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Choosing a Major

Melanie Jacobsen

Arizona State University


One of the first big life decisions students make is what major to choose. This is a huge decision that many people make but there is not much research about how students choose their major. This study identifies how # students at Arizona State University chose their major using story analysis and a survey. The story analysis indicated how these students chose their major based on their experiences, influence from others, information gathering, and goals for the future. The survey indicates what heuristic, if any, the student used to make their decision. These heuristics include dominance, additive linear, additive difference, satisficing, disjunctive, lexicographic, elimination by aspects, and recognition heuristic. The results from this study can be used to help figure out the best way to make a quality decision about what major students should be taking. 

Choosing a Major

Choosing a major is something that every person in the world that goes to college has to do and in the United States of America alone, 65.9% of high school graduates go to college (Norris, 2014). It is a big decision. Deciding which major to pursue indicates what job opportunities one will have in the future. The major they choose has a huge impact on whether or not they succeed in college and after graduation (Montag, Campo, Weissman, Walmsley, & Snell, 2012). One would not choose a business marketing major if they wanted to be a researcher in the future. Because choosing a major affects so much of your life I wanted to know how people actually make their decision and if they really think through everything before deciding.

Universities have pressure put on them to have their students graduate in four years, retain students, and to assess issues related to cost and purpose of higher education (Harnish & Lebioda, 2016). Arizona State University is not immune to all of these pressures being put on many other universities around the country and the world. The role of choosing a major is usually not addressed as part of the retention and graduation rate problem. A huge life choice is choosing a major (Leach & Patall, 2013). The process of choosing a major is “potentially life framing” according to Galotti et al. (2006). This decision is possibly the first big decision a student makes without help. Yes, there are some students that choose a major based on what career they would like to pursue but other students choose a major due to identity exploration (Arnett, 2016). No matter the reason a student chooses their major, their chose will influence the rest of their life.  

Because we have come to realize that choosing a major is such an important life decision I wanted to research how college students actually chose their majors. The decision-making process has many heuristics attached to it. Some of these heuristics are easier to use and others are a little harder and require more thought. I believe that most people use simile heuristics to make their decision on what major to pursue when they should be using the more complicated heuristics.



Participants were selected from Sigma Kappa Sorority on Arizona State University's campus and friends of the researcher who attend Arizona State University. In total, there were # participants that contributed to the study. 12 women participated in the study. One of the participants was a freshman, four were sophomores, two were juniors, and three were seniors. Information of the participants' majors is listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Majors of Participants in the Study (N = 10)

Major Number of participants in each major

Biological sciences 1

Psychology 1

Criminal justice 1

Political science 2

Supply chain 1

Industrial engineering 1

Spanish 1

History 1

Business sustainability 1

Business management 1

Accounting 1


To measure the how the participates made their decision about what major to choose I made a survey. This survey was made of questions that indicated what heuristic, if any, the participants used to make a decision on what major to choose. The heuristics I included in the survey were dominance, additive linear, additive difference, satisficing, disjunctive, lexicographic, elimination by aspects, and recognition heuristic. Each participant was also asked to write a short story about how they chose their major. Participants used their own computers or laptops to take the survey and write the short story. Qualtrics was used for the survey and data collection.


Each participant was sent a link to Qualtrics. When each of them opened the link they were asked if they were 18 years or older. If they were they pressed yes and moved on to the next page. On this page they were told a few details about the survey they were about to take part in. Then they were asked, at the bottom of the page, if they agreed to participate in this survey. The participants were then brought to the next page if they agreed to participate in the survey. The next page asked the participant to write a short story about how they chose their major. The next page consisted of a set of eight questions. Each question was followed by a set of answer choices. These answer choices were strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, neutral, slightly agree, agree, and strongly agree. Once the participants finished the survey they were given a brief explanation about what the study was looking for.


Table 2. How I Chose My Major: Themes and Subthemes (Jackson, Morgan, Reeves, & Valadez, 2017).

Themes and Subthemes Number of Stories per Subtheme

Theme One: Experience

Enjoy the subject matter or activity 2

Class experience 4

Past experience 1

Theme Two: Influence from Others

Friends and family friends

Mentor 1

Family 1


Theme Three: Information Gathering

Research 2

Career test

Theme Four: Future Goals

Future plans 1

Help others

For this part of my research I used Jackson, Morgan, Reeves, and Valdez's (2017) form of categorizing the participants short stories. Each story was placed into one of the subthemes. Some stories fell into two subthemes.

