How to Pick a Major Without Wasting Money

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I never would have thought to reach out to potential mentors so early on, but it's a very good point. Great tips for choosing a major.

It’s hard to know what you want to do right out of high school.

Shoot, it’s hard to know what you want to major in even if you go back to school at thirty.

You may think you have it all figured out, but then you get three years into the program and realize you hate the field. And you’ve spent how many tens of thousands of dollars on tuition?

Before you start your course of study, here are some options to consider when exploring your major and potential career path.

Enter as a General Studies Major

Entering as a general studies major allows you to explore a world of courses without being tied down to one.  You can get  your general education credits that will apply to most majors without having pressure from your advisor to immediately start on your major requirements or electives.

I know when I was entering college, I would have scoffed at the following piece of advice:

Seriously consider community college.

I thought I was too good for these “lesser” halls of scholarship when I was seventeen, but in the long term, community college was my saving grace. It’s affordable education that, if planned properly, can transfer to the institution of your choice.

Entering as a general studies major, or really any major, at a community college can save you thousands during your first two years.

Take Time Off

I rarely advocate putting off education.  Many people start down this path with good intentions only to never return to get their degree. It’s a dangerous path to tread.

But out of everyone I’ve met that has taken a Gap Year and subsequently returned to college, not a single one regretted it.

One of my friends spent time discovering herself in Brazil.

I know someone who WWOOFed in New Zealand.

I’m close with several others who just spent time traveling. This time allowed them to examine themselves, their interests, and how they relate to the world around them, all of which can have major impacts on what you decide to study and how you want to work long-term.

Explore Your Interests

Take some time and make a list of things you like to do. You’d be surprised at how many different career paths there are and how you can make a living doing what you already know you love.

Passion in a career makes all the difference in your life and the impact you have at work, though that’s not to say you can always make money by pursuing you passion.

Once you have your list of interests, sit down with a guidance counselor or a career counselor. See what they can tell you about applicable majors, and what potential careers you could have once you earn your degree.

Have an interest that you’ve never explored before? Take a class in it. Whether it’s at your community college, your university, your community center, or even your library, taking a course can give you an idea of if you love the area enough to work in it for the rest of your life.

Talk to Someone in the Field Before Choosing Your Major

Send an email or give a call to someone who works in the field with prepared questions about what you they do everyday and how the future of the industry looks. You’d be surprised how many professionals respond when you seek out their expertise.

Take any opportunities you can to shadow. If you don’t like the job you originally had your eye on, see if they know about any peripheral career paths that may fit your skills or interests better.

This is also a great way to begin networking before you even graduate.

Remember: You Don’t Have to Do Four Years

There are fields that pay extremely well without a Bachelors degree. To learn more about them, check out your local vo-tech school, applying the same strategies as above.

These fields will require some type of training, and usually include an apprenticeship. Another synonymous term you may see pop up is “journeyman fields.” Sometimes the apprenticeship is paid, and sometimes it’s not, but at the end you’ll come out with a skill that–if you’ve vetted the profession properly before starting your program–can earn you a nice income.

Although statistically speaking, those with a four-year degree make more money over the course of their lifetimes than those without, the real key is to make sure you are a trained and skilled professional in a field that has good career prospects.

If you put meaningful effort into the training, whether it be at a four-year school or through a journeyman program, you’ll come out ready to earn.

36 thoughts on “How to Pick a Major Without Wasting Money

    1. ladiesgofirst

      That’s a fantastic idea!!! It’s so great to get hands on experience to see if you really like it or not. I love it when we have volunteers in the hospital because they get that patient, nurse, doctor interaction that is essential in figuring out if they like it or not.

  1. AverageJoe

    Great advice. My kids have one year to go and I feel bad for them. Deciding what you want to do at 17 is very difficult. I feel even more sorry if they wanted to be an architect. When we visited Carnegie Mellon we were told that you had to have a portfolio already that they’d evaluate. Apparently you had to make the architecture decision at age 4 or something….

    1. femmefrugality

      Oh, I know! I thought I might want to be an architect in high school so I took a course in it…man it was a lot different than I thought it was going to be, so I’m glad I did. But I had classmates that were serious about it, so they had a ton more work that the teacher helped them with and went on to higher level courses. If your school doesn’t offer it in secondary, you may as well forget it. (By the way….yay for CMU! Pittsburgh is a great city to attend school!)

  2. Daisy @ Add Vodka

    I would even go so far to say job shadow. I have a theory school and real life – working on the job – completely different. It’s important to know what you are REALLY getting into.

    1. femmefrugality

      Absolutely. After you’ve built those connections in the field…take advantage of them! Shaodw, see if it’s for you, and if it isn’t, talk to your mentor and see what other options there might be in the general industry.

