How to Change Your Major in College
Switching teams halfway through college can feel like lighting a huge pile of money on fire—but it might be the best decision of your life.
Composite by the author via MaxPixel
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College asks a lot from incoming freshmen. They’re uprooted from everything that’s ever been familiar to them. They’re forced into confined, unsanitary living quarters with a bunch of other hormonal teenagers. They’re put in charge of their own schedules, routines, and chores, often for the first time in their lives. And on top of all that, they have to commit to a lifelong career path.
At least, that’s what picking a major feels like. Once an area of study is chosen, second thoughts can appear to be a waste of time and, more importantly, money. Americans spent over $25,000 per year on college tuition, fees, room, and board in the 2016–2017 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Switching majors after a year or two of such steep costs can seem like lighting a huge pile of money on fire. This line of thought is called the sunk cost fallacy, which a lot of people grapple with after years in unfulfilling careers.
On the bright side, students who switch directions and follow their true calling are less likely to waste their youth working a shitty office job. They're also not alone. According to the US Department of Education, about 30 percent of American students change their major in the first three years of college. Some universities have an even higher rate, such as UC Davis, where more than 50 percent of enrolled students switch teams at least once. A study from the Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education found that the two main reasons Canadian students change majors are their personal interests or their careers.
No matter the motivation, a degree is only part of the equation for getting a job. It’s more important to make connections and develop a reputation as passionate and valuable. The desire to change majors shouldn't be dismissed as wishful thinking or a waste of time. Academic experimentation can be as important to a student's self-discovery as navigating their newfound sexual freedom.
We talked to some students who made the tough decision about how to do it thoughtfully. Here's what they had to say.
The most important part of switching your major, according to students we talked to who've done it, is measuring your own happiness. Talk to your therapist, if you have one. Communicate with your classmates, professors, and alumni organizations to figure out whether you’re experiencing a normal amount of stress and satisfaction with your courses. If you dread all your major courses, consider making a change.
That's what Dylan Berg, a New York-based music video director, did. He was a journalism major for two years at Hofstra University before deciding to study film instead. By sophomore year, there were a few signs he was in the wrong field. “I was at a peak shitbag period of my college career when I decided to change my major,” he told VICE. “I was fucked up nearly 24 hours a day. I was doing drugs even unbeknownst to my partying friends just to pull through and deal with everyday life. I was a terrible journalist, and my professors told me so.” Once he realized he was unhappy, he was motivated to take action about it.
Sometimes it's more immediate. Alex New, a video editor at VICE who originally studied psychology, said he knew he had to change his major after the first week of class. “During my first psych lecture, my stomach dropped for the entire 90 minutes,” he said. “A few days later, I met some film students at a party and talked to them about it." New had done animation throughout high school and started editing a bunch of videos of his friends during my senior year, but didn't ever consider it as a career path. The students he met at the party were the first to even suggest he look into the possibility. Once he learned about film industry jobs, New knew how to research his next academic move.
Erik Trinidad, a programmer, graphic designer, and food and beverage journalist, would be none of those if he’d followed through with his original major at New Jersey Institute of Technology. “It became pretty obvious that I wasn't cut out to be an engineer like my father when I basically failed out of two foundation courses: physics and chemistry,” he said. “My brain just didn't think the way an engineer's brain is supposed to. I realized I needed to get out of that world fast.”
Similarly, Vocalist Rayssa Gomes, who just released a single about suicide prevention, found herself in at a crossroads studying political science and computer science, ignoring her passion to do so. “I’d always known I wanted to be a singer—my mom even says I would sing myself to sleep as a baby! But growing up immigrants in America, my parents heavily encouraged me to find a stable career path first,” she said. “Eventually, I became really depressed studying something I didn’t love, and it started affecting my entire outlook on life.”
It's difficult to admit to being unhappy, especially with the pressure from social media to feel Insta-perfect and well-composed at all times. But once you do, the next step is to experiment.
Explore Other Fields
After recognizing you may be studying the wrong subject, it's important to research the topics that interest you, our students say. Take an elective in the major you’re flirting with, or look for communities to learn from outside of school. If you're into art, take a figure drawing class and talk to your classmates. If your secret passion is medieval architecture, find a Reddit forum for history nerds.
