Is Changing Major In College Hard? Be Prepared

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Anirudh Kumar
Anirudh Kumar

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In high school, you may find deciding what you want to do (or even, a general career area) is tough. That’s perfectly okay. Plenty of students are in the same boat! An article by Fermin Leal quotes a study by YouthTruth, which found, “…46% [of students] said schools have helped them figure out which careers match their interests and abilities.” In other words, 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… After all, so many others share the same problem. Nonetheless, make sure you know the implications of being indecisive; because the stakes can be significant. Let’s discuss what it really takes to succeed at changing major in college.

This article will take you through a few of the reasons some view changing major in college as difficult. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to succeed, but there are reasons to consider your motivation.

Reason 1: Structure of Major Programs within Colleges

Every university is different. Some are very flexible in allowing students to switch around between majors; while 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. It’s best to do this before you apply, just to be on the safe side.

Most schools allow for some flexibility. This means that if you decide you are more interested in bioengineering rather than mechanical engineering, they can handle it. 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 discuss my college, UC Berkeley.

Example of how structures can change your course:

At Berkeley, there are various categories of majors that fit into various “colleges.” For example, the College of Engineering includes disciplines such as electrical engineering and civil engineering; on the other hand, 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; this means that going from one to another may be really easy, or next to impossible. This is reflective of the fact that majors in certain fields tend to be a lot more competitive and demanding than others. If you came to Berkeley as a Media student (in the College of Letters & Science) hoping for Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering, you’d have a near zero percent probability of success. As you might guess, being stuck in a topic cluster that you have no interest in can be extremely painful and overall negative. In general, the College of Engineering is considered the “peak” of competitiveness at Berkeley, so slots are rarely opened to later years of applicants.

Berkeley is obviously one school of many, but it gives a good example of why a general idea of your career goals helps (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

The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that at least 50% of students end up changing their major 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, still give it thought! Don’t feel at ease because you know you can switch when you want and many other students alternate often. Switching majors at the wrong time during college can be a gruesome process; 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 you 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. This may be true. Nonetheless, 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.

Save Yourself Now

That is 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. These apply regardless of college major; sometimes they 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! That way, 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.

Conclusion

This article may make changing majors in college seem scary, but just remember, there’s plenty you can do! Be prepared 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. This safe-guards for the chance that you do end up changing major in college; 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!