How to Choose Your Major, or How College is Like the Cheesecake Factory


Ever seen the menu at the Cheesecake Factory? It's crazy, something like 50 pages long with over 200 items. And if you're like me it takes forever to decide what to order: you think the Cajun Pasta sounds good until you see The Incredible Grilled Eggplant Sandwich (actual name). Then you see the Chicken Lettuce Wrap Tacos and you think “Those sound good,” until you realize it’s Sunday and you can get your Belgian Waffle Elvis style. By the time the server arrives you find yourself saying, "Can we get another minute?" and by the time the server comes back with the bread you try to buy another 30 seconds by saying to your friends, "You guys order; I'll go last," but even after you've ordered the Chicken Madeira you're still not quite sure that you shouldn’t have gone with the Luau Salad.


This sucker's spiral-bound and weighs about 5 lbs.

Well guess what?

Choosing your college major can feel a lot like that.

Depaul has a huge list of majors and minors to choose from, for example, while the list at Rutgers is just as long. UCLA has so many to choose from (around 125) that it actually has a website for “Majors not offered at UCLA” (emphasis mine).

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, points out that while having a few options can make us happier, having too many can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.


So what do you do?

Schwartz has some good advice, which I’ve adapted here for the high school senior picking a major:

  1. Decide what’s most important to you. Sound impossible? It’s not, actually. Take a look at this exercise for finding your values. Once you have a list of 3-5, then:  
  2. Evaluate the importance of each value. Rank your top values, if possible. Also, ask yourself why you want to go to college. Are you looking to gain practical skills that will help you in a specific career? Or do you just want to learn about a lot of different things? If the latter, your major may not matter as much, and you might want to consider a school or major that offers a lot of flexibility in its curriculum, like the open curriculum at Brown.
  3. Consider your options. How?
    1. Order the book Do What You Are. Do the personality test at the beginning and read about the careers that correspond to your personality. This isn't the only way to figure out what you want to do, but it's the best and most efficient way of helping students I've ever found.
    2. Work with a career consultant. Contact your local Elite branch for recommendations.
    3. What about an online major or career quiz? Well, you can, except I’ve taken a bunch of them and have never really found a fully comprehensive one. But they can be fun! 
    4. Ask yourself if your major choice will bring you closer to your top value(s). If your top value, for example, is “independence,” will the major(s) you’ve chosen be likely to facilitate that?
    5. Keep exploring. How?
      1. Find out which classes are required for each major. UC Santa Cruz, for example, has a clickable page that gives this info. So pick a school you like and see what your freshman year would look like. (Click here for more on why picking your college classes before you even write your college application is a good idea.)
      2. Job shadow someone in a career you find interesting. This is actually easier than you think. Ask your parents, guidance counselor, and favorite teachers if they know anyone in the field you’re interested in. Ask them for that person’s email. Email that person and say, “I’m interested in potentially doing what you do for a living, but I’d love to find out more about what it’s really like. Could I perhaps chat with you on the phone for 15 minutes or, if possible, job shadow you one day? I’d really appreciate any guidance you could offer.” Simple as that. Be polite and kind. The worst that can happen is the first person you ask says “no.” If so, don’t take it personally, just find someone else to ask.

Hey, Ethan! Can you guarantee that once I do this I’ll find my dream career?

Nope. But once you’ve done all this, chances are you’ll be a little closer.

Finally, something that'll really mess with your head:

After you graduate college, the Cheesecake Factory thing will happen again. And it may sound something like this...

WORLD: So you’ve just graduated college. What would you like to do with your life?

YOU: Um. What are my options? Can I see the menu?

WORLD: Sorry, there is no menu.

YOU: What?

WORLD: That’s right. Your options are now limitless. (Pause.) Good luck with that.

*   *   *   *   *


Click here for Five Common Myths About Majors.

Here’s Barry Schwartz’s TED talk on the paradox of choice.

Because I like to offer other perspectives, here’s a counter-argument to the paradox of choice theory.


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.

Posted on February 20, 2014 and filed under Colleges & Universities.