Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a College Major

Remember when you were a kid and adults constantly asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What did you say? A firefighter! A doctor! An astronaut?

Now that you’re planning for college, you may be struggling with the same question. How do you decide? The first step toward your future career is choosing a major. Here are some questions to ask yourself when evaluating your options.

1.  What are your skills and interests?

Do you love talking to people? Or are you more of an introvert? Did you ace every math test in high school? Or were you better at writing and English? Now is the time to assess your skills and interests to see how they can apply to different careers. If you need help evaluating your strengths, most school career centers have resources that can help. Personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, can provide insight into careers that you might want to explore and point you in the right direction. And online tools, such as the O*NET Interest Profiler, can help you find how your interests relate to different careers.

2. What do you value?

How important is it to you to have a high salary? Do you love working with kids? Do you see yourself leading meetings in a boardroom, or do you dream of working outside? Think about how you value your time. Some jobs are more consistently 9-to-5, while others require you to be on call. Also, think about where you want to live—are you drawn a big city where you can walk or take public transportation to work (even if it means living in a small apartment)? Or do you want a house in the suburbs, even if it means a longer commute? Thinking about how you want to spend your days—your life—can help you decide on the kind of career which will make that possible. Not sure how to identify your values? MindTools has a step-by-step guide to get you started.

3. Have you taken a good look at what’s out there?

You may be out of school and well on your chosen career path before discovering all the professional options available. Have you ever thought about the lighting that accompanies a band at a concert or illuminates a Broadway musical? Lighting designers create the stage lighting for concerts, plays, and other theater productions—an essential role in the visual and performing arts industry that might not readily come to mind when you’re thinking about a career. Do you love fashion but excel at the numbers-crunching side of business? A career in fashion merchandising—buying and selling clothes, shoes, or accessories—might be perfect for you. Check out Inc.com’s list of “15 Dream Jobs You Didn’t Know Existed” to find an outside-the-box career.

4. Do you know what your major really means in terms of a career?

If you’re considering a major in English because you love literature, what can that translate to as a career? Teaching may be the first thing that comes to mind. But other possible careers include copywriting for an advertising or marketing firm, technical writing, or public relations. Check out this resource from MyPlan.com to find information about careers that match to different college majors.

5. How long do you want to be in school?

Some majors, like mechanical engineering, can lead directly into a job after graduation. Others, like psychology, require you to earn a master’s degree before you’ll be able to practice. Want to be an attorney? That’s three years of law school. And a career in academia could mean six-plus years working toward a Ph.D. When choosing a major, consider the length of time you’ll be in school—it may have larger effects on your finances, future opportunities, and family.

6. What is the outlook for jobs related to this major?

Selecting a career is an individual choice, but having information to compare your options can certainly help. If you’d like to learn more about the outlook for different professions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers an Occupational Outlook handbook with information on hundreds of careers. And U.S. News & World Report publishes a ranking of the 100 Best Jobs, based on different careers’ abilities to provide a mix of salary, number of expected openings, advancement opportunities, and career fulfillment. 

Still want to be an astronaut? Even if you have the right qualifications and apply through NASA, the odds of becoming an astronaut are 1-3 in 600. Most people do not end up with the exact career they envision 20 years down the road. Life will no doubt offer surprising opportunities and throw you curveballs. But taking time now for a little self-discovery, and putting thought into choosing a major, will get you started on a deliberate path that can lead to future success.