What Is a College Major?

What Is a College Major?

A college major is one of the most important facets of higher education, so it’s really important to understand exactly what one is.

The term “college major” is thrown around often during the admissions process, but there may be some misconceptions about what a major is and what it means for your child’s undergraduate degree.

Their choice of major will determine many of the courses they take and what their next four years will look like.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important to fully understand what a major is and to consider the many factors entailed in choosing one. 

 

What Is a College Major?

A major is a field of study, or a student’s area of academic specialization en route to a degree such as an Associate’s or Bachelor’s. It typically makes up a third to half of the total college courses that a student takes during their studies.  

A college major curriculum usually includes a core range of subjects that fosters a solid foundation of knowledge in a specific field or discipline.

 

When to Choose a Major

Some students may not immediately know what they want their major to be, and that’s okay!

Up to 50 percent of incoming freshmen begin college with an undeclared major, and an estimated 75 percent change their major at least once.

Some students avoid choosing a major for as long as two years into their college journey, as only some colleges require students to declare their intended major upon admission.

Inevitably, they will need to choose a major in order to obtain their college degree.

There are advantages to having a major in mind before entering college.

Students who know what degree they want to work towards can start taking prerequisite courses early in their studies, and they can map out their next four years of coursework.

Different majors have different class requirements, and students may not want to spend time in classes that aren’t necessary for them to graduate. 

 

Understanding Major Requirements

University departments specify each major’s required courses that are defined by the number of units or credits required in each subject area. This includes prerequisites, core courses, electives, and at times, a senior project or thesis.  

For example, a psychology major might require a certain amount of semester hours of psychology courses and another amount of hours in elective courses.

Moreover, certain advanced psychology courses will have prerequisite courses that students must take and pass prior to enrolling.  

 

Most Popular College Majors

A complete list of college majors is vast and examples range from accounting and agriculture to philosophy and so many other disciplines.  

According to Niche, which explores university rankings and reviews, the top ten most popular college majors are:

  • Business
  • Nursing
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Engineering
  • Education
  • Communications
  • Finance and Accounting
  • Criminal Justice
  • Anthropology and Sociology

 

The Difference Between a College Major, Minor, and Double Major

At first glance, picking up a college minor or second major might seem like more work for your student. While the course load may be more intensive, it can increase a student’s marketability and make them more attractive to potential employers.

Adding another skill to their repertoire can also allow them to pursue multiple interests if they aren’t yet fixed on a certain career.

 

What Is a College Minor? 

A minor is a secondary area of concentration. It can complement or enhance a student’s major, or it can be totally different from it. 

A minor is not required for all degrees and does not yield a degree in and of itself, although some schools and departments require at least one minor to graduate.

While a major typically requires around 40-60 semester credit hours of subject-specific courses to complete, a minor is generally limited to only 15-18.

Students can choose to undertake a minor because they are attracted to another field of study but do not want to take on another major. As minors require fewer credits, some students even choose to attain multiple minors.

Students may also choose another area of concentration instead of taking random electives or courses to attain credits toward their degree.

Most students won’t add any additional hours to their degree plan if they choose to pick up a minor, as they can use the elective hours required by their university to work towards their minor.

 

A Double Major

Choosing an additional major means graduating with two degrees. Students who choose to double major will earn one bachelor’s degree with both majors, and will need to satisfy all the requirements for both.

It’s important to note how this differs from a dual degree, in which students receive one degree in two different concentrations.  

Students may choose a second major with similar degree requirements to their first one, and so some or many of the courses crossover and count toward both majors. 

Common college double major combinations include education and psychology, economics and business, or engineering and mathematics. However, choosing two majors with completely different requirements (such as chemistry and criminal justice, for example), will be more challenging.

Double majoring is a consequential decision, and students who plan on double majoring should make their decision early on so they can map out how to meet all the requirements. 

Although double majoring doesn’t in and of itself increase the total amount of required hours for a bachelor’s degree, it is common for students who double major to take extra time to meet all the requirements. 

A double major will decrease the flexibility of their course schedule, and it will make it even more important for them to pass all of their classes so they can complete the required courses.

There are many advantages to getting a double major as well. The extra major can expand the opportunities they are offered in the job market, and give graduates a backup plan if they want to change career paths.

Obtaining a double major will also prove to employers that candidates have strong time management skills and are adaptable to challenging situations.

 

Undergraduate vs. Graduate Majors

There is quite a difference between an undergraduate and graduate field of study.  

The biggest difference is that undergraduate major curriculum involves courses in a wide array of subjects, while a graduate program does not.

Additionally, an undergraduate major mostly entails coursework, while a graduate major usually requires a great deal of research.  

 

How Majors Prepare Students for Jobs

Pursuing a major shows a number of things such as perseverance, dedication, and aptitude to master an area of study that appeals to future employers. Students who have their eyes on a certain career will want a major that is related to their dream job.

Some disciplines on the college majors list are vocation-specific (such as accounting, engineering, or nursing), and your child will likely continue their education after they graduate through further studies or career opportunities in their field.   

Other majors provide graduates with a springboard for more specialized training once they graduate, which may or may not be in the career field they pursue.

In these cases, it is up to individuals to demonstrate their ability to employers, and show how their college field of study relates to a job opportunity. 

For instance, students who undertake majors like philosophy, sociology, and history often go onto career paths that diverge from their subject areas.  

 

Selecting a Major

Choosing a major is an important decision for your child. It requires them to consider what they enjoy doing and what their future professional goals are.

They will also want to look at whether the jobs in their field of study are in demand, and what their realistic expectations for starting a career in their chosen field after college should be. 

They may choose a major because they enjoyed the subject in theory, but over time, their interests changed, causing them to reconsider it.

While changing majors is common, it may require additional courses, which can result in increased tuition costs and perhaps more college debt. 

A student may enjoy studying a particular field, graduate, and then find out that working in that environment is a very different story.

It is a good idea for your child to spend some time gaining real-world exposure to their chosen field before declaring it as their major so they can consider whether it is truly worth pursuing.

Deciding on a major also has a huge economic impact on the student depending on the cost of the degree, how much debt they will accrue to obtain it, and its return on investment, or what the degree’s cost will be compared to its yield in income.  

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these considerations carry even more weight.

Degree requirements, career expectations, and learning methods have all changed, so it’s important for your child to consider what the requirements and their expectations are when deciding on a major.

At first glance, knowing what a college major is may seem fairly straightforward – it is a specialized area of college study. Upon further scrutiny, a major is quite multi-faceted.

In order to have a thorough understanding, a student should examine factors such as major requirements, when to choose a major, and job preparation.  

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Maria Tzavidis

Maria Tzavidis

Maria Tzavidis comes from an extensive history of higher education administration both in admissions and advising. She believes the college admissions can seem daunting but doesn't have to be, and so she really enjoys being on the Road2College platform where she can share clear insight into many important college-related topics. Her other passions include writing, hiking, yoga, and cooking plant-based foods. You can connect with her on Facebook or LinkedIn.
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