Things I Wish I'd Known Before Choosing Major - picture of female college student in grass with pen to her chin thinking

9 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Choosing a Major

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Choosing a major isn’t easy. I blew through a handful myself, graduating from college not just once, but twice. As fate would have it, I’m still not working in a field related to either of my degrees.

Looking back, I had plenty of opportunities to make a better decision. Sure, I learned a lot about living on my own and taking care of myself. I made friends and memories that I’ll always cherish. But, overall, I would have been better prepared had I chosen a more marketable degree.

At 18, I was still an idealistic teenager. And while the realities of adulthood were just mere years away, they seemed totally abstract. I wasn’t worried about getting a house, starting a family, or even finding a job. I didn’t care one lick about money, and I truly believed that choosing a major based on my passions would someday take care of my bills, regardless of the reality.

Oops.

Well, it was more than just an oops. It was a $35,000 mistake.

As college costs continue rising, I cringe when I see young people making the same mistakes I did. They’re led down a path that promises a chance to “find themselves” and follow their passions; then, they’re saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, whether their future careers can support that debt or not. It’s a crippling mistake, and it can be avoided.

9 Things I Wish I’d Understood About Choosing a Major

Choosing a major didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. In reality, it was one of the most important decisions I ever made. Honestly, I didn’t fully comprehend the financial decision I was making. At 18, I may have known the consequences, but I didn’t really understand them. Here are 9 things I wish I would’ve understood before choosing a major in college.

1) Some Careers Don’t Need a Degree

My first Bachelor’s degree was in Theatre Arts. Armed with modest acting chops and no real connections, I set out to create great art and change the world doing it. Of course, I never needed a degree to become an actor. In fact, one of my professors actually encouraged us to drop out. He tried telling us that we didn’t need a degree to work in the arts. We needed talent, connections, and drive – and we weren’t going to find that in any school. What we did find was thousands of dollars of debt, which is a hella expensive backup plan with few financial perks.

2) You Actually Have to Pay Back Your Student Loans

Unfortunately, I didn’t just borrow money for tuition. I borrowed for living expenses too. Every semester, I’d get a fat check to live on for a few months. It felt like free money raining down! Intellectually, I knew I’d have to pay it back, but I was financially immature. Having never paid on a loan before, I didn’t realize what this loan would actually mean for my tiny paycheck. Once I graduated, I learned about servicing companies like FedLoan and Great Lakes who were waiting for me to start sending them money. Though my situation is bad enough, I had friends who borrowed for school then dropped out before graduating. Guess what…they had to pay those loans back too, even without the benefit of a degree.

3) You Will (Probably) Care About Money Someday

I was I idealistic. I was passionate. I was also naive. Frankly, I didn’t care about money at the time, and I never thought that I would. I was wrong. Once I felt the pain of living paycheck to paycheck, paying back those loans, and wanting more than a subsistence existence, I actually started to care. After deciding to have a family, it became even more clear that money plays a role in the family’s overall happiness. Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps.

4) If You Choose Wrong, It Costs More

After a few years of living the starving artist lifestyle, I realized I wasn’t living a life that I wanted. Because my original major had limited career potential, I decided to return to school. Choosing to follow my passion didn’t just cost me time. It cost me thousands more to get a degree I could actually use.

5) College is an Investment, Not an Experience

Don’t buy the experience hype. Academic experience and real life experience are two totally separate things. Life skills can be learned by living on your own…and for a lot less. You don’t need to spend thousands to hang out with you friends. College is fun, but remember why you’re there. You’re investing in your future earning potential, not trying to gain an experience.

6) A 2-Year Degree Can be Better than a 4-Year Degree

For decades, we’ve been sold that 4-year degrees are the only way to land high-paying jobs. That’s simply not true. Not all degrees are created equal. Colleges and universities don’t care what major you choose. They just want to sell you a degree and push you through. Pursuing a 2-year degree in a high-paying field is far better than choosing a 4-year degree that doesn’t pay squat. Careers in dental hygiene, diagnostic medical sonography, and construction management are all 2-year programs that can command upwards of $70,000 a year. Plus, Associate’s degrees usually cost considerably less than Bachelor’s degrees, so you get a far better return on your investment.

