Choosing a major in college can be a difficult decision. Even small schools offer dozens of possible degree paths, with many being incredibly similar. Deciding on a major is one dilemma that has led to students taking longer than ever to graduate with a four-year degree. Many students select their major for the wrong reason–perhaps to please their parents or to earn a degree they think will help them become wealthy–only to realize their mistake later and switch majors, which is a costly change. Deciding on a major is seldom easy, but students can take steps to reduce the stress involved. Many students will be able to narrow down the list of possible majors by taking their interests and strengths into account. Students should be aware that choosing a major is not the same as choosing a career and their major does not have to dictate their success in life. Researching potential majors and career paths will give students more knowledge with which to make a decision, helping them tie the previous points together and, hopefully, reach a decision.

Follow Your Interests

A student’s major will be their main focus of study for at least four years, so their personal interests must be taken into account when making a decision on an academic path to follow. Someone who doesn’t enjoy math and staying inside all day and has a strong interest in working with their hands and leading a team might consider a construction management degree, but would want to stay away from accounting and economics. Moreover, most students who choose degree paths in which they have no interest do so out of the desire to make more money, but making more money will not generally make a person any happier. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars pursuing a career they dislike if it won’t make them happier?

Follow Your Strengths

Your interests shouldn’t be the only deciding factor in the decision, however. The strong areas of a personality need to be developed and engaged in any academic endeavor and should align with the person’s desired career or industry. Assessments like the TAIS Inventory, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Clifton Strengthsfinder can help students identify their basic personality traits and their main strengths, which will give them greater insight into how they interact with the world, other people and information. Knowing these things is the key to choosing an academic path and, eventually, a career in which you can excel.

A Major is Not a Career

Though a student’s career aspirations can and should influence their choice of major, they should keep in mind that a major is different from a career. Many college graduates find jobs and careers in fields that are totally removed from their area of study in college. Having highly specialized knowledge of a particular industry is helpful, but the most important aspect of college is developing critical thinking skills and learning to pair that with clear communication. Focusing on a specific major as a path to a highly specialized career can backfire for the student if they can’t find a job in their chosen industry and are forced to look elsewhere.

Do Your Research

Even if a student is aware that their major will not automatically equate to a career in the same field, it is still helpful to have aspirations. If a student is interested in pursuing a specific avenue, like carpentry or network security, they should spend time researching the requirements of the degree program as well as the industry in which they want to be employed. By gathering as much information about the field as possible, they’ll be better prepared to make a well-informed decision.

Joseph Baker’s business experience in management spans more than 15 years. A leader of development and management teams, he also implemented budget reductions professionally and as an independent contractor. Joseph led strategic planning and systems of implementation for nine organizations, public and private, and worked extensively with small businesses. His education background ranges from teaching to school administration.