Most College Majors Are Overrated
The most important thing to learn is how to learn
“Having a soft major is nowhere near the career death sentence that so many make it out to be. The world is changing, and the U.S. economy with it. Our economy is shifting to a service-and information-based economy, and soft majors are already becoming more and more valuable.”
— Tucker Max
For my final two years as an undergrad, I worked in the admissions office and as student workers, one of our biggest tasks was to serve as tour guides. Any time I gave a tour and was asked for one piece of advice to give to incoming freshmen, I always said the same thing: wait as long as possible to choose a major.
Somewhere around sophomore or junior year of high school, my parents, teachers, and others would say something like, “You need to start thinking about what you want to do with your life.” For most sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, this is both daunting and a little ridiculous.
Time has a vastly different meaning at that age. Teenagers think only in the short term. The age of 30 seems light years away so how can they choose what to do until the age of 65 (or later)?
Moreover, almost no one in their late teens actually knows what they want to do. How could they? They’re still figuring out who they are. Plus, what are the odds that what someone likes in high school is what they will like as a career? I know 35-year-olds that don’t know what they want to do when they grow up.
Personally, I chose to be a communications major because I wanted to be an anchor on SportsCenter. Really, though, that was just a means to an end — I didn’t necessarily want to be on television, I just wanted attention and for people to notice me. The main reason I chose it, though, was because I had no clue what to choose. I had struggled in math and science, so they were out, and being a writer was not even a thought, so mass comm it was.
I should have waited, but most people — particularly those from the previous generation and/or the ones that never went to college — were under the impression that being undeclared would set a student back. They believed if you knew what you wanted from the jump, you’d have an advantage. While this makes sense — it certainly does not hurt and in a few cases it actually can help — it’s also not necessary. The large majority of schools require all underclassmen to take many of the same core and prerequisite courses regardless of major, so that Intro to Global History or English Lit 101 will be populated with a cross-section of freshmen with all different majors.
I knew from my first few communications classes that it wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t engage. I didn’t enjoy the classes and the more I learned about the industry, the less interested in it I became. But I had chosen a major and started down the path, so I was worried I was stuck.
What’s your major?
Sanskrit. You’re majoring in a 5,000-year-old dead language?
Rather than one single subject, college is about learning. It’s about learning how to learn. It’s about discovering how to discern between information that is important and frivolous. It’s about being well-rounded. It’s about being exposed to different people from different cultures with different ideas. It’s about learning time management and making your cash flow last and eliminating distractions. Being able to tell people that you can’t hang out right now because you have to study or go to bed so you can wake up early is a discipline that needs to be learned for many people. There’s always someone inviting you to play video games or take a walk or get a beer, and being able to buckle down when you need to is as important as any other skill a student develops. It sounds easy, but only about 56% of students graduate from college. And that’s within six years, not the standard four.
Is it possible to choose the “wrong” major? Probably. Becoming an expert in cat memes may not be the best use of time and student loans, but it’s also not the death knell that many would have you believe. You can have a soft major and succeed or have a hard major and fail. It’s all about the person. Furthermore, things change. Once upon a time, law school, along with medical school, was seen as the pinnacle of education. No longer.
It may take some time. You may have to start as a temp or go back for more schooling or find your unique angle or simply hustle more than others — or all of the above, like I did — but there are still opportunities out there to be had. At a certain point, it becomes more about experience. Even within the same field, different organizations have different processes and systems, so in many cases, you’ll have to learn from scratch anyway.
Also, if you’re serious about not only your career but your life, you should learn far more after college than when you’re on campus. After all, you’re only there for four years and you’re out of college for forty to fifty years. Hopefully you don’t stop reading once you graduate. In order to learn a business — any business — thoroughly, a person must learn all aspects of it. This is one of the reasons why Andrew Carnegie advocated for his employees to begin at the bottom:
It is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburgh had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately miss that salutary branch of a business education.
I’m a manager and I’ve combed through résumés and made hiring decisions. The applicant’s major was not one of the top three items on my list and, even when I did get to it, it was usually as a means to learn more about the person and what made them tick.
“I see you majored in finance. What made you choose that?”
The responses tell me about the person, how they thought and perceived things, and how they would fit within the group, something that is far more insightful than words on a CV.
I once knew a twenty-five-year-old college graduate with little experience that had a two-page résumé. The second page was one line that listed just his hobbies, one of which was watching professional wrestling. That’s the kind of applicant that is your competition.
Do you think it matters what his major was?
“I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts education for the world.”
— Tim Ferriss
Still, despite all that, I would not suggest my path to anyone. I switched from communications to history because I loved the subject and thought I wanted to teach it in college — for someone that worked manual labor in the summer, a college campus was utopia. After I made the change, I was all in, even becoming president of the Historical Society (sexy, right?).
But I was both naïve and lazy. I didn’t apply for any jobs or even have an idea where I would work. When someone would ask, I’d just say, “I’ll figure it out,” which was code for, “I don’t have a clue.”
And I didn’t.
It took ten years, a GRE test, a quickly aborted pursuit of a master’s in history, a GMAT test, an MBA, a bit of soul searching, a lot of support, and a ton of hard work before I finally landed in a spot that was truly right for me.
Was I lucky? Probably. But I also worked my ass off. I remember turning down outside happy hours on beautiful days so that I go sit through a Human Resources summer class. My final semester capstone course wreaked havoc on both my health and my relationship. But, like most things in life, I came out the other side stronger and wiser.
I do not suggest becoming a history major unless you’re going to teach the subject or work directly in the field. I had to scratch and claw my way to get to where I am now. Had I known I wanted to work in finance (or, you know, write) for a living, I would not have pursued it. But it’s really where I believed my path lay at the time.
And, honestly, I’m not sure how much farther I would be if I had picked a different major. At a certain point in your career, things begin to level off, especially if you value spending time with your family or keeping your sanity over being a workaholic. I’ve worked for a massive, multinational corporations and I would struggle to tell you where ten of my co-workers went to school, let alone what their majors were. If you have the ability to learn new skills, adapt on the fly, and think critically, you can succeed in a variety of fields.
Even if you pick the “wrong” major.