Why Your College Major Doesn’t Matter

In honor of back to school season, I wanted to share an observation I’ve made over the past ten years of advising Generation Y on their post-college careers: When it comes to your job search and career aspirations, your college major doesn’t matter.*

Yes, there are some professions (e.g., accounting), where you may need a particular major to land a job with a particular corporation. And job interviewers may ask why you chose your major in order to learn about your decision making process. But in the vast majority of career and job search situations, your major is pretty much meaningless.

The reason is that your college years are about much more than the subject matter of your classes. Here are some of the things that employers tell me are more important than a college major:

  • Experience. Virtually every employer mentions experience as the most desirable resume item a job candidate can offer. It doesn’t matter whether that experience comes from internships, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, part-time jobs or working in your family business over the summer. What matters is that you have built professional skills, ideally related to the industry you want to join.
  • Skills. Hand-in-hand with experience come tangible skills. For a programming job, for instance, your performance on a sample coding project will matter much more than the words on your diploma. The same goes for artistic talent, sales ability, foreign language fluency or any other measurable skill that is required for success in a job. Such skills can be inborn or learned outside the classroom as much as in it.
  • Passion. If I were, say, a designer hiring an employee to work at my clothing label, I’d take someone deeply passionate about fashion over an unenthusiastic fashion major any day. Any entry-level employee will require a lot of training in the actual “work” of a particular job, but genuine enthusiasm can’t be taught. And it’s that enthusiasm that makes people want to teach you, mentor you and eventually promote you.
  • Grades. No matter what your major, grades do matter early in your career — for about the first two years or so. The reason is that your grades are a reflection of your diligence, your intelligence and your work ethic. If your grades aren’t that great, it can be helpful if you’ve at least shown some improvement in your GPA over the years. I’ve heard of job offers being rescinded because of a potential employee’s low grades second semester senior year. Employers don’t want to hire slackers.
  • Connections. Yep, you’ve heard it a million times: getting a job is often about who you know. The more you build your network in college — by forming relationships with classmates, professors, advisors, career services professionals, internship colleagues and others — the more job opportunities you’ll have no matter what your major.

* Since I write about careers, I’ve addressed the irrelevance of your college major when it comes to your professional future. Where I think college major does matter is when it comes to your happiness and fulfillment in college. My best advice is to major in a subject simply for your enjoyment or your fascination with the content. If you’re dead-set on having a pre-professional major, then you can always double major or minor in something “practical.” Of course, if you are totally passionate about accounting, business, PR or any other pre-professional major, then by all means choose it and enjoy!

How do you feel about the importance of a college major? Please share!

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7 Responses

    1. @Jonthon – Tell me more – why do you think this? Would love to hear more of your thoughts. Thanks for the comment.

  1. I’ve noticed this phenomenon with some of my customers, even accountants, who learn on the job. My major was English but I’m a job search workshop specialist. Theoretically I should have majored in career counseling–yes, they had a major for that–or counseling. Great post.

    1. @Bob – Thanks for the comment. I have a degree in American Studies but have been working in the career development field for 15 years and no one has ever questioned my lack of a career counseling degree. Experience trumps a degree in many — but not all — fields.

  2. The idea that emoloyers care less about your major than the fact that you have a degree at all is a recent realization for me. My career counsellor at my university pointed it out, and I was a little put out by that at first (what else did I have but my education?). But it’s forced me to expand my awareness past my courses and into the experiences I can gain outside of class. It’s been an eye-opener, for sure!

    One thing I wonder about frequently is that since a post-secondary education has become almost a requirement rather than an asset, are higher and higher levels of education required to put yourself ahead?

    1. @Kristy – That’s a great question. What I hear from employers is that the importane of an advanced degree (MA, MBA, PhD, etc.) depends on what you want to do professionally. My best advice is to check out the LinkedIn profiles of people with the jobs you aspire to (now or in the future) and see if they have advanced degrees. Then you have to weigh the cost of that degree with the benefit it might provide in future employment and earnings. Good luck!

  3. It’s very simple Lindsey. To succeed in the world you need something to offer, you need tangible skills. There was a time when simply having a degree was the most important thing, and your field of study really didn’t matter. For previous generations a college degree was a rare commodity and the simple fact of having one would open doors. Back when my parents were young a college graduate could find a good entry level job at a company and look forward to many years of employment. The employee would trade his effort and loyalty and the company would repay him with stability, training and advancement.
    Those days are long gone. Now employers want people with skills on day one. Life-long careers with a single company are a thing of the past and a huge percentage of the population has education post high school. At the same time the cost of that education has skyrocketed leaving many graduates deeply in debt. The world is simply a different place then it once was.
    Now I’m not saying a person should feel pigeon holed by their choice of major. And of course people should strive to find work that they enjoy. But the fact is that many majors simply don’t teach marketable skills. And without skills to go with it, a college degree isn’t worth much. Millions of young people are out there now with shiny pieces of paper in all sorts of fields which make them no more qualified for professional employment then they would have been right out of high school. This is at best a waste of time and for many a financial anchor limiting choices and income. Following one’s passion may be a laudable goal, but before you can do that, you have to pay the rent.
    It’s time we got our priorities straight. Education should be a means of expanding minds but it should also be a place where the tools to succeed are passed on. As a society we aren’t doing young people any favors when we tell them that all paths are equally appropriate or that a degree studying an esoteric art is as good as one learning tangible abilities. One’s major may not determine where you end up in life, but it does help determine where you start. And that is something that should not be downplayed.

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