By Larry Buhl, Special to CareerBuilder
Sometimes you can have a change of heart. The major you thought you’d love when you started college might turn out to be too hard, too easy or just not interesting. Or you might find a field that interests you more after you’ve completed a few general requirements or had a part-time job or internship. Would it be throwing money and time away to change direction? In most cases, if you have a good reason you can make the timing work to your advantage.
When you change direction can make a difference
Some times are more optimal than others to make the switch, specifically for traditional four-year colleges or universities.
Freshman year: There’s absolutely no penalty for changing your mind in your first year. In fact, many colleges and universities recommend that you don’t pick a major until you’ve completed some general education requirements. The idea is you want to explore as many possibilities as you can and open yourself up to degrees and professions that you might not have considered. You don’t need to have your academic career — or your life’s work — figured out by the end of new student orientation.
Sophomore year: This is a good bet. In fact, the best time to change majors is the end of sophomore year, according to Jon B. Gould, a professor at American University and author of “How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying).”
“You’ll have the easiest time transitioning to a new major if you’ve completed one to two years of prerequisite courses,” Gould says. “You’ll still have two more years to complete the requirements of your new major.”
Junior year: You should be able to graduate in four years, as long as you switch early in your junior year. If you wait until later in the year, you may have to spend an extra quarter or semester, or two. You’ll also have to include the extra time and money into your calculations and consider whether you’ll still qualify for financial aid if you need it.
Senior year: It’s crunch time. Still, many students panic as graduation nears, thinking they’ve gone down the wrong path. Yes, you’ll end up spending at least another year in school if you switch now, but it’s better to change to something you’ll love than to stick it out with a major you hate, according to Gould. “You should be studying something that interests you, because you’re likely to get better grades and stay engaged in the major,” he says.
What if you’ve chosen the wrong school?
This happens, too. Maybe your college has become unaffordable or doesn’t offer the major you really want. Or it’s not challenging enough or geographically desirable. In this case, the sooner you make the decision, the better your chances will be to graduate without spending extra time.
Most four-year institutions have a residency requirement; that is, you must be enrolled for at least two consecutive years in order to receive a diploma from them, no matter how many credits you have from other colleges. If you’re well into your junior year and you want to transfer to another school because the one you’re in doesn’t have your desired major, you’re better off sticking it out and applying to a graduate school with that major, according to Gould.
What if you plan to go to medical school?
It’s a common misperception that premed is a necessary undergraduate major for med school (or prelaw for law school). “It’s true that med school will want you to have completed some courses, such as organic chemistry or biology, but that doesn’t mean they want you to major in them,” Gould says. “Med schools and other professional graduate programs are looking for interesting, smart people above all else.”
Gould adds that in most cases there is no “magic major,” unless your career interest is highly specific and unlikely to change. Obviously if you’re sure you want to be, say, a dental hygienist right out of school, a music degree might not be the most efficient route. But for other students, especially for those who are not quite certain what they want to do after college, it’s best not to sweat the major too much.
“Employers are looking for skill sets more than college majors,” Gould says. “Proven ability to do the job matters more than the degree listed on your transcript.”
Larry Buhl researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.