  3. Modest Money

    I’d be careful about the general studies option. In my case that would’ve been wasted time and money. I ended up going to a technical college for a 2 year diploma and none of that general studies stuff would’ve transferred over. It is pretty difficult choosing a potential career path at that age though. So for some people, some time off may be just what they need. During that time they should be looking into possible careers though.

    1. femmefrugality

      If you’re getting into a tech school, you’re right; a lot of those gen eds wouldn’t matter. But for most degree programs the basic general eds are required. And hopefully somewhere in there you take a course that sparks your interest and gets you to pick a more specific major, though gen ed majors can have great success, too, as Holly pointed out. Some of the courses you take are almost bound to be a waste of money as you explore your interests, but I’d argue that it’s cheaper to explore them via one class than focus in on one, take all the major electives, and realize you absolutely hate it.

    1. femmefrugality

      Absolutely agreed. Networking and experience is more important than ever, but even that sometimes isn’t enough. I still think a degree increases your options and the possibility that you’ll get your foot in the door for an interview. Plus, if you CAN get hired you’ll almost undoubtedly be getting paid more than a hire without a degree. The employment climate still isn’t great, though. It’s really rough out there even for people who would be great employees and have all the right qualifications and references.

  4. Lacey

    I enlisted in the military before college. I earned the GI Bill and an Associate’s Degree. I’ve traveled and worked many different jobs. Not to mention that I networked and learned a LOT about leadership. I don’t regret it even though I’m older than traditional students.

    1. femmefrugality

      For some people the military is a great option. I always advise people to make sure they’re doing it for more than just the college money, though. You have to have the right stuff to be a soldier in any capacity, live under the UCMJ for an allotted period of time, and have a different type of family life.

      I mean these comments as an applause to those who serve. It takes a really special person. To just do it for the college money may lead some individuals down a path that is neither helpful to them or the military.

      Thank you so much for your service. I have a deep respect for those who have sacrificed any amount of time in service of our country.

  5. SB

    Having a mentor goes a long way. If you want to be a doctor speak to doctors and see what they did to make it a career, often online forums are very helpful for many professionals.

  6. Brian

    Perhaps its not the best advice, but keep in mind that once you’ve chosen your major, it’s not a requirement to work in that field once you graduate. I have a Chemistry degree, but have never worked at a job directly related to my degree. I leveraged my other connections and skills gained in University to start my career.

    1. Matt @ Optimize Your Life

      I was also going to comment with a “Perhaps its not the best advice…”

      I followed the explore your interests advice and none of the rest. I took the classes that interested me without regard to career at the end. I ended with degrees in Classical Humanities and in History with a minor in Political Science and a ton of credits in Music. I don’t work with any of those topics now, but I think college helped me develop a passion and ability for learning, which has allowed me to figure out whatever I need to know to jump into most fields.

      I don’t know if I just got lucky never to face any periods of unemployment or if that passion and openness to different fields helped, so I don’t necessarily want to advise others to do what I did, but it worked out pretty well for me.

  7. Lauren @ LBee and the Moneytree

    One of my biggest regrets was not taking a “gap year” in between my first two and my last two years when I was in the midst of transferring. I wanted to take a year off and think about what really mattered to me, but my parents were scared I’d never return. Things might have worked out SO different if I had!

    1. femmefrugality

      I think your parents concern was a valid one…a lot of people don’t return! But I’m sorry that it didn’t happen. It’s one of those panging regrets we can carry with us. Another option may be saving up enough money to POSSIBLY take a leave of absence for a year from work?

  8. MakintheBacon$

    I wish I had done some or all of these things before I went to university. My English teacher told me that I should major in English, but I didn’t think I could get a decent job in that field. My marks in math and science were pretty high, so I decided to apply to engineering. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I switched after one semester of school and one semester of co-op to science. After gaining almost two years of work experience and doing a 4th year undergrad thesis, I discovered that I didn’t want to do research or be in the lab for that matter.

    I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for almost two years after graduating. My current job is not very science based even though I work for a science based branch of the government. But after several years and several jobs, I finally found an organization I am happy with and am carving out a career path.

    Sometimes it takes work experience to find out what you’re best suited for and what you like.

  9. The Cheapskate Mom

    I absolutely agree with you – community college is a wonderful, cost saving option. Many of the most successful people I know completed a two year community college plan and then transferred to a four year – and they have a lot less debt! Great post.

  10. MariaSelf

    This post can be “life saving” to so many folks out there!
    P.S. I also tagged you in my 11 Facts about Me post – I hope you’ll have a chance to tell us 11 facts about you as well;-)))

  11. Jason

    I think this is some really good advice. As a college professor, I tell my students that the degree gets you in the door. However, what gets you your first career is the things you do with that degree such as internship, study abroad, and/or leadership activities on campus.


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