7) You Can Actually Research Wage and Employment Data

Did you know that you can research wage and employment statistics before choosing a major? It’s true. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually tracks statistics related to almost every career. The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides a wealth of information, including career summaries, educational requirements, and job outlook projections. You can also find average salaries for your field by checking out the National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. So, do your research and know what you’re getting into before choosing a major.

8) Sometimes, Your Parents are Right

I have to admit, my parents tried to talk me out of becoming a theatre major. They asked me about my future, my family, and how I planned to make money. Unfortunately, I didn’t listen. I was too blinded by my own ambitions to consider what they were trying to tell me. Instead of listening to others with life experience, I bought into the hype.

9) Surprise! The World Doesn’t Care

Honestly, I have to chuckle every time I hear somebody say, “The world needs more artists and poets.” Maybe. But if the world wanted more artists and poets, they’d get paid more for their efforts. The world doesn’t owe you a living because you’re passionate. It doesn’t care. To earn a living, you need to provide a good or service that people want and will pay for. If not, your passion is a hobby, not a job. Stick with a major that gets you paid, and practice your hobbies during your free time.

Choose a Major for the Real World

Choosing a major is a huge decision, and it can affect the rest of your life. That’s especially true if you are using debt to fund your college education. With college costs rising every year, it’s important to remember that college is an investment. It’s preparation for your future career. No matter how much passion you have for a subject, you need to weigh the return on your investment before choosing your major.

In many ways, I knew these things before I chose my own path. I was warned about them, but I didn’t follow the advice I was given. I didn’t fully comprehend the decisions I was making, nor did I understand the impact they would have later in life.

After choosing a major that doesn’t pay, I plan to show my own children the error of my ways. I want them to know what I did wrong so they can learn from my mistakes. Hopefully, you can too!

What do you wish you’d have known before choosing a major? Let us know below!

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60 Comments

  1. “At 18, I may have known the consequences, but I didn’t really understand them.” Ha! Too true. People told me the consequences of my decisions too but I didn’t really know what that would mean in terms of what would have to do later on because of those decisions.

    I think this “follow your passion” stuff is a lot of BS too. It needs an asterisk after it, with a footnote that reads, “*if it solves an economically important problem.” That advice isn’t as sexy, though.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately that asterisk doesn’t fit neatly into a sound bite. 🙂

  2. Well said! Such valuable tips that all college bound kids should know. It’s important to find a balance a career/degree that pays well and also one that you can enjoy/tolerate for a long time. It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice, but many times it is in order to pursue the lifestyle you want.

    1. Yeah, you definitely don’t want to be stuck doing something you hate either. There is a balance, but its one that needs to be struck keeping the ultimate goal (earning a living) in mind.

  3. Richard Byrne says:

    Join the building trades. Screw College, it is a “holding pen” for rich men’s kids.

    1. Trades are a great way to make a living. They cost very little to learn and can pay huge dividends! I will actually encourage my daughters not to rule out trade and vocational programs.

    2. This poor man’s daughter went to college on her own dime, got a English degree, and went on to get employment as a technical writer. Now she’s a rich woman. Don’t assume that only the rich attend college – and don’t assume that a major that people insult (like English) is useless. 😉

  4. I have a Bachelor’s degree in music, so I can definitely relate to everything you’re saying. I have a ton of friends who regret studying music in college. But I really loved the entire experience, and I think it helped me relate the artists when I worked as a concert promoter. Looking back, I wish I had taken a few more useful classes. I could have further developed my writing and graphic design skills rather than studying women’s literature for electives. I’m really grateful I went to the cheapest state school in MA rather than choosing Berklee College of Music.

    1. Ha! I hear you. I considered a music major at several private schools before I landed at a state school for theatre. I actually won a $5,000 history scholarship to a small private school in New York. I considered doing that for a second…until I realized tuition was $40K. So yeah, I’m glad I ended up at a cheaper school as well.

