Focus on Majors: What Does "Major" Mean?

“What is your major?” This is probably the most-asked question asked of college students, but it can also be a source of confusion and unease for high school and college students. Let’s take a look at the different college majors and how they can apply to your future.

Simply put, a  “major” is an academic area in which you choose to concentrate your studies. You will be taking around a third of your college courses in this subject, so you’ll want to pick a field of study you enjoy and you’re good at. A major can be as broad as liberal studies or as narrow as biomolecular engineering. Broad majors give you a lot of freedom when selecting classes, whereas narrow majors provide a few choices within a carefully planned curriculum.

When considering possible majors, keep in mind that there are two broad groups: applied majors and academic majors. Applied majors (sometimes referred to as “professional majors”) are those that prepare you for a career—this would include majors like engineering, business, accounting, nursing, architecture and education. Academic majors are more pre-professional in nature. Instead of preparing you for a specific career, they will give you the tools you’ll need to further study and succeed in that area. Academic majors include history, philosophy, English and mathematics.

Some schools encourage students to design their own majors by selecting their concentration from classes with a common theme. Others make it simple for students to double major (concentrate in two academic areas) or to minor in one or more related subjects. A minor is similar to a major but requires fewer courses in that area.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of students in the United States end up changing their major at least once. On average, over the course of their college career, college students will change their major at least three times.

Most students start to concentrate in their majors beginning junior year, so knowing your interests early will help you in choosing classes for your first two years of school. Individual majors generally have prerequisites which are classes that must be taken prior to beginning the major. Therefore, students who have a solid idea of their proposed major can be sure to select these classes they might need before having to declare their major.

However, some majors begin with classes right away during freshman year. Generally, engineering students have to take an “Intro to Engineering” class their first year along with a number of science and math courses. Pre-Med students must get in their basic math and science requirements during their first two years of college, even before declaring a major. As a note, Pre-Med is not a major—many students planning on a career in the health sciences major in a related field like biology, anatomy or chemistry.

Knowing what you want to major in may be a factor when choosing your school but for many students, it plays a minor role when selecting a college. If you’re interested in a myriad of academic disciplines, be sure that your top schools offer courses that meet those interests. See if you’ll have the opportunity to select your classes from a wide range of academic subjects. If you’re more interested in the applied majors, you must be more proactive in considering majors as part of the college selection process. If you’re not sure, talk with your advisor!

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