Tips for Picking the Right College Major


Incoming college students might be breathing a sigh of relief after committing to a school, but another just-as-important decision looms: choosing a major.

“It is one of the most unfair questions to ask an 18 year old,” says Robert Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review. “There’s a lot of pressure with the decision, and it can really play a major role in their future careers.”

The current labor market has college students fretting over their major choice as hiring prospects remain weak in some industries. According to The Wall Street Journal, clinical psychology majors currently have a 19.5% unemployment rate, while those with nursing and finance degrees face a much lower rate of 5% -- along with high salaries.

Salaries for new graduates are on the rise, with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reporting the starting salary for the Class of 2013 increased 2.6% to $45,633 from $44,482 the year prior.

In the wake of the recession, reports showed liberal arts majors struggled more to get a job than their peers, while science and math-related majors also tend to start with bigger paychecks.

However, according to the NACE survey, humanities and social sciences majors’ average salary jumped 2.9% and business majors saw a 2.3% bump.

The return on investment from a college degree has been called into question more frequently recently as tuition prices continue to outpace inflation and outstanding student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion last year for the first time. But studies continue to prove people with college degrees will earn more in their lifetime than high school graduates.

“Majors are worth different amounts," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “If you are taking out so much in loans that you will be paying them back for more than 30 years because of your major’s salary, that becomes a problem. You want to be able to buy more than a college degree in your lifetime.”

Choosing the right college major can make a big difference in students' career prospects and earnings potential, so here’s what experts recommend college students take into consideration when declaring their major:

It Can’t Just be About Money. “You have to have an honest academic interest in your area of study or it will be hard to have a successful and fulfilling career later,” says Franek.

Carnevale says every economist will stress the importance of earnings trajectory, but when it comes down to it, if students’ real values don’t match their major and career, they aren’t going to be very successful. “We know that some people are more social or want human engagement in their jobs while others are more solitary and thrive in a more independent environment. All of  that needs to be part of the decision.”

Get Actual Work Experience. Experiential learning bridges the gap between what is being taught in the classroom and real-world expectations, says Franek.

"One of the problems with our education system is students are isolated from the real world. It's a very academic system and there's not a lot of contact with the real world."

He says internships are a helpful to learn more about a profession, but also recommends joining networking and industry-specific groups to learn more about a potential career's hiring process, growth and expectations.

Talk to Alumni. Carnevale suggests students talk to recent graduates with the same major to learn more about their job hunt and career trajectory.

“Ask professors for names. Find out if they are working in fields related to their major, what they are making, and if they felt prepared,” he suggests.

Franek advises working with the campus career center to learn more about possible occupations within a field to best make a connection between major and career. “You need to get a sense of how what you are learning in the classroom and what you are experiencing out in the field will all blend together in your career.”

Consider the Job Market…to an Extent. The labor market is always evolving, and Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and co-author of the report, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” says two out of three students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find work at first, but they will eventually have the same earnings potential of other majors.

“For all majors, it’s about learning how to showcase the skills and experience they’ve learned during college and then applying it the positions they are applying for and proving their worth,” he says.

Don’t be Scared to Change Your Mind.  Almost every student thinks they will be a psychology major at some point, says Franek, but we don’t have a world full of therapists.

“You are going to be exposed to many things during your first and second year in college, don’t be afraid to embrace and change course,” he says.