Do You Need to Have a Major When Starting College?
By Surya Ramanathan
Johns Hopkins University, B.S. in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, B.S. in Economics, and M.S. in Applied Economics
7 minute read
Going to college in and of itself can seem daunting, let alone thinking about a major that you want to pursue for the next four years. It’s a choice that can feel as weighty as choosing your destiny. However, the question arises: do you have to know what you want to major in when you enter college? We’ll start by looking at some of the pros and cons of entering college with a predetermined major, and then transition into why you don’t have to know your major the second you step foot on campus and some middle-ground approaches you can take.
Coming into college and knowing your major and what you want out of it can present many benefits:
Clarity of Purpose
Choosing a major before stepping foot on campus can provide a sense of direction and clarity. If you choose a college major based on your post-graduation plans, your educational experience can feel much more structured, as you can complete the necessary prerequisites early and choose electives that are best suited to your interests. Furthermore, completing your prerequisites early on gives you a slight opportunity to explore other classes that may be of interest to you.
Declaring a major early provides you with the unique advantage of building valuable relationships with professors and peers who share your academic interests. Assuming this is the major you will graduate with, these connections can open doors to research opportunities, internships, and mentoring that might not be as readily available to students who are still exploring other options. Networking in the field of interest to you can be instrumental in your academic and professional journey.
Focused Skill Development
Majoring in a specific field enables you to concentrate on developing specialized skills and knowledge within that discipline. By immersing yourself deeply in a chosen subject area, you can gain expertise and experiences that will make you a highly competitive candidate in your future career. For example, if you major in computer science, you can dedicate your time to honing programming skills, software development, and other technical proficiencies that are highly sought after.
Though there are clear benefits to knowing your major when you enter college, there are cons that come along with declaring a major early:
College is one of the last few times in your life when you will have the flexibility to truly explore whatever you want with minimal risk. Choosing a major early on can limit your exposure to a wide range of subjects and potential interests that you didn’t know you had. By taking classes solely required for your major, you may miss out on the opportunity to explore new fields and discover new passions you never knew you had. College is a unique time to broaden your horizons, and committing too early may result in missed chances for intellectual growth and discovery.
The pressure to decide on a major before you’re ready can lead to heightened stress and anxiety. This stress can affect your overall college experience, impacting your mental and emotional well-being. It’s essential to remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers immediately and that taking your time to make an informed decision is a valid approach. Additionally, if your interests change over time, which we’ll cover next, you may feel even more pressure and stress regarding your current position.
As you progress through college, your interests and goals may, and most likely will, evolve. What once seemed like the perfect major might no longer align with your passions or career aspirations. Maybe that class that you thought would be perfect showed you that the major you’re pursuing isn’t for you. Or maybe you joined a club outside of your comfort zone and realized that that is where your true interest lies. Whatever the reason may be, flexibility in your course of study can help you adapt to these changes and ensure that your education remains aligned with your evolving goals.
So, it’s clear that coming into college with a declared major clearly has its pros and cons. But does that mean you have to come in knowing what major you want? Absolutely not! According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 80% of students end up changing their major at least once in college. Coming into college without a declared major can present many advantages:
Freedom to explore
One of the most significant advantages of not declaring a major right away is the freedom to explore a wide range of subjects. College is a unique time in your life when you have access to an array of courses and disciplines. Seizing this opportunity allows you to discover new interests and passions you might have never discovered.
Personal growth and development
College is not just about academics. It’s also a time for personal growth and self-discovery. By not rushing into a major, you can concentrate on developing essential life skills, building relationships, and broadening your horizons. This holistic approach to education often results in having a more well-rounded and adaptable skillset.
Some of the most exciting fields today are at the intersection of different disciplines. By delaying your major choice, you can explore multiple areas of interest, potentially discovering novel combinations that align perfectly with your unique passion. For me, I wanted to pursue finance and was able to pursue this interest by studying the intersection of math and economics.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the job market is evolving rapidly, and the careers of the future may not exist today. Delaying your major allows you to adapt to changing circumstances, pick up relevant skills, and remain flexible in an ever changing world. You may even witness changes in the job market during your time at school which will influence the major you pick. I witnessed a huge shift in job market dynamics through COVID, which heavily influenced the paths that some of my friends decided to pursue.
From my personal experience, I tried to strike a middle ground. I knew the general area that I wanted to pursue (mathematics), but I wasn’t sure how exactly I wanted to apply it. So, I chose a major that would allow me to explore a bit while keeping me focused on the area I was interested in. My applied mathematics major allowed me to do just this. Coming into college, I was primarily interested in data science, so I declared as an applied math major with a focus on scientific computing. However, as I progressed through school, I realized that I was much more interested in the financial aspect of math, which led me to switch to a focus on financial mathematics in my sophomore year. Although I didn’t fully switch my major, I did end up adding on an economics major! I’ve had many friends who completely switched their majors in their junior year of college, transitioning from chemistry to computer science.
Choosing a major is not a one-time, irrevocable decision. It’s a journey, and the destination might take some time to reveal itself. Embrace the uncertainty, keep an open mind, and trust that your experiences will lead you down a path that aligns with your evolving passions and aspirations. College is a transformative time in your life, and sometimes the best approach is to let it shape you as you discover who you truly are and what you’re passionate about. Remember, entering college without a declared major is not just acceptable, it’s often a wise and liberating choice!
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