Choosing a major isn't easy, and it's a rare student who picks the perfect one on the first try. Survey results from Indiana University estimate that only 20 percent of students keep the major they selected on their admissions application, and a 2014 study by Princeton University found that 70 percent of its students change their major at least once after enrolling.
In case you're not quite sure how to tell whether you are in the right place at the right time to change your major, we've put together a guide to help you sort it out. Ask yourself these seven questions to find out if changing majors might be the right move.
1. Is your current major just not clicking?
Does the material in your major-subject classes never seem to hold your interest? Did you only choose your current major based on parental expectations or other social pressures? Do you constantly daydream about studying something else or have nightmares about working in your field of study after graduation? If you answered yes to any of these, you might have started your education on the wrong path.
Now, just about every student daydreams from time to time, and just about every degree program contains a course or two that is likely to bore your eyes shut. However, the kind of disinterest that merits changing majors should be a chronic condition -- that is, if you are constantly bored and daydreaming, or if you are having daily regrets about your decision to study what you're studying, it may be time to consider a new major.
2. Have you taken elective or intro courses in the subject you want to switch to?
Oftentimes, students start out in the wrong major because they didn't have a clear picture of what they were getting into when they declared the major in the first place. If you are currently enrolled in college, you are surrounded by opportunities to test out prospective, new majors by taking starter courses in the disciplines you're interested in.
If you haven't already taken an introductory or elective course in the new major you're thinking about, it's definitely recommended that you do so before charging ahead. Most entry-level courses do not have very many prerequisites, so chances are good that you'll qualify to take a glimpse at other majors from the inside before committing to a switch.
3. Will you have to start over from square one?
Credits you've earned from general education courses often transfer fairly well between academic departments -- you're unlikely to find yourself repeating college algebra or English comp if you have completed them once -- but the lower-division courses of your current major may or may not count toward the program you're hoping to transfer into.
Here's an example: Imagine you are a computer science major who has already completed four or five semesters of software development courses, and suddenly you realize that your true passion lies in the theater. Becoming a theater major is an option for you at this stage of the game, but it's likely that all your computer science coursework will convert to elective credits and you'll end up spending an extra year or so of time and tuition before becoming eligible for graduation.
According to higher education consulting firm AcademyOne, students still working on the first 60 credits of their existing major typically have an easier time switching majors than those already five or more semesters deep into their degree. It's not impossible to switch if you're beyond the 60 credit mark, but you may have to be ready to take on a fair amount of extra work.
4. Just how much extra money will it cost to graduate?
Even if some of your current subject's courses can be counted toward the completion of your new major, switching your focus may cause you to incur additional course fees or potentially raise your per-credit rate. Enrolling in summer semesters and taking online classes can help ease the scheduling burden a bit, but the out-of-pocket cost for all those extra credits is going to have to come from somewhere.
Policies on tuition, fees and graduation vary from institution to institution, so sitting down with an advisor is likely your best source of hard data on the costs you may be facing. Unexpected financial burdens can be one of the most challenging parts of choosing a new major. Knowing just what you're in for in that regard can make your decision all that much easier.
5. Does your chosen career path require you to change majors?
Some career fields -- accounting, medicine, engineering and a few others -- tend to strongly prefer job candidates with degrees that are a close match to the career's scope of practice. Other fields, however, are less particular. It may not be common knowledge on campus, but college graduates all over the country have been able to find rewarding careers in fields that don't exactly mirror the subject they chose to study in school.
Here are a few common career fields and the variety of degrees that their employers may accept, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- Market researcher: business administration, English, communications, statistics, math, computer science
- Public relations specialist: English, journalism, communications, business administration
- Web designer: graphic design, computer science, computer programming
- Management analyst: economics, marketing, psychology, statistics, political science, computer science, psychology, English
Talking to a career advisor may be the best way to find out if your new career ambitions can be achieved by adding just a few additional courses to your current major. In many cases, adding the right minor to your current path of study may make more sense than declaring a whole new major.
6. Is there a better major within your current department?
Changing majors intradepartmentally can help you avoid a lot of the hassles that might come with reorganizing a study plan. Although certain nuances of curriculum may differ slightly from program to program within a department, they typically share a large portion of their general education core and permit easier credit transfer from one degree to another.
If you are an engineering student, for example, switching to another science, technology, engineering or math degree may help your completed courses hold their value and continue to count toward graduation. On the other hand, if you switch from engineering to history, political science or another similar discipline of the humanities, you may be in for a bigger shakeup than you expect.
7. How many knowledgeable sources have you talked to?
The decision to change majors is ultimately yours alone, but the expanded perspective available from outside sources can help you make that decision from a more mature frame of reference. Anyone on this list may be able to help you take a well-rounded approach to your decision:
- University advisors
- Career center personnel
- Members of associated campus organizations
- Close friends
- Professors and lecturers
- Tutors or upper-division students in your new major
You don't have to talk to everyone on campus before deciding, naturally, but the right advice can make all the difference in some cases.
Final thoughts: Proceed with caution
In 2014, the national aggregate student debt topped $1 trillion. Paying down even your tiny portion of that massive figure can be a daunting prospect, and those that extend their stay in school without considering the consequences may end up shouldering more than their fair share.
It's important that you enjoy your college experience and that it prepares you well for life after graduation, but it's also important to take practical realities into account. If your heart is telling you that you need to change your major, then by all means you should look into doing so -- just remember to take an honest inventory of your situation and make sure you're ready for the consequences.
"The Cost of Changing Majors," MoneySmarts, Indiana University, accessed October 15, 2015, http://moneysmarts.iu.edu/tips/beyond-tuition/changing-majors.shtml
"70 percent of students change major after enrollment, study finds," The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University, Corinne Lowe, September 18, 2014, accessed October 15, 2015, http://dailyprincetonian.com/news/2014/09/70-percent-of-students-change-major-after-enrollment-study-finds/
"10 Reasons Why Students Change Their Majors," The Shorthorn, The University of Texas at Arlington, Shelly Williams, October 10, 2012, accessed October 15, 2015, http://www.theshorthorn.com/life_and_entertainment/reasons-why-students-change-their-majors/article_9620078e-1326-11e2-9338-001a4bcf6878.html
"For Students Changing Major s and Exploring College Transfer," CollegeTransfer.net, AcademyOne, accessed October 15, 2015, http://www.collegetransfer.net/ContinueMyEducation/ChangeSwitchTransfer/TransferStudentCenter/ForChangingMajors/tabid/999/default.aspx
About Us, AcademyOne, accessed October 15, 2015, http://www.academyone.com/about-us
"How to Decide if You Should Change Your Major," Campus Explorer, Ashley Henshaw, accessed October 15, 2015, http://www.campusexplorer.com/college-advice-tips/B09B75F0/How-to-Decide-if-You-Should-Change-Your-Major/
Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed October 15, 2015: Market Research Analysts, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/market-research-analysts.htm; Public Relations Specialists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/public-relations-specialists.htm; Web Developers, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/web-developers.htm; Management Analysts, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Management-analysts.htm;
"Is the $1 trillion student loan debt really a crisis?," The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, May 1, 2014, accessed October 15, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/05/01/is-the-1-trillion-student-loan-debt-really-a-crisis/