Skip to content

Considering the United States for your bachelor’s degree? You likely already know what you want to study. Depending on how your country’s education system is set up, you may have made your decision several years ago. In an earlier article on decoding STEM majors, we learned students often decide at the beginning of secondary school what path they wish to take when applying to universities three or four years in the future.

However, in the U.S. the structure of the undergraduate education system allows students much greater flexibility and choice in their academic program. Check out this article if you want to learn how to choose an academic major. While it is still possible to enter directly into a specific field of study, there’s usually no requirement to do so.

Student Profile – Xinyi Li, sophomore, University of South Carolina

When Xinyi Li arrived at the University of South Carolina (USC) last year she was not 100% sure what to study. In the People’s Republic of China, students in high school, Ms. Li comments, select their academic major “based on future development and demands of the market” well before they get to college.

In her journey to studying in the United States, Xinyi thought she should develop her skills in business but wasn’t certain. So, she chose marketing as a temporary option, but knows she “can change it any time.” Clearly, for many international students, this academic freedom of choice is a welcome surprise compared to their home countries.

This freedom extends beyond simply a choice of academic major. As Xinyi experienced in her first year, “American university academics are more focused on what I like, and time is more flexible because we choose classes and times by ourselves.” But, Ms. Li is quick to add that American universities are not necessarily more relaxed than what she might have experienced at universities back in China: “on the contrary, there are many essays I need to write. In essays, you can express your own understanding of the topics and the professors will be happy to discuss your essay.”

Some nations, particularly those with four-year undergraduate degree programs (including China), have added other courses beyond the academic major to develop skills and knowledge in their students that will prepare them for various challenges they may face in their lives. However, in many countries where the bachelor’s degree is made up of nearly all with courses in one academic field of study, having to take writing and communications classes, for example, while pursuing a degree in engineering, mathematics, or health fields, is very unusual.

In the United States, colleges at the undergraduate level require a range of courses across different subjects that all students must take in order to graduate. These general education courses develop effective communication skills, writing ability, and analytical thinking that help students regardless of their eventual profession. Ms. Li believes the first year or two of study in the United States gives “students more time to find out what they like, time to grow, to develop their personality, and to have a more mature way of thinking about this world.”

The role of your parents in your decision as to what to study cannot be underestimated. Parents, in their hearts, want only the best for their children. For Xinyi, when she applied to USC she initially chose marketing as her major. However, after her first year, Xinyi now wants “to choose my professional and future job according to my personal preference,” adding, “my parents have always respected my choice. They think that I should consider my interests and choose my own major. So, I told them that I am going to change my major because I have new and different ideas now, and they support me.”

For those who are undecided as undergraduate students, the good news is you have time in your first two years to explore different academic fields at U.S. colleges and universities. Choosing a major represents an opportunity to try subjects that interest you, and find the one (or two) that inspire you to a career in an area where your passions lie.