Sept. 3, 2019
I don't know what my major should be, but one of the colleges where I did an information session said if I choose "undecided," I will be missing some fundamentals in my major freshman year classes and it may take longer to graduate. Therefore I may just select "General Studies" as my major. Will this major hurt me when it comes time to apply for jobs? Is it a bad choice?
A head-spinning percentage of college students change their major at least once before graduation, and it can be a wise idea to start school without being tethered to a specific discipline unless you're really excited about it. While “The Dean" respects “General Studies" as an alternative to a traditional major, I've also found that this option can have some real-world limitations that you need to consider.
As you learned in that information session, some majors require an early commitment more than others do. For instance, students heading toward professions like nursing or engineering are often knee-deep in their major requirements even as freshmen. If you pick General Studies now and then decide down the road that you want to elect a choice like that, you may indeed find that you'll graduate later or you'll be hustling to take course overloads or summer classes to get on track. So if you think you might be interested in such a career-specific field, you may want to select it from the get-go. It's often easier to switch out of a career-specific major than it is to switch into one.
A General Studies major isn't a heinous place to start if you really have no clue about where you want to land. But one big disadvantage that you might encounter is that some classes you hope to take will give priority to declared majors. So you could get shut out of top choices in sought-after subjects if your major is General Studies. Thus, if you have leanings in a particular direction ... especially toward popular liberal arts disciplines like psychology, biology, economics, political science, etc. ... “The Dean" suggests that you declare your major early yet remain open to a switch later on if you're not happy with your choice. Students pursuing the liberal arts -- which doesn't necessarily mean anything artsy at all but could even include areas like math, physics and chemistry -- usually take a wide range of courses in their first two years and perhaps only a handful in their putative area of concentration. It's usually very simple to switch in and out of majors at liberal arts colleges or in the school of arts and sciences at universities.
In addition, keep in mind that the typical undergraduate takes somewhere between 32 and 40 classes over four years. Most majors require somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 14 classes. (Only the very career-specific programs demand more.) This means that you will probably have a ton of room in your schedule for classes that are outside your major (or to double major ... or to choose a major and a minor ... or a couple minors!). From that perspective, choosing a major isn't the all-encompassing decision that it may feel like it is right now. For instance, you could pick computer science as a major and yet end up taking the majority of your classes in studio art, anthropology, film studies and Italian language. In other words, you could actually be an unofficial “General Studies" major even if you've declared something different on paper!
As you may have already inferred, the biggest disadvantage of a “General Studies" majors comes at job-hunting time. Prospective employers could view you as a jack of all trades but master of none. As I've watched my own son (a recent college graduate) navigate the internship- and job-hunting process over the past few years, I've seen that choice of major can play a more starring role in hiring decisions than I would have expected, although this does vary from field to field and from to job.
If you do decide to stick with “General Studies," one way to give your resume more clout will be through internships or paid work. Hands-on experience (and strong references to go with it) will allow future employers to recognize your expertise in a particular area, even if your diploma suggests a lack of it. Moreover, internships and jobs early in areas that interest you may help direct you to a choice of major beyond General Studies.
Bottom Line: “The Dean" sees few advantages to a “General Studies" major. There can be liabilities when it comes to course selection and, later, to employment options. If you feel little commitment to a specific field, choose a major that will give you the most flexibility to sample classes from a range of them. Interdisciplinary programs such as “Science, Technology and Public Policy," “Ethics and Society" or “Health and Humanity" abound. They can be almost as general as General Studies but could provide you more access at registration time ... or job-seeking time ... and could also provide a welcome focus to your college years even if your life's path eventually takes you elsewhere.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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