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How to Choose the Best College Major

Updated on July 14, 2023
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the '60s and also served in the Navy during America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

The University of Wisconsin Campus in Madison, Wisconsin



Most young people enter college today just out of high school with little or no knowledge of what they want to study. For most students, receiving a college degree in any field is the key to getting a good job with a business. Therefore, some kids will elect a relatively easy college major that allows them a lot of time for partying and having a good time on campus. Others who have the talent and interest and who have already decided on a career in life will enroll in such disciplines as pre-med, pre-law, or engineering majors. Based on previous lessons learned as an undergraduate, I suggest in this article important factors a high school graduate should consider when choosing a college major.

Why Should Young People Go to College?

More high school graduates today are attending college than when I did in the early 1960s. Unless a person has little or no academic talent, college is a must for most people in today's world. I make this statement for three particular reasons.

1. A College Degree Is a Requirement for Many Jobs

When I graduated from high school in 1962, a high school diploma could land me a fairly good-paying job in the manufacturing industry. With the outsourcing of many factory jobs overseas today, it is necessary to have a college degree to secure employment in the new high-tech medical, engineering, and computer fields.

2. A College Degree Furthers Educational Development

If the youth of today truly want to develop and enrich their artistic, musical, linguistic, mathematical, scientific, philosophical, and creative thinking talents, obtaining a degree is a must. Education at a good liberal arts college will certainly make a more well-rounded and educated person.

3. College Is a Preparation for Many Careers

Without attending college, one can never prepare for a career in medicine, law, or engineering. Colleges also train professional people such as teachers, businessmen, businesswomen, computer programmers, and social workers.

How Can High School Students Start Preparing For a Career?

It is not too early for junior or senior high school students to start thinking about careers they would like to have in life. If they put off this preparation, they will later find themselves in college not knowing what they want to do or study. When I was young, I wish had thought about and prepared more for a career. Young people today, however, can do this by paying attention to the four following items:

1. Take Notice of Your Interests

In selecting a career, it is very important for people to be interested in the work they will be doing for the rest of their lives. You should make a list of the things you enjoy doing and try to match jobs that satisfy your needs. Failing to do this, you could most probably get a job where you hate going to work.

2. Explore Career Openings for Youth

After students know their interests, they must try to match these interests to career openings in today's world. The best way to do this is through the assistance of students' guidance counselors, family members and friends, and individual research. Guidance counselors, hopefully, will have resource rooms filled with audiovisual information on various careers, and also be able to schedule tours for students with willing hospitals, high-tech companies, or service industries. Family and friends could introduce students to established professional people in the community like doctors, vets, lawyers, pharmacists, and engineers. Students must also take the initiative by examining information about various careers found through the media of newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet.

3. Take Aptitude Tests to Discover Talents

Unless students know what they are good or bad at, taking aptitude tests is not a bad idea for discovering special abilities. For example, when I was in the Navy, an aptitude test revealed that I had a talent for learning languages. A student's guidance counselor should be the person to help schedule aptitude tests, and then sit down with a student to discuss the talents or aptitudes a person has based on the results of the test.

4. Find Out Which Schools Offer Career Training

Once again, a student's guidance counselor must be an important resource for helping students find suitable colleges and technical institutes for career training. Students should also approach family members and friends who are knowledgeable about schools offering career training.

Factors to Consider When You Choose the Best College Major

After students enroll in college, they most probably will have to declare an academic major before the end of their sophomore or second year. This is a difficult thing for many young people to do. Unless you are dead sure about your major when entering college, it would be best to take into consideration the following factors:

1. Interest in Subjects of Study

If you are interested in becoming a doctor, lawyer, or pharmacist, pre-med, pre-law, and pre-pharmacy majors are easy to decide on during your freshman or first year. For those students who are undecided on a major, a sampling of a variety of introductory courses in the sciences, math, English literature, foreign languages, social sciences, arts, and music during the first two years should be of great assistance in helping students gauge their interests in subjects of learning.

2. Aptitude and Ability in Subject of Interest

In choosing a college major, it is not enough only to have an interest in your subject. Your aptitude and ability in the subject of interest are also essential. I did not discover or come to reality with this fact until I failed to gain admission to medical school. When studying courses in your subject of interest, be honest with yourself and ask whether you have the smarts to compete with your classmates and easily get "A"s. If you can't and are "studying your ass off" just to get a "B," it's like banging your head against a brick wall to get an "A." At this point, you should admit that you don't have the aptitude and talent to be top-notch and successful in what you like. For example, the student who struggles to get "B"s in chemistry courses as an undergraduate most likely won't be able to do critical thinking and get a Master's or Doctorate in Chemistry.

How can a young person discover specific aptitudes? As part of the college application process, students take college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT. These standardized tests are a good marker of whether a high school student has the verbal and math aptitude for critical thinking required in most college courses. If students' scores are only average, it would seem highly unlikely that they would be able to compete in pre-med, pre-law, or engineering majors. Another way to discover aptitudes is by taking standardized chemistry, biology, and physics tests during high school. These tests should reveal any creative ability.

In choosing a college major, it is so important that there is a happy marriage between interests and aptitudes. Without this nexus, a college student will experience extreme frustration as I did years ago.

3. Finding a Job in Your Major After Graduation

When deciding on a college major, you must ask yourself whether you will be able to easily secure gainful employment after graduation. For those majoring in computer programming, engineering, or the biological fields, it will most probably be easy to get a job with a Bachelors's. However, what will your chances be of getting employment with a Bachelors's Degree in music appreciation, art history, or communications?

4. How Much Can I Earn in a Job With My Major?

Most incoming freshmen don't have wealthy parents, and therefore they must depend on student loans for college expenses. For some students, several student loans might approach more than 100,000 U.S. dollars. Needless to say, students want to get good-paying jobs so that they can easily start repaying these loans after graduation. Do students want a position as a teacher or social worker that starts at 30-35k per year or that as a computer programmer or biological technician that pays twice as much?

5. How Long Will It Take to Complete the Major?

Students must be aware that professional programs in medicine and law usually require 8 years. They should also be aware that most majors require taking a certain amount of credits which usually require four years and sometimes summer session study.

6. Is There an Opportunity for Foreign Study Abroad?

For foreign language study, there are opportunities for summer or year-long study abroad. When my sister took a pre-vet major in the 1970s, she had the opportunity to take three months of summer work and study in Norway with a participating veterinarian.

7. Who Am I Trying to Please With This Major?

The student needs to understand whom he is trying to please by majoring in disciplines such as pre-med and pre-law. If the student does it for himself and has the talent and aptitude, fine. On the other hand, if someone with no talent is trying to become an engineer because his dad is one, that person is making a big mistake.

When I was young, I decided on becoming a doctor in high school and major in pre-med in college. In retrospect, I made a big mistake because I did not carefully consider all of the important factors before making a decision. My biggest mistake was not coming to grips with the fact that I didn't have the aptitude and talent to become a doctor. When choosing a college major, hopefully, students will consider the factors that I have outlined. A happy marriage of both interest and aptitude is important for success in study.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


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