Major Decisions: What to Consider when Choosing Your Classes

College Classes

By Jessica Gross

How much should your career influence your major?

I studied anthropology, so you can guess my perspective. When I told my father my decision sophomore year, he responded, “Anthropology? What do you do with that?” So you can guess his, too.

There’s no right answer—it all depends on your priorities, your goals, and your school.

On one extreme: College is meant for exploring options and expanding boundaries. You have four years to take classes that interest you; you have the rest of your life to be career-minded. On the other extreme: College is a training ground. You should go in with a career goal and take courses that will help you succeed.

I was into the “expanding boundaries” mentality. On my registration forms, my two likely major choices were English and physics. Freshman and sophomore years, I took Hebrew, multivariable calculus and gender studies. I also discovered anthropology (which I used to think meant digging up fossils)—the perfect choice for me, even though the only professions that directly follow are being an anthropologist or professor. (I’m currently pursuing neither.)

Other students adopt the opposite perspective: They enter college with career goals and gear their coursework toward professional ends. Samira Farouk graduated from Princeton University in 2007 with a B.S. in chemical engineering, and now studies at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Her method for choosing a major, unlike mine, accounted for both her interests and her career.

“I chose to be premed sometime early on in high school, and couldn’t really see myself doing anything else. Science had always interested me, and my interactions with and observations of doctors confirmed my decision,” she wrote in an email. “I first chose CHE [chemical engineering] because of both interest in the material and its potential usefulness. Currently, engineers are not that common in medical school, so some had mentioned that they are more ‘desired.’ I liked both chemistry and math in high school and thought it might be a challenging major which would provide me with a solid background for medical school. Also, I chose CHE as a ‘backup’ in case I decided that medical school was not for me. I decided that a career as a chemical engineer would be something I could potentially see myself doing, if I changed my mind about becoming a doctor.”

Here’s where goals play a role: Some career paths don’t have college coursework prerequisites, but others do. In both cases, relevant courses can help. Even graduate schools or jobs that don’t have formal requirements value college grads’ interest in the material. But either way, there are alternatives to choosing your job before your major—an advisable option if you’re not set on a career.

“Medicine really is one of the only ones that requires some real forethought about the coursework,” said John Noble, Director of Career Counseling at Williams College. Other careers that necessitate particular coursework include accounting, engineering, and architecture, according to Ann Malen, Director of the Career Center at Colorado State University.

But if you decide to pursue one of these careers later in college—or even after college—you still can. (Otherwise, changing careers would be impossible.) There are post-baccalaureate programs that enable college graduates with no background in fields like medicine and engineering to take the necessary prerequisites.

Even if there aren’t any set-in-stone requirements, studying a relevant field can show graduate school admissions officers or job interviewers you’re interested in the material.

“Other professional schools are certainly interested in what you’ve majored in as an indicator of your interests. For example, if you wanted to go to a school of public policy, they’d want to know that you were interested in political science, history,” Noble said. “Same is true for business, for people here who want to go into finance. If they haven’t taken an economics course here, it’s going to be hard for them to convince an investment bank that they’re interested.”

But again, this should not be a pressure to choose early: There are ways other than coursework to show interest, like doing a relevant internship or extracurriculars. Don’t box yourself into a major that you’re not passionate about because you think you want to pursue a certain career.

The type of education your school offers also bears on the importance of gearing your major toward your career. While technical schools tend to advocate majoring in a particular vocation, liberal arts schools advocate using college to gain a broad educational base.

“I think it’s different at a liberal arts institution versus one that’s more vocationally oriented. So at a place like Williams, which is a liberal arts college, the focus is on what you’re interested in intellectually and not so much on how it relates to a specific career field,” Noble said. “Generally we don’t really try to tie the major into a career choice so much as telling students to take courses that they really like and think they can do well at.”

In contrast, Malen said that Colorado State University’s career center places a premium on coursework that prepares students for their chosen professions.

“We try to work with them early so that they have more time to get more centered on what they want to do. You know, most students know whether their skills and their aptitudes lie in certain areas,” she said. “So it’s really developing a perspective on what your skills and aptitudes are [and] looking at the sort of careers that might fit.”

If you know going into college that you want to pursue a background-specific career like medicine, engineering, accounting or architecture, choosing a relevant major can save time and money later on. But using college as a testing ground for different possible career paths has other benefits, like helping you decide on a career that you’ll enjoy—not just the one that, at 17 years old, you think you’ll like. There are alternative ways to prepare for careers with specific requirements, and many ways to show your interest in certain paths, that don’t necessitate choosing a career prematurely.