When asked how many times she changed her major, Indiana University junior Colleen McCann answered candidly.
“Oh Jesus,” she said, before beginning to count on her fingers. “Way too many.”
Nearly 80 percent of college students in the United States change their major at least once during their undergrad, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many students switch multiple times, leaving them to play catch-up with required courses and credits, like McCann. “I really didn’t want to take more than four years, and worrying about all the new requirements each time was stressful,” she said.
Trying to find a major that fits on the first try can be difficult. Students having trouble choosing a major often make similar mistakes when finally making a decision.
1. Listening to the Money
Nearly a third of graduating high school seniors polled in 2013 selected a major that didn’t match their interests, according to a study done by the ACT. Why would so many students pursue a field of study they have no interest in?
One word: Paychecks.
This can cause a problem academically. “I think the biggest mistake is the perception that grades don’t matter,” said Patrick O’Brien, author of the self-help book “Making College Count.” “Students may struggle during their freshman and sophomore year because they’re not passionate, so they’re not really engaged. Then later they’re stuck with a lousy GPA.”
The key is to consider both economic stability and personal interest when choosing a major. For instance, McCann added a minor in Financial Literacy in hopes of adding more job marketability to her English degree. Giving less “stable” degrees more practical pairings is a good way to find a degree that interests you and benefits your bank account.
2. Jumping in the Fast Lane
Modern college students move faster than ever and it’s taking a toll.
It’s common for students to feel pressured by family members and peers to select a major as soon as possible. In addition, rising costs of tuition leave students feeling like there’s no room for indecisiveness before student loan debt starts piling up. The cost of restarting degree requirements may be too high for students on a budget.
This can rush students into choosing their majors—even if they may not be ready.
“Choosing a major can be especially stressful for students when they think of it as one huge decision looming before them,” Director of Advising and First Year Initiatives at Indiana University Mary O’Shea said. “It can be helpful to realize choosing a major is a process, the culmination of several smaller decisions.”
The secret to finding a degree that’s right for you is being proactive. “If you just sit back and wait for it to come to you, it’s probably not going to,” O’Brien said. “You need to go out as a freshman and take the first step in figuring out what you really want to do.”
In addition to getting involved with campus clubs and activities, reach out to professors in a field of study that interests you and ask if it seems like a right fit for you.
3. Doing What Your Family Wants
Familial influence is deeply rooted in a student’s career path. A recent study at Cornell University found a correlation between students’ chosen majors and their families’ income level. Students from lower economic levels tend to go into fields with more job availability, while students from higher-income families often chose subjects like history, English or performing arts.
Whether an influence is based in finance or opinion, the fact remains: More students are feeling the pressure from their families when choosing a major.
“Every time I told my mom I was changing my major she kept telling me I needed to stay in one place,” McCann said. “She just wanted me to stick to something—anything—and follow through with it.”
When it comes to making such a big decision, try using the family as a resource. “You have an inherent advantage if you come from a family where your parents are in your field of interest,” O’Brien said. “But if they’re not, you have to have the courage to reach out and expand your horizons.”
Try shadowing family friends or community figures that are doing something interesting. It’s all about taking that first step for yourself. “You can get anywhere you want to go from any starting point,” O’Brien said. “You just have to take on an ownership mentality and make the effort.”