  5. One thing I plan to tell my kid: Don’t rule out majors, or classes, based on your ideals.
    I was such a liberal arts snob, I didn’t even consider business or accounting. I should have. I used my liberal arts degree, but only to sell used books (where a well-rounded knowledge base helped.) But I realized the longer I worked, the more I enjoyed business as much as books. I later got an MBA and I loved the accounting classes I took in it (frankly I liked all of the business classes).

    I’ve read that regardless of your major, all college students should take at least one writing class, one computer science class, one accounting class, and one public speaking class. That way they are better prepared for the work world even if their initial plan doesn’t work out.

    1. I was a liberal arts snob too, but I didn’t recognize myself as such back then. Of course, I grew out of that and now wish I had.

  6. I definitely agree that you have to choose a major that for the “real world.” For those who want to choose their passion which may have a less chance of getting a job…why not just Minor in that field or double major.

    1. Agreed. A minor would have been a much better path for me, or a double major. But as a head-strong 18 y.o. kid, I didn’t see things that way. I wish I would’ve.

  7. My BA is in History so I can definitely relate to a lot of your thoughts Greg. Unless you’re going to go into teaching or law then there isn’t a whole lot of use for a degree in History. Looking back I wish I would’ve put more thought into the long-term/investment aspect as opposed to simply going for the experience. If I were to do it over again I’d do something business related and not view student loans as free money.

    1. Yep, I totally agree. I didn’t even understand what an investment was when I was in college. I mean, I knew what it was intellectually, but I didn’t look at my time there (or the loans) as an investment. Now, I’d definitely choose a more flexible degree that was business related.

  8. My Bachelor’s Degree is in Communication. I am torn as to whether this was the best decision for me. I love online media and writing, so it makes sense. I initially chose that degree because I wanted to be a journalist, then I wanted to work in non-profit communications, then I wanted to do more public health work. Now I just want to create my own business!

    1. There are definitely things to be gained from any degree. Some of the things I learned in theatre can still be applied to my current job. And don’t get me wrong, I had a great time and met wonderful people. Many of my friends still work in the business or are chasing the dream. However, in hindsight, the ROI was pretty poor…at least in my situation.

  9. I should have listened to some of those career aptitude tests I took. They all said I should do accounting/finance. Instead I did engineering (which in the end is never really that terrible a BS to have in the old back pocket). Ended up not really caring for engineering so I went back and got a master’s in finance, which is a field I know work in a truly enjoy. I might even take the couple accounting classes I need in order to sit for the CPA exam (especially since someone else would be paying for those classes and the exam).

    1. Nice! If work is willing to pay to help you advance your education, that’s definitely something to consider. Even if you leave, you get to take your degree with you!

    2. Brian – I majored in accounting and became a CPA. I would have majored in engineering but I scored low on spatial reasoning tests and am an introvert at heart. I graduated college in 1995 and was told all through HS and college that Knowledge is Power and we were living in the Information Age which was true at the time. My son has my financial sense to go with his mother’s spatial reasoning (thank God lol) so I am encouraging him to become an engineer but he is an introvert as well and wants to major in computers.
      My biggest concern for his generation is that so many financial and computer jobs have already been offshored to India, Pakistan and Philippines because there’s lots of English speaking citizens in those countries. If you look at Upwork web site you can find CPAs (Chartered Accountants) that will work for $10/hr or less. International Accounting Standards have been adopted allowing those accountants to work in many countries. Then there’s automation that continues to eliminate good paying jobs. Intuit with its Quickbooks and TurboTax have convinced many individuals and small businesses they can handle their own accounting. Finally, when blockchain, software used by Bitcoin to authenticate its financial transactions, accounting gets implemented, companies will be able to have real time access to verified financials eliminating the need for a large portion of auditors. Knowledge is no longer the Power it was 20+ years ago when I graduated. You can Google information on any topic and watch Youtube videos to give you step by step instructions to so many tasks. Communication costs have been minimalized when you can have free face to face video chats with anybody in the world through an internet connection. Likewise, data transmission of huge files via internet which used to take hours or overnight now take minutes. I believe we are normalizing relations with Cuba for corporations to be able to offshore their companies there, especially vehicles and construction equipment since shipping costs will be much lower than building in China or any other Asian country. We will also provide visas for 1000s of Cuban doctors to come to US to practice. Cuba has 10s of thousands of well trained doctors that Cuba sends to South American countries such as Venezuela in a doctor for oil kind of trade arrangement but that will end when Cuban government and Cuban doctors can make so much more coming to the US.