Theme One: experience

This theme incorporates events that have happened throughout the participants life and activities they have participated in that have led them to choose the major they are in today. Emotions that are attached to the experiences the participant has are incorporated into this theme. The words I was looking for was “enjoy” and “passion” when describing why the participant chose their major. The three subthemes of this category are: enjoy the subject matter or activity, class experience, and past experience (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme One: Enjoy the subject matter or activity

This subtheme focuses on how happy or accomplished the participant feels about their studies and things that have to do with their major (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Two: Past Experience

This subtheme deals with what participants have experienced in their past that led them to choose their major. This can be bad past experiences, for example a death in the family. This can also be good experiences, for example memories (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Three: Class experiences

This subtheme is pretty obvious, it is experiences you have had in the classroom that has led you to choose your major (Jackson et al., 2017).

Theme Two: Influence from Others

This theme incorporates relationships from your personal and professional world that influenced your decision on the major you chose. Subthemes that are a part of this theme are: friends and family friends, mentor, family, and advisor (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme One: Friends and family friends

This subtheme is the influence from your friends and from your family friends or adults that your family is friends with (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Two: Mentor

For this subtheme students decided their major based on influences from a mentor they worked with (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Three: Family

Family members of the student help in making the students decision about what major to pursue. Family members help this process by providing opportunities and advice (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Four: Advisor

The student reached out to an advisor to help them make their decision about a major (Jackson et al., 2017).

Theme Three: Information Gathering

The student has researched different majors and gathered information about possible majors and may have even taken a career test to help them decide. Subthemes of this theme are: research and career tests (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme One: Research

For this subtheme the student spent time going through different majors and found attributes that they were looking for in a job to help make their decision about a major (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Two: Career test

To help make the students decision about their major easier, they took a career test to find out what kind of jobs would be most compatible with their personality and interests (Jackson et al., 2017).

Theme Four: Future Goals

These students knew what they wanted to do with their life and just needed a major that would get them to their end point. Subthemes for this theme include: future plans and helping others (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme one: Future plans

The student knows what they want to do in life. This can mean what job they want and if they want to go to graduate school or not. The student bases their decision about their major off of what they want out of life (Jackson et al., 2017).

Subtheme Two: Helping others

The student is unsure of the exact career path they want but knows they want to do something that will help others so they research majors that will let them do that. They then choose from those majors (Jackson et al., 2017).

The participants were asked to write a short story about how they chose their major so I could get a better idea about their decision-making process and so I could see what influenced them. I used Jackson et al's (2017) category themes because I thought it was the best way to analyze the data presented to me through the stories.

It seems as if most people chose their major based on past experiences. Half of the stories fell into the past experiences category. Most of these stories had to do with the classes that they had taken and their enjoyable experience in those classes. In terms of what has the most cognitive thought attached to it, I believe, from highest to lowest, that it should be ranked from information gathering to future goals to experience to influence from others. I believe information gathering takes the most cognitive thought because students have to research and try to understand what is best for them. I also believe influence from others has the lowest cognitive thought behind it because students who choose their major based on others are just listening to what other people are saying and not thinking about it for themselves. It seems like most students from this study stuck to what they have experienced. This decision-making process is more thoughtful than influence from others but still does not take that much effort.

Table 3. To what extent participants used heuristics to make their decision.

Number of participants that chose each number

Heuristic 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Additive linear 2 2 3 1 2

Additive difference 6 3 1

Disjunctive 2 3 4 1

Satisficing 1 5 4

Elimination by aspects 3 3 1 1 2

Lexicographic 4 3 1 1 1

Dominance 1 1 3 3 2

Recognition 4 2 2 2

The heuristics are ranked, top to bottom, from highest cognitive thought to lowest cognitive thought. The numbers 1-7 represent the answers offered in the survey. One being strongly disagree, two being disagree, three being slightly disagree, four being neither disagree nor agree, five being slightly agree, six being agree, and seven being strongly agree.

The results shown in this table show that on average, participants tend to use the heuristics that do not require as much cognitive thought. There are some people that used the heuristics that require more thought than others but for the most part most participants did not use the top two highest cognitive based heuristics. It looks like most participants used the disjunctive and satisficing heuristics to make their decision about what major to choose. Also, the dominance heuristic looks to have consistently been used by participants.



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Galotti, K. M., Ciner, E., Altenbaumer, H. E., Geerts, H. J., Rupp, A., & Woulfe, J.

(2006). Decision‐making styles in a real‐life decision: Choosing a college

major. Personality and Individual Differences, 41, 629–639.

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Policy matters: A higher education policy brief.

Leach, J. K., & Patall, E. A. (2013). Maximizing and counterfactual thinking in academic major

decision making. Journal of Career Assessment, 21, 414–429.

Montag, T., Campo, J., Weissman, J., Walmsley, A., & Snell, A. (2012). In their own words:

Best practices for advising millennial students about majors. NACADA Journal, 32(2),


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