US College Guide Part #2: Choosing A Major

US College Guide Part 2: Choosing A Major

Going to any Top 100 US university can be an incredible and transformative experience. These universities generally offer flexibility and training in how to think in new ways and incorporate different academic approaches and methodologies. They offer an interdisciplinary aspect to their education, as universities want their students to be well-rounded; even if you’re in the room with a professor or a student from a very different academic background, you shouldn’t feel completely adrift. So, at the undergraduate level, students get exposure to subjects outside of their major. 

How do you know which universities to apply to? And given the many subjects you could major in – most of which you probably have not taken classes in before – how do you know what major to choose?

First, keep in mind you do not need to select a major before you apply. After all, one of the benefits of the US system is that you can try different things. It’s great for someone who is undecided.

However, knowing what subjects you might want to explore further can help you figure out what schools might be the best for you to apply to.

Raise your awareness: Check majors on school websites

Even if you’re not at all familiar with US universities, you’ve probably heard about at least a few of them. Take a look at their websites and see what majors they have. Even if you don’t plan to apply to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, there’s no harm in looking through the majors offered there – a lot of universities take their cue from these schools and try to offer similar things.

Looking through Harvard’s majors, for example, or what they call “fields of concentration”, you’ll come across subjects you probably didn’t have in your high school or junior college. Examples include: Anthropology, Astrophysics, History of Art and Architecture, Near Eastern Languages, Neuroscience, Comparative Study of Religion, East Asian Studies, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Philosophy, Folklore and Mythology, Chemical and Physical Biology, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Classics, Linguistics, Human Evolutionary Biology, and Women, Gender and Sexuality studies. 

Of course, there are also the usual suspects most students are somewhat familiar with: Computer Science, Economics, Psychology, Chemistry, Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and so on. But in the US, you can take things in combination – either as a Major and Minor, Double Major, or simply as the hodgepodge of courses that you take primarily in a couple of areas or in several different areas. The US university education system values flexibility and well-roundedness, so students typically take subjects outside of their main major, and they often switch majors.

Even if you already know you’re interested in exploring further a subject that you’ve taken in high school (or IB or JC), you might see if there are additional interests you can explore. 

Once you identify a couple of subjects of interest, you can look for the best universities in each of those two areas. This is an approach I often take when helping students identify schools. For example, if an applicant I am working with has interests in business management, hospitality, and environmental science, the school list I recommend will have universities that are strong in all or most of these areas.

Explore unfamiliar majors before narrowing in

There’s no need to make a snap decision about a major based on your (lack of) familiarity with the subject. Perhaps you see the major ‘Anthropology’ or ‘Neuroscience’, but you’re not completely sure what that field involves exactly. There are plenty of ways to learn more. University websites will be a good resource. Again, even if you don’t intend to apply to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford – or for that matter, MIT or Caltech on the more technical side – these schools’ websites for a particular major can give you a good description of what the course is about, what research areas are explored, what traits students should have, and what skills they will develop. They will also provide some information about what students go on to do after graduating with a degree in that area. All of this can go a long way in showing you whether it may be an area you’d want to explore.

Aside from school websites, you can try taking an online course in the subject just to get a sense of what it’s like, or find a summary of information through resources like Wikipedia or YouTube – in that case, just make sure the actual source is credible. 

In addition, you might be able to connect with a current student in the major you’re interested in learning more about. Hearing about a student’s individual experience can be quite informative, but be sure to take it with a grain of salt. Many things could be coloring someone’s perception of the major, so it’s helpful to get more than one opinion. 

Taking twenty minutes a week every so often to explore an area you think you might be interested can go a long way in helping you shape your college journey.

How important is the major for your career prospects?

Many students are interested in majors that do not seem like they would translate to a specific job, and as a result, they don’t consider exploring those subjects. In Singapore, many students and parents I speak with assume that something in the sciences, business, or economics will be a sure way to get a job, leading to career results.

In the US, it is not usually the case that a certain major is needed for a particular job, unless your target job requires specific technical skills. If you want to be an engineer or computer scientist, for example, you would major in relevant subjects. 

On the other hand, if you’re interested in pursuing a PhD and becoming a professor, any major can be fine for that career.

Many students look to work for MNCs after graduating – perhaps at a large financial institution or consulting firm. In that case, companies will train you in what you need to know, but general communication, teamwork, and research skills would always be helpful to have before you apply to most companies. Whether you major in Comparative Literature or Applied Mathematics, you should build up your transferable skills anyway, and companies won’t care too much about what you majored in as long as you have those skills. 

So, does someone who majored in business stand a better chance at getting a job with JP Morgan, Deloitte, McKinsey, or Bain, compared to someone who majored in Social Sciences or English Literature? Not necessarily. Aside from transferable skills, most employers are also usually looking for certain personality traits and interesting experiences – not subject matter knowledge (the exception again being for jobs like ‘engineer’, etc). Building your resume while you are a university student (working in libraries or as a research assistant, for example, or doing internships during your summer breaks) can also be more helpful than selecting any particular major.

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