  10. Amen! Let me also add that getting an advanced degree isn’t necessarily the best idea unless you need it for your job. I was lucky to have parents pay for my undergrad degree. I had to pay for the Master’s degree that I felt I needed simply to make sure I was keeping up with my friends and co-workers. It took several years to pay off that debt. I recently dropped out of a doctoral program after my boss asked me what the cost-benefit analysis was to that idea. I’m already as high as I can go in my job. One of the directors of my organization had a high school diploma, but she had the experience to get her the position!

    1. Amen to you! I know a lot of people who continued on to graduate programs simply because they didn’t know what else to do. And that’s not just with arts majors. That goes for law school, business degrees, and more. A graduate degree is a very expensive way to continue “finding” yourself…and it doesn’t always have a great return.

  11. I have BAs in Psychology and Sociology, with a Master’s in social work – became a social worker for a short time and, while I loved it, pay was very low, even with a graduate degree. I used my degree for a couple of years and then became a stay at home parent. While I don’t regret it, it wasn’t the most financially sound move I could’ve made.

    I agree with everything on your list, Greg, and plan to try to use these points to guide my kids on college choices. I have one graduating in two years and he’s unsure what he would like to do at this point. We are encouraging him to take different classes and have experiences that can help him in his decision-making. At this point, his plan is to start at a community college, which I think is a great start.

    Thanks for sharing your list! Very important points.

    1. Your son sounds like he’s making a good decision. Community colleges and vocational/tech schools are the best things going in our higher educational system.

  12. I’m glad I went to college and I DO think it’s an important experience. But I wish I’d known that I’d end up on disability about three years after graduating. I might’ve tried for a major that you could more likely do part-time/from home. Though you probably have to put in time at an office even then so… I guess I’m not sure it would have made that big a difference? But for most people. It definitely would have.

    1. It was definitely a big experience in my life, but I think we sell the experience, not the real-life benefits.

  13. Well said! If I could go back, I wouldn’t have selected my chosen major, but did more exploration instead of doing what everyone else said I’d be good at. I’m good at what I do and enjoy it most of the time, but I wouldn’t do it again. That said, I don’t regret my major/school because of the experiences and joy it has brought.

    1. I had an awesome experience as well, and made a ton of lifelong friends and memories. As a grown adult who is much more financially aware, I just think about what that all cost…and what I could’ve done with that money instead.

  14. I remember I wanted a History degree or a Music degree. I did understood Music degree is completely unnecessary and a History degree wouldn’t lead to a job I’d actually like, unless I went the PhD professor route. I met a decent amount of people going back to school for a different degree. I still kind of chuckle and feel bad for people when they tell me they have some degree that I know isn’t needed at all. I ended up with Physics, which I had no idea what I could do with, but I believed I could sneak into an Engineering field with it if I didn’t follow through the PhD route. By luck it worked and I’m in Electrical Engineering today, but it wasn’t easy. If I went back I would’ve focused on computer programming and not even gone to school. Hindsight eh?

    1. Exactly, hindsight. Unfortunately, we ask our young adults to make a major life/financial decision when they don’t have the life experience or financial maturity to make it. So, they’re in a gigantic financial hole before they even reach 25. Then, we wonder why there is such a problem with debt – student loan and otherwise.

  15. Olivia Fox says:

    My folks made it clear, school was on my dime, and I had to make a living from it. Since Dad was a sculptor, it was evident, fine arts had little earning potential, no matter how good you were. Growing up, money was tight. So working a couple years after high school and saving, was no brainer. My interests were broad. They came down to graphic design or genetic research. Parsons offered a three year professsional certificate in “communication design” (all the design classes without the academics) then, and the sciences required much more schooling. Money called the shots. Between savings, need based aid, merit scholarships, work study, extra jobs on the side, and no loans, I graduated with $350 in the bank. It was worth it. Would I chose the same major again? Absolutely.

