What Is a College Major and How Does It Impact Your Academic Experience?

by Stephanie Thurrott

As soon as you start applying for colleges, people will likely ask you what your major is. After all, your major plays a large role in deciding what courses you take, what your overall academic experience is like, and what career paths might be available to you after graduation. It’s understandable that your family and friends are interested in your plans for the future. But what is a college major, exactly?

What Is a College Major?

A major is a focused area of study. When you choose a major, you select an academic path: about a third to half of your courses will belong to that academic area. For example, if you major in English, you’ll take literature, writing, and linguistics classes. If you major in engineering, you’ll focus on math, physics, and computer science.

Common Majors

Majors range from traditional studies, like mathematics and history, to newer studies, like human-centered computing and nanotechnology, to niche areas, like theme park technology and nautical archaeology.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most popular majors fall into these categories:

  • Business. This includes business, management, economics, marketing, and related majors.
  • Healthcare professions. This may include biology, chemistry, exercise science, and other majors. For many health professions, you’ll need to continue your education after you earn your bachelor’s degree.
  • Social sciences. This can include history, anthropology, geography, psychology, sociology, and political science.

What’s the Difference between a Major and a Minor?

Your college major is your primary area of study—that’s the subject you’ll receive your degree in. A college minor is another topic you concentrate in, but it doesn’t require the same level of in-depth study. You can minor in a field related to your major, but most schools don’t allow you to major and minor in the same subject. You can also minor in a field that’s unrelated to your major. Minors are optional.

At Azusa Pacific University, you typically need 12 units of 200-level or higher courses (and 18 units total) to complete a minor.

Are You Required to Select a Major?

Most colleges and universities require that you choose a concentration. If you’re interested in studying a field that’s not covered by a major, some colleges will allow you to create your own major or combine different academic areas into a personalized major. At APU, a major in interdisciplinary studies gives you the freedom to design your own degree program.

When Do You Need to Declare a Major?

It depends on your school and program of study. Some colleges and universities ask you to declare a major when you apply. Others let you apply as undecided. If you’re not sure what you want to major in, taking electives and general education courses in the first few semesters can help you explore your interests. The Exploring Program at APU offers seminars, coaching, mentoring, and events to help you discover your vocation.

Most schools will require you to declare a major during your sophomore year. At APU, you need to declare a major before you start your fifth full-time semester.

Can You Change Your Major?

It’s common for students to declare a major before they start college or early in their studies only to later discover they’re more interested in another subject. As you take your classes, you might realize you want to change your major. If so, it’s best to make the switch quickly. You can then move forward with the required classes for your new major and stay on track to graduate on time.

If you change your major, consider minoring in the subject area you originally planned to major in, especially if you’ve already earned several units toward that major.

Can You Have More than One Major?

At many schools, you can pursue a double major. This can help you pair two concentrations that prepare you for your future career. For example, if you want to open your own tax preparation business, you could major in accounting and entrepreneurship. Or you might want to major in two unrelated areas you’re interested in, like communication and criminal justice.

How Does Your Major Impact Your Academic Experience?

The subject you choose to major in will take a lot of your time, attention, and focus. You’ll take more 300- and 400-level courses in your major than in any other subject area. As you advance toward your degree, you’ll find you spend a lot of your class time with other students who have the same major. You may also have the same professors for multiple classes.

Course Load

Most majors require between 10 and 20 classes, and some number of those classes need to be upper level. Generally, majors in the liberal arts fields require fewer specialized courses, whereas sciences majors require more. In either case, you’ll need to complete the same number of total classes to earn your degree (usually 40 classes).

Course Selection

Once you choose your major, map out a path to ensure you can take all the required courses. Some classes are prerequisites for others, so you’ll need to take them in the correct order. Certain courses will be required for everyone in your major. For others, you may be able to choose from a group of related classes. Your academic advisor can help you make a plan to complete your coursework and graduate on time.

How Does Your Major Influence Off-Campus Education?

Some majors require you to complete internships, co-ops, or clinicals. Internships generally consist of unpaid work in a field related to your degree. Co-ops are usually paid positions, and clinicals give you hands-on experience treating patients in healthcare settings. You’ll often get academic credit for internships, co-ops, and clinicals.

Different schools and majors can also offer various opportunities to study abroad. Some schools have a formal program where you can study in another country for a semester or year. In other cases, you may study abroad during a break or over the summer. At APU, Go Terms offer locations worldwide where you can study anywhere from 10 days to a semester.

APU offers a range of majors and minors designed to prepare you for success in whatever fields interest you most. Dive in to find the one that’s right for you.