Backing Out of a Major Once In College Isn’t As Easy You Think

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In high school, you may find that deciding what you want to do when you grow up (or even deciding on a general career area) is really tough, and that’s perfectly okay. Plenty of students are in the same boat; an article by Fermin Leal of quotes a study by YouthTruth, which found, “…46% [of students] said schools have helped them figure out which careers match their interests and abilities”, meaning a whopping 54% weren’t sure about what they wanted to do (the study was conducted over many years, and targeted juniors and seniors in high school). This makes it seem like not knowing your college major while in high school isn’t too big a deal because so many others share the same problem, but make sure you know the implications of being indecisive because the stakes can be significant.

Reason 1: Structure of Major Programs within Colleges

Every university is different. Some are very flexible in allowing students to switch around between majors, and others make it a bit harder (and in some specific cases, impossible). Make sure you extensively research how switching majors works within your targeted universities before you apply, just to be on the safe side.

Most schools allow for some flexibility, so if you decide you are more interested in bioengineering rather than mechanical engineering, you shouldn’t have too big an issue. Note that these two majors are very similar; switching from mechanical engineering to, say, psychology may be harder.

I wish I could provide details of every single university in this one article, though sadly that can’t be done. But to give a good example of how certain university major programs work, I’ll give an example of my college, UC Berkeley. At Berkeley, there are various categories of majors that fit into various “colleges”. For example, the College of Engineering captures disciplines such as electrical engineering and civil engineering, while the much larger College of Letters & Science covers things like economics and computer science. If you’re switching majors within a given college, you should have few-to-none administrative problems, but if you’re looking to have a complete switch (between colleges), you might have trouble. To some extent, the colleges within UC Berkeley are tiered, so going from one to another may be really easy or next to impossible (this is reflective of the fact that majors in certain categories tend to be a lot more competitive and demanding than others). If you were to come to Berkeley as a media studies student (in the College of Letters & Science) and decided to switch to mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, you’d have a near zero percent probability of success (and as you might guess, being stuck in a major or cluster of majors that you have no interest in can be extremely painful and potentially life-changingly negative). In general, the College of Engineering is considered the “peak” of competitiveness at Berkeley, so slots are rarely opened to those who weren’t engineering students straight out of high school. Berkeley is obviously one school of many, but it gives a good example of why at least having a general idea of your career goals is a good idea (even if you’re not sure what exactly you want to do). If you want to read more about switching majors into the College of Engineering to get a better idea of how it works, click [here].

Reason 2: Wasted Time and Money

Various sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics, all agree that at least 50% of students end up changing their majors while in college (some sources report this number as high as 80%). In the event that your targeted college(s) are indeed flexible in letting students change majors, don’t feel at ease because you know you can switch when you want and that many other students may share your fate. Switching majors at the wrong time during college can be a gruesome process, and the later it happens, the harder it can be.

Let’s say you want to major in mathematics, so your first two semesters are loaded with intense math-heavy courses. During your sophomore-year, you have a change of heart after reading an online article and decide that your true passion lies within political science. Well, you just wasted a year of college! Now some may argue that you didn’t really “waste” a year because that first year was crucial in helping you realize your true calling, but careful planning could have avoided this mess altogether. Consider the various costs: you lost roughly a year at college studying the wrong subject, you paid a year’s worth of expenses in tuition/housing/etc, and you’re probably quite stressed over your situation. Hardly an ideal situation, but there are a few workarounds that can help you mitigate the implications of such a change.

For one, most if not all schools have general requirements they require of all students, regardless of college major (sometimes these requirements may vary for certain clusters of majors). A good idea is to make sure that your first one or two semesters have a good number of these general requirements, because in the event you switch majors, you won’t have completely wasted your time (those general requirements would have been taken regardless).

Second, consider your secondary interests from the very beginning. If you’re majoring in economics but think you have an interest for, say, business, you might find that many of the requirements for those two majors overlap. Try to plan your multi-year schedule so that even in the event you have to switch majors, at the very least those early classes will have doubled as requirements for your alternate major(s). If you can’t think of any secondary interests, an idea is to take the required classes for your chosen major that you find “useful”; for example, if you’re a statistics major and at least one data analysis class is required for you to graduate, you may find taking that class is beneficial because even if you end up switching majors, you’ll have some useful real-world skills under your belt.


This article may make switching majors mid-college seem scary, but just remember, there’s plenty you can do to lessen the burden of having to swap disciplines while in university. For one, look ahead at the schools you plan to apply to and write yourself brief summaries of the rules in place for switching in majors. Once accepted, know that you can strategically plan your schedule so that in the event you do end up needing to switch, you’ll have covered some general requirements or at least have taken courses that are useful. At the end of the day, just asking yourself what you plan to do when you grow up is the best solution (and you won’t have to worry about anything this article says ever again). Although the odds of deciding to switch majors while at university are greater than 50% (based on past averages), remember that there are certainly students out there who decided their college major before college and happily stuck with them all the way through — that should be your goal. Feel free to look through Empowerly’s many great articles to find one that discusses how to choose the perfect major!

Questions? Let us know!