Berg got a whiff of his future passion from an assignment in a journalism class he was struggling with. “I was drunk, high, or some terrible fusion of the two most of the time, and just didn't feel any motivation whatsoever. Then it was Oscar season and I decided for one of my classes I'd do a film review blog,” he said. He got more positive feedback on that assignment than any before, and it unlocked his creative energy. He took an intro to film class the next semester, and a professor told him to change majors or “be permanently unhappy.”
NJIT allowed its students to take art classes at the nearby Rutgers University, which Trinidad took advantage of to prove his aptitude for creative work to himself, and his parents. “To them, me going into the arts meant that I was going to work a crappy job at Kinkos for the rest of my life," he said. "So gradually I entered local design contests—and won a couple that had prize money—to show the viability of my new career choice."
Guidance counselors probably won’t know about all your options. So, according to the graduates we talked to, it's important to look for other resources. Ask students in the major you’re considering about their course loads. Talk to professors and alumni about the job market in their field. Not only will they help you decide whether to change your major, but they might become friends, mentors, or even connect you to jobs later on.
Actually Change Your Major
Thinking about it is fun, but it’s stressful to abandon a path after sinking hours, months, years, and thousands of dollars into it. But the good news is: making the actual decision to switch is the hardest part. Once made, nearly every subject of our informal survey said filing the paperwork was the easy part.
“Getting it put through the school wasn't actually that hard," said Berg. "The hardest part about that was me.”
Keep Evaluating Your Choice
It’s never too late to switch majors—even after you graduate.
Case in point is Ambre Kelly, one half of the curatorial duo behind New York indie art fair, Spring/Break. Before becoming an art impresario, she went to law school. For exactly one day. “I was asked by the Board of Deans what the definition of ‘law’ is. Standing before all of my new classmates, my on-the-spot response was a long monologue comparing law to art. I essentially said that law, like art, is open for interpretation. The deans jokingly said, ‘Well, you can graduate now.’ So, I sat down and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’" That afternoon Kelly requested to be dismissed from law school and left. She applied to art school soon thereafter and her path hasn't veered much since then.
Another example is Steven Emerson, who had a degree in film and a job at a national news studio in New York before deciding he wanted to become a social worker. “I was becoming increasingly more aware of the issues facing our country and I wanted to contribute to the solution,” he said. It was daunting—he thought he might have to sink thousands of dollars into an additional undergraduate social work major. Instead, he found plenty of programs that were mostly concerned with general education requirements and readiness to do the work. “During the interview process, my school liked that I was able to formulate how the skills I developed through my film education could help me in crafting my new skills as a social worker,” he said.
Make Peace with Your Parents
Almost without exception, those we surveyed said the hardest part of changing majors was explaining the choice to their parents. Jamie L. Workman, an assistant professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia, found in a 2015 study that parental influence had a significant impact on students’ choice of major. Kimberly Renk, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, also found a correlation between perceived familial criticism and depressive symptoms among young adult women. Familial influence on our academic decisions and on our self-worth can be a powerful combination that makes communicating with them a vital part of changing your major.
“It was my dad's dream for me to follow in his footsteps and be an engineer—and going from a tech career to one in the arts was a complete 180 from that dream,” said Trinidad. “Eventually, I transferred to Rutgers and entered the graphic design program. I graduated with a B.A. in Visual Arts and landed a job in e-publishing before graduation day. And now I'm their example of ‘letting your kids do what they want’ when they talk to other parents.”
After Berg filed the paperwork correctly, he had to reckon with his mother. He had a generous journalism scholarship, and switching to film would be more expensive. On top of that, he said his Kentucky-born mom had aspired to be a journalist herself, but for economic reasons, “worked at a coke-addled radio station and spent most of the 1980s in an ocean of liquor,” before juggling four jobs to give her children a middle-class lifestyle. Explaining that he didn’t want what she wanted was impossible—so he talked to his dad.
“My father helped me tell my mom that every professor thought I was a hack journalist who wouldn't fit into any well-paying place,” Berg said. “It helped that one of the people who talked to my dad was the former VP of CBS News." He told Berg's dad about all these directors he knew, and how he saw, in them, a similar energy to the one he recognized in Berg, compared to the journalists he knew. "He finished his talk with my dad explaining, ‘Journalists seek out the truth. Your son makes shit up in case the story seems boring.’ It worked. Within the next week, my major had changed.”
In the tumultuous process of uprooting your academic path, telling your parents can be the first step or the last. Evaluate your happiness, experiment with other fields, change your major, evaluate those changes, rinse, and, if necessary, repeat.
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