Switching Majors: Should You Do It?

As students, we’re told that summer is the time to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom to the real world. We’re advised to look for internships, jobs, or volunteer opportunities that are extensions of our chosen fields of study. As a finance major you might have killed to land that internship at the high-profile bank. Or maybe you couldn’t wait to use those English skills in the coveted publishing company position. But as you review the past few months and start looking over classes for the fall semester, what happens if all you can think about is how mind-numbingly boring and painful your summer job was? What now? Is it worth it and even possible to switch majors at this point in your college career? It might be scary to return to the dreaded limbo of being “undecided,” but unraveling some common myths can make the decision to change majors a little more minor.

Myth #1: If I decide to change my major I’ll have to spend way more time in school and I’ll be behind all of my classmates. Plus, it’ll be far too expensive. It just isn’t worth considering. 

Okay, so this isn’t a complete myth — there are some cases where changing majors late in the game will make it harder to graduate on time and it will often mean more strain on your bank account. “In the few areas where more specialized skills are required, such as engineering, computer science and accounting, it would be hard for a student to change majors after sophomore year and still have time to complete all of the requirements for graduation,” says Robin Mount, the Director in the Office of Career, Research and International Opportunities in the Office of Career Services at Harvard University. For this reason, some schools require students majoring in mathematics, sciences or engineering to declare early on in their sophomore year, if not sooner.

If you decide to switch from a quantitative field to the liberal arts or choose to switch your major within the liberal arts, there is often a little more leeway. Many schools don’t require you to declare your major until the end of sophomore year or the beginning of junior year. If you are switching within the field, it is likely that you will already have taken classes that can count towards another liberal arts major (for example, switching from Literature to English), making the process easier. If you’ve already completed general prerequisites, it’ll also be less challenging to fit the classes you need to take into your schedule.

Nevertheless, there are some major consequences to switching late in the game. “The later a student makes a change, the more costly it is in tuition and time,” says Sharon Wiatt Jones, a former career counselor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the co-author of The Parent’s Crash Course in Career Planning: Helping your College Student Succeed. “In fact, at some state universities they require that you get permission to stay more than four years and the cost per credit is higher.” Jones advises against staying at school longer if you want to switch from your current major to one that’s similar, such as changing from Political Science to History or from Psychology to Sociology.

For some students, the extra time and money is worth it. “…I try to look on the bright side: staying in school an extra year and a half gives me all the more opportunities to build an awesome portfolio and rise to leadership positions on campus publications,” says Jessica Hansen, a junior at Iowa State University who decided to switch from majoring in Education to majoring in Journalism late in her college career. 

However, if you’re thinking about changing majors, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. Unless you feel passionately about making a drastic switch between fields, such as going from the sciences to the humanities or vice versa, it may not be worth the time and money to change late in your college career.

Myth #2: If I switch majors, all of the hard work and time that I put into my current major will have been a waste. 

Just because you decide to switch majors doesn’t mean that all of the classes you took for your original major were necessarily a waste of time. It’s just one more way that you can present yourself as a well-rounded job candidate. If you have a background in accounting but decide to go into journalism, you’ll appeal to publications that are looking for knowledgeable business writers. If you have an English major but decide to go into marketing, you’ll be able to use your strong writing for ad campaigns.

It’s also important to note that many graduates change careers after they graduate. Regardless of whether you stay with your original major or switch to another, the skills you learn in any class are likely to come in handy at some point. “You need to begin your field somewhere but you then will have the opportunity to hold a wide variety of jobs and most likely make numerous career transitions throughout your entire professional life,” says JoAnne Amann, a career counselor in the Career Education Center at Simmons College in Boston. “I have read some statistics stating new college grads graduating in 2011 will have five to seven different careers throughout their work life.”

If you do feel that the time you’ve invested into your current major is too valuable to risk compromising but you are passionate about another field, Amann recommends considering both a major and a minor. That way, you can allot time for taking courses in multiple areas of interest.