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How To Choose the Ideal College Major

college planning Jul 30, 2021

Students and parents of students: Learn how to choose a college major that will result in a better school experience and career!


Dennis Guzik


Jul 30·5 min read


Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Choosing an undergraduate major is an important decision. It will impact your college experience and subsequent career path, not to mention that you want the money you spend on your education to contribute to your success and happiness. This article will help you to make a better choice as well as help to parents of students, who are faced with this choice, to provide better guidance.

The Problem: Picking a college major is stressful and confusing

When you decide to go to college you are faced with an important decision — what to major in. This decision is usually made at a point in your life when you have few personal or work experiences to guide you. Get it right and you should have a good college experience and an education you look forward to putting in to practice. Get it wrong, and you could find yourself changing majors or paying for an education that you do not want to use when you graduate.

The Solution: An easy-to-follow framework for solving the college major decision

This problem requires looking at it from different angles in order to find the best solution.

I believe that there are three main considerations to take into account when deciding on a college major. They are:

  1. What you enjoy studying and doing
  2. What you are good at doing (or could reasonably become good at with the education)
  3. What opportunities (market) will be available for you with your degree.

A good way to look at this framework is with a Venn diagram.

Combining the three components (Venn Diagram)

The situation you want to be in

  • As you can see from the diagram, you want to choose a major that puts you where the circles overlap. If you land here, you will study something that you like and are interested in, it will be something you are good at so can expect to progress your career in this area, and something for which a market exists or can be created (by you?) so you can expect to have the finances to live like you want to live.

The three situations where two of the three circles overlap, but not the third, will result in:

  • Frustration. If it’s something you like and for which there is a market, but you just aren’t very good at it. In my case, I may love ballet dancing, and there certainly are opportunities for good ballet dancers, but without years of training, discipline, and talent and I should not expect to be good enough at ballet dancing to get paid doing it!
  • Disappointment. If it’s something that you are good at, and there is a market for it, but you just plain do not like doing it. I think this can come from following the advice of well-meaning friends and family who do not know what it is that you really like to do. The disappointment comes from going to work each day and hating it. When looking over career sites such as that in Reddit, there are no shortages of people who fit this description
  • A good hobby. If you like something a lot, and are good at it, but there is no market for it, what you have done is spent a lot of tuition money to develop your hobby. However, if you have an entrepreneurial passion, and you can create that market, then you have moved to the three-circle overlap. But do not fool yourself that this will be an easy task.

Finally, you have the situations where you are on the graph but not in any overlapping circles.

  • The most common reason to end up here is (1) following your passion but nothing else, (2) choosing a major strictly based on how much money you project you can make, or (3) picking something just because you are good at it so it will be an easy thing to study. Unfortunately, these decisions occur more frequently than you would think, and almost always will lead to dissatisfaction in the end.

Putting Your Plan into Action — how to look at each of the three considerations

What you like to do.

Be brutally honest with yourself. There is no value in BS-ing yourself here. Once you are done, show this list to someone who both knows you well and has your well being at heart. You might have said (and believed) that you like being outdoors, but your reviewer may note that when you have, you have complained about it! Take a reviewer’s thoughts into consideration, but ultimately this is your very important decision.

What you are good at.

This is fairly easy for those things or study areas that you have tried. If you’ve taken advance study courses in a particular area (e.g., math) and have gotten good grades, that is an indication you are good at math. If you’ve created art works that have received attention and acclaim, that’s a good indication you are good at that art form. What is more difficult is knowing whether you can become good at something you have not tried. My advice is to look at what constitutes that area of study and see if you can claim talent there that would lead you to believe you could be good at this study area.

Where there is a market.

This is the most objective of the three, although there is a component of predicting the future in it that can be a problem. But for your near-term planning, there is plenty of information about jobs and associated demand and expected salaries to get you going. The U.S. Department of Labor’s sponsored O*Net Online is one resource.

Final Thoughts

Use of this framework will help a student choose a major. It will also help folks, like parents guiding their offspring, in choosing a major. This approach can also be helpful before going to college. If you use this framework and decide you really want to study in a particular area, then this knowledge can help you in your search for a college since you can eliminate those that do not offer that area of study.

But what happens if things change? What if I no longer like doing something? What if a market for this field wanes?

Then you adjust off this plan, but the key is you have a plan, a foundation, from which to adjust, and you are not floundering.