    1. Nice! Good for you Olivia. I envy your decision 🙂

      And don’t get me wrong…I love the arts! But to dedicate your life to them, you really have to love your art above almost everything else. At 18, its hard to know that you’ll continue loving it as much once you mature into an adult and your priorities change. And when you’re spending tens of thousands to get a degree in that field, you don’t really have the life experience to know what you’re going to want. At least I didn’t.

      1. Greg. It was a calculated decision. It wasn’t fine arts or illustration. Both are risky. It was graphic design– encompassing everything from package design, to magazine layouts, to advertising to brochures…. I suspect knowing I couldn’t go home after college and knowing there was no financial safety net from the bank of Mom and Dad helped me realize the seriousness of the decision. I had to be able to make a living. Most kids can ease into it. Not having options was actually a blessing.

  16. I was an English major for one semester, a Psychology major for one semester, a Social Work major for two and a half years, and finally settled on a Biology major. It took me six full years plus a semester of part-time classes before I graduated. Talk about a waste of Financial Aid. Ugh..

    If I could go back to being 18 again I would have done a two year degree in Diagnostic Medical Sonography. In fact, I almost went back to school for that degree after I had graduated, but the thought of two more years of school didn’t agree with me. I was done with classes.

    The job I have now requires you to have some sort of Science degree, so I am in a field related to my degree. I guess all those years in college weren’t exactly wasted!

    1. I wouldn’t consider my college years a total waste either. I certainly use some of the training I received in areas of my life. However, I could have made a much better decision and come out with better job prospects.

  17. I love your take on college being an investment and not an experience! I wrote about this topic today too (how to make better college decisions) and my beliefs align with what you are saying about the $35,000 mistake. I told a story about a student I worked with (I was a professor) who was over $100,000 in debt for a degree she was no longer interested in. Such a major life problem! Changing majors early enough can be solved, but the 5 or 6 year plan some talk about is another crushing blow to students’ financial futures! Great post!

    1. Thanks Vicki! I think we forget, especially if you’re paying with loans, that college costs a ton of money. It’s really an investment in our future earning potential. Unfortunately, many students don’t treat it as such, putting themselves in a terrible financial position before they even get started.

  18. I agree about the fact that we will care about money one day. Passion is overrated, so many millennials are looking towards their passion, I would rather follow the money and do my passion on the side than pursue my passion and be struggling for money on the side. Great list and great advice for soon-to-be college students in the fall.

    1. The thing about passion is that it burns hot…then it almost always flames out. Finding something you enjoy is important, but it is also important that your field of study is able to generate the income you desire.

  19. I wish I understood better how important your contacts were. I knew that I, partially, chose a school based on proximity to wealth and power, but I did not understand how to take advantage of it enough. I learned a lot, but I could have networked so much better had I known then what I know now.

    1. Richard Byrne says:

      avoid college, it is a rip off. Learn a skill or trade.

    2. Networking is huge, and that doesn’t get covered much…at least it didn’t where I went to school. It’s often the most important part of finding a job and advancing your career.

  20. Choosing a major for the real world is SO important! I have a lot of friends who are English and History majors and have a little bit regret. Although they truly enjoy the subject, there’s not really much you can do besides being a teacher.

    1. Yep, that’s what I found after my first degree. I actually would have had to go back to school to get a teaching certificate or Masters’s degree to even be able to teach!

  21. I am a journalism graduate, and it feels like I wish I had taken another course like the one in engineering or in science as everyone can write. One thing that makes my course extra special is that I have a better opportunity in getting in publishing, but in the end, everyone can write, so it pushes me to be better at it.

    1. If I had to do it over again, I would have minored in the arts and completed a degree that was more flexible…like business.

  22. I know all too well how a poor choice of major can mess you up financially! My first degree is in Anthropology. I suppose if I had gone on to get a PhD and taught it would not have been so bad, but I didn’t figure out that’s not what I wanted to do until I was in my last few semesters. Too late! Luckily, that degree was paid for by a full academic scholarship. Somehow I was smart enough to turn down the high- but not full- scholarship at the pricey private east coast woman’s college and accepted the full ride from the local state college. I did not have to pay too dearly for that choice.

