportive.

Maybe take your daughter to Alumnae Resources in SF, and talk to them. I'm wondering if she could meet with a few different people who have careers that interest your daughter and see which paths they took to get there. Alumnae Resources 120 Montgomery St.Suite 600, San Francisco, CA, 94156 Ann

I just participated in a panel discussing selecting the right major at Berkeley for a bunch of freshmen. Believe me, most kids don't know what to major in at first. This is why we have ''lower-division'' and insist on the student completing breadth requirements - to experience many different kinds of courses and perhaps find their passion.

But here's the lowdown - and it is key. If your daughter loves her English courses and does *great* in them, and doesn't love science and doesn't do nearly as well, consider the hard cold fact that *every* major corporation asks any prospective employee what his / her GPA was as an undergrad and automatically eliminate anyone under 3.5GPA for the interesting jobs.

Yes, 3.5GPA is usually the cutoff - and people 30 years out of college have faced this question in their job hunt in recent years, so it doesn't go away.

So if she is considering a science degree cynically, but is not a tip-top student in the field, but is a great student in English or psych or history or polisci or econ or anthropology, and she does not intend to go on to a Ph.D. in research and instead is thinking of working for Google or HP or GM or a startup, consider the GPA and the passion.

Because when all is said and done, it's the passion and the skill (as measured in the objective of a GPA) that employers consider.

Finally, if she wants to go on to a Ph.D. in English or anthropology or history or economics, or maybe to law or business school (realize most humanities, law and business are pretty flexible about your undergraduate major), a tip-top GPA and GRE gets her into the best graduate schools.

So the most important thing is to *love* your field, build your mentorships with professors, do internships (I was in DC last month on Capital Hill and met some great Congressional interns) and *excel*. University is *not* just training for your next job - it is intended as an apprenticeship for depth in a field and instill teach flexibility in an ever-changing global economy. Good Luck

Choosing a major can be stressful especially in these dark times when the old adage do what you love and the money will follow has been disproven. Seeing a counselor for therapy might be a good idea if she's feeling overwhelmed.

I would have a frank conversation with her. There's no need to spend time or money on college/life counselors/coaches, etc. If you are wealthy and willing to support her indefinitely, I would encourage her to major in English. Tell her you will finance her happiness. Otherwise, I would encourage her to major in science and start preparing for graduate school. Tell her you want her to be able to afford rent and groceries and maybe an occasional night on the town. Lots of classes in English won't make that happen. A career in science probably will. Former Liberal Arts Pauper

It was interesting to read the variety of answers about how to choose a major. I just explained to my college bound HS senior that I had 9 majors over 7 colleges. Nothing is permanent and in the world our kids face, careers will be even less permanent. I recommend following own's passion and then working out the steps needed for a livelihood. We all want to encourage our kids to do well in school, but I would differ from one answer that said a GPA of 3.5 is everything. While some jobs may ask about GPA, I have been a successful healthcare professional for 35 years and I can't remember anyone asking my GPA. I currently work independently and have a dozen clients and no one has asked for my GPA. Graduate schools and training programs obviously ask for transcripts from prior schools. I've never heard of or seen an automatic GPA cut off including when I've sat on admissions panels evaluating candidates for our training program. Kate

''...consider the hard cold fact that *every* major corporation asks any prospective employee what his/her GPA was as an undergrad and automatically eliminate anyone under 3.5 GPA for the interesting jobs. Yes, 3.5 GPA is usually the cutoff - and people 30 years out of college have faced this question in their job hunt in recent years, so it doesn't go away.''

Really? Here are the cold hard facts of my corporate life at a Johnson & Johnson company. J is MAJOR - #33 on the Fortune 500 list - and never do we consider grades in hiring. We have a young staff. We hire people straight out of college, as well as people in their 30s and beyond, and we don't ask about grades. I checked with other departments to see if hiring policies vary and managers laughed at the question. We hire people whose skills and personalities fit our corporate culture and can do an excellent job. Period. And we test people to see if they'll be able to do the job. We're a high-tech company, serving millions of parents around the world. We hire marketers, product managers, engineers, editors, salespeople, and many other types. The proof is in the pudding -- grades tell you nothing. Same goes for where you got your degree(s). We've discovered that going to Harvard doesn't mean you're brilliant or that we want to work with you. We end up hiring people with all sorts of college backgrounds. As one manager in another department put it when I asked her for a reality check, ''grades are only important for getting into college.'' I've worked for three other huge corporations as well, and never were grades mentioned. Come on people, this is the real world. Good grades do not equal success in adult life. I'm sure there *are* companies that require a certain gradepoint average. But as bureaucratic and stodgy as J can be (the company is 100+ years old), it does not have any such policy. And would you really want to work for one that did? Lighten up and stop worrying about what your kids major in. Enjoy your children and encourage them to pursue their passions. College is only the beginning of a long, long journey. I've been out of college for decades and only now do I see what I *should* have majored in! Yes, youth is wasted on the young. And there's nothing we can do about it. -- A contented corporate drone

Although I am a little tardy, I have to write in and agree with the person who said that following one's talent (this is important -- the area in which one will excel) and following one's passion is much more important at the undergraduate level than trying to gauge which major will be most marketable. I disagree quite emphatically (and was rather offended, actually) by the person who said that an English major should have wealthy parents willing to support him or her through life. An education in the Humanities (philosophy, history, arts, languages and culture) is perhaps the single thing most missing among many of those currently participating prominently in American popular discourse. So there's that: what kind of society do we want? But more personally, I have taught in the Humanities and advised students for more than twenty years. And I know people with degrees in the Humanities who have gone one to have splendid careers in law, business, government, journalism, scientific (yes) research (psychology and medicine, to name two fields), and... Humanities professions! Filmmakers, travel writers, managing editors of publishing companies -- I personally know Humanities majors who have been very successful in those fields. One of my best friends from graduate school was a major in Classics who learned ancient Greek and participated in archeological digs at Corinth in Greece before going to law school and becoming a prominent lawyer. Now he's a lawyer who knows a great deal about the origins of law and democracy in the Western world. Please do not let this economic downturn push you toward selling your child (and our culture) short.

sign me as: former English and language major doing nicely without $$ from Mom and Dad

Just had to put my two cents in after reading the post from the guy at Johnson and Johnson. I work for the Social Security Administration. To be admitted to the initial exam we had to have a B.A. with membership in a college honor society to try for level GS-5 and have a major they thought useful like Public Admin., Government or Public Health to be put on the list for GS-7. This was really annoying to me because I have an M.A. and a Teaching Credential. Even though my credential covered many relevant courses, it was not a ''degree'' so it didn't count. So now I am training with people who are being paid about $8,000 more a year because of their relevant M.A. Anthropology did not cut it. Incidentally, on the positive side, the SSA is rated the sixth best federal agency to work for (right behind the Smithsonian)and they will be hiring thousands more in the next few years. They pride themselves on their diversity so this past year at my facility they hired 65% from groups generally considered ethnic minorities, 10% disabled, 10% Vets, and a few of us older folks. We have a whole crop of recent grads from UC Davis. Being bilingual also helps to get a job there. Out of about 1000 employees at the facility we speak collectively over 64 languages. The upshot is yes, some organizations do care about your grades (and your major). coco