Choosing a Major at Monmouth College – the Freedom to Focus Plus the Freedom to Explore

Students interested in studying in the United States ask me, “do I need to know what my major will be before I apply to your college?”

The answer is, ‘no; you do not need to know your major.’ In fact, many students enter college without knowing exactly what they will major in, although they may certainly have a good sense of the fields they are especially eager to explore.

One of the differences between the undergraduate academic program at most U.S. colleges and universities and their counterparts around the world is that at an American college students combine the depth and focus of a major with exploration of a variety of topics. Another difference is that students may change from one major to another.

This is important to know, because it is a significant difference between most U.S. colleges/universities and other colleges around the world:  students may ‘switch majors’, usually with little difficulty in the first year or so, and with careful planning and good academic advising even in the third and fourth years of study. Students in the U.S. are not admitted into a ‘department’ but into the entire college or university, with all courses, all professors, all possible majors available to them.

The student who takes general education and elective courses seriously – as opportunities to explore many disciplines, many perspectives upon the world, and many modes of inquiry into that world – is making the best possible use of her or his experience in a U.S. college. In fact, one’s major may change as a result of a course one never expected to enjoy.

At Monmouth, students may also ’double-major,’ choosing two, complementary areas of concentration instead of one. It’s best to do this with careful thought (and, again, in conversation with an academic advisor), but it can be an outstanding opportunity for highly motivated students who seek to combine passionate interests in several fields, or who want to interweave a major from a field of interest to the student as a probable career path with a major from a field of interest that is more personal or that connects to a longer-range life plan.

So, for example, students may choose to double-major in business and music, in physics and art, in English and mathematics, in political science and economics, or in accounting and philosophy.  These are all richly rewarding combinations! And there are many more such combinations possible at a liberal arts and sciences college….

In brief:  it is perfectly fine to enter college without being certain what your major will be. Explore! Enjoy a wide range of classes; experience a variety of interesting professors (some people will say, ‘take professors, rather than classes’), keep your mind and heart open to possibilities even as you decide upon the field in which you want to engage most closely.

Your major should be a matter of passionate interest to you. The skills of inquiry and expression you will develop if you are a highly motivated and intellectually curious student exploring a field you love will serve you well even if your major is not transparently linked to the careers you will eventually pursue. Few people spend their lives in a single career, in one field alone.

In this rapidly changing and globally interconnected world, educating yourself for a meaningful and fulfilling life is much more than training yourself for the first job you get immediately upon graduation. That’s also important – but a college education is most critically the foundation for a lifetime of inquiry and involvement in the ongoing conversation that constitutes human culture.

The combination of depth and breadth that a U.S. college education provides is an outstanding way to prepare yourself for a reflective, rewarding, engaged and engaging life. It is not the only way, and it is not right for everyone, but it is one of the very best.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (attributed to William Butler Yeats but more likely Plutarch)