    I ended up getting a 2 year nursing degree 5 years later, finished my BSN last year, and am now getting my master’s in nursing. The almost 40 year old me wishes she had gotten a biology or pharmacy degree the first time, but I had this crazy idea that I wanted to learn something new and interesting. I wasn’t really thinking about salaries or paying the bills 4 years down the road.

    1. I hear you. As a 18-21 year old kid, I never thought my priorities would change. Of course, as I matured, they changed completely.

  23. Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor says:

    This is such a great topic. I think every college student should know what their monthly payment on loans will be before they take them (and keep tallying them as they take more). That concrete number might bring a dose of reality to abstract idea that I’ll have to pay these things off someday.

    1. That’s definitely a good idea. If I’d done a mock budget back then, I would’ve known what my loan payments really meant to my paycheck.

  24. #1 stood out most to me. A lot of jobs don’t require a degree depending on what your interests are. The job I work at currently doesn’t even require a degree, but I still use my journalism degree and the experience I gained from it in my job every day so it’s definitely not wasted. Having a degree can also help you request a higher salary as well.

    1. It can, provided it is in the right field. My degree opened some doors for me, although they were all to dead-end jobs.

  25. I started off w political science, but had no idea that there was virtually no math involved in the major. I felt like I was reading the newspaper everyday in class. Wish I had known about economics sooner, which I ended up majoring in

    1. Huh? No math? It seems like there would be a whole lot of math to understand polling, probabilities, etc. At least you ended up in the right major for you 🙂

  26. I was one of the “lucky”(?) ones who both picked their major before stepping on a college campus and have worked in their field from the day I graduated (and really starting 7 months before graduation). I know this isn’t the norm these days so I am appreciative of how it all worked out.

    With college in general I think more people would benefit from cranking out two solid years at a community college really piling on the credits and getting some good exposure/experience to different fields. It’s an inexpensive way to experiment with courses and most likely 90%+ of your credits will transfer. Then when you finish the last 2 years of your degree you can feel more confident that you are making the right choice.

  27. I have so many conflicting feelings about this. Going into debt for a theater degree is crazy, but then again, I look at you or me and it’s all turned out really well. Maybe our experience was an important part of our career journeys? I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend people get a theater degree, but I also don’t regret mine. So irrational, I know.

    1. Yeah, I guess mine isn’t so much regret. It’s more like hindsight. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently.

  28. Greg good post, you make many good points though I disagree with much of what you said. I went the “career focus” route, majored in finance and went on to get an MBA. I’ve worked in some aspect of finance ever since and love it, though I regret not having a more well-rounded college experience in terms of the courses I took.

    My kids all went the other route with our support. The oldest was an art major with an emphasis in sculpture and is now a program manager (on the tech side) for major well-known website. My younger daughter majored in anthropology and religion and is now a first year attorney with a major law firm. Our son majored in communications and works in marketing for a major consumer products company.

    We never told them what to major in, what classes to take nor did we ever see (or ask to see) their grades. All graduated with honors, one went on to law school and all are gainfully employed on good career paths. I totally view college as an experience and investment in their futures. It is important to develop critical thinking skills and to meet and learn to get along with all types of people.

    In certain cases, accounting and engineering as examples, a specific career-oriented major makes total sense. What we did with our kids is not the right answer for everyone, but it worked for us.

  29. I agree with what you said 100%. My husband and I both admit we made a big mistake majoring in liberal arts at an expensive private college when we had the brains and ambition to do any major at all. He was strong in sciences, and me in math. After advanced degrees, we ended up being employable and getting jobs, but now as an attorney and Special Education teacher, we find ourselves having to work harder, and longer to make the same amount or less as our friends who went the math/science/engineering route. We have three young children now and will not at all support them majoring in liberal arts. Their degree must lead directly to employment with a decent or high salary and lots of employment opportunities. Otherwise, the 4-year degree isn’t worth the cost.

    1. Thanks for commenting Lisa! I definitely believe that a broad education can be helpful, but I also think we put way too much emphasis on getting a 4-year degree – any 4-year degree – at any cost. It just doesn’t make sense.

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