If you’re a recent college graduate heading into a job interview, you might have prepared to answer questions about how what you did in college will translate to the world of work along with other common interview questions such as “Tell me about yourself” and “What is your greatest weakness?” But are you ready to answer a question about why you decided to study what you did in the first place?
Questions like “How did you choose your major?” are still about how you’re qualified for the job and why you’re a great match who stands out among other candidates, but you could get caught off guard by having to explain a decision you may have made years ago.
Here’s why this question gets asked, how to answer, and what possible answers might sound like.
The interview process is about showing off what qualifications you have, but it’s also about giving a sense of who you are as a person. Interviewers want to get to know you and see how you’d add to the company and get along with the team already in place, says Muse career coach Jennifer Smith, founder of Flourish Careers and former recruiter. Talking about how you chose your major can tell the interviewer what you’re passionate about and what you see in your future. For example, if you chose to major in computer science because you’ve loved fixing and building computers since you were a teenager, that bodes well for your interest in a job in IT. When she used to ask this question, Smith says, “I wanted to know the job seeker’s genuine interest in the subject matter [and] how they planned on using it in their career.”
Additionally, as an entry-level candidate, you likely don’t have much or any experience in the field you’re hoping to join. So interviewers asking this question are often looking to see how what you’re passionate about might line up with the work you’d do at their company. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed if your major doesn’t exactly line up with the job. You can still use this question to draw connections between your major and your future career. For instance, the passion for understanding why people behave the way they do that drove you to choose to major in psychology can translate into understanding what motivates people to buy a product as an account executive.
Your answer to this question should have several components to it. Here’s how to construct each part, along with examples (with input from Smith).
1. Introduce Your Reason With an Anecdote or Short Story
Start your answer by telling your interviewer why you chose your major and supporting it with a quick story or anecdote, Smith says. This showcases your interest and passion for the subject and will make you memorable to the interviewer. Consider which of these would be more likely to stick with you: “I chose to major in English because I love to read,” or, “I chose to major in English because I’ve loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I even got in trouble once for reading under my desk instead of listening to the teacher. So I wanted to learn how language works the way it does to convey stories and meaning”?
Here’s an example of how this piece might sound for a mechanical engineering major:
“I’ve always loved figuring out how things work. To this day, my parents tell stories about how I used to take everything apart as a kid—including the RC car they got me for my birthday one year. The next day, they came home from work to find the parts all over the living room floor. It’s fascinating to learn how the intricate components of things work together.”
2. Show How You’ve Already Applied Knowledge and Skills From Your Major
Next, you should give your interviewer an example of how you’ve already used the knowledge you gained in your major in a practical way through internships, volunteer experience, clubs and activities, other work experiences, or larger projects as part of your coursework, Smith says. But make sure you choose an example that relates to the job you’re interviewing for.
Continuing with the example from above, if that mechanical engineering major were up for a job where they’d be responsible for setting up new manufacturing equipment, they might say something like:
“In my recent internship at a large consumer goods company, I had the opportunity to work with the engineering team on researching, developing, and installing new packaging equipment. I was able to use many of the skills I learned in school like research, cost estimation, troubleshooting, and computer-aided design. It was great to be part of a project from the initial conception and brainstorming phases to implementation and validation and see how I can apply what I’ve learned in classes to a real-world scenario.”
If it’s not obvious at first how you can relate your major to the job you’re applying for, you’ll need to think about your transferable skills, which are abilities and knowledge that can be applied across more than one discipline, such as teamwork, communication, or different types of technology. If you were able to get an interview, you likely have at least some skills that translate to the job, so focus on those in your answer. For example, if you majored in IT and are applying for a job in HR or talent acquisition, you can focus on the problem-solving aspects of IT and how you applied them to recruit new members to a club you were in during college, Smith says.
3. Explicitly Connect Your Major to This Job
The third piece of answering “Why did you choose your major?” is to connect it directly to the job you’re interviewing for and show your excitement about getting to further apply what you’ve learned. You’ve already set the stage by telling a relevant anecdote and giving a related example—this is the part where you tie it all together. For instance, if you majored in communications and are applying for a social media marketing job at a sustainable food company, you might talk about how you’re excited to apply what you learned at school and in your internships to crafting a message that will resonate with the company’s health-conscious consumers and help them find products that will taste good while being environmentally friendly.
Or to finish off our mechanical engineering example, you could wrap up your answer with:
“I’m so excited to continue to leverage the theory I used in school and the practical experience I gained in my recent internship to support the team in their development of new manufacturing equipment.”
Keep in mind that interviewers asking this question are looking to hear what you’re passionate about. So steer clear of mentioning salary reasons for choosing your major, Smith says. For example, she says, don’t say that you chose to major in finance because you’ve heard it has the highest entry-level salaries. If pay did figure into your decision, there’s still a reason you chose your major over others with similarly high-paying prospects.
Also, avoid speaking negatively about your major even if you ended up being unhappy with your decision. “Try to remain positive and talk about what you learned from it,” Smith says.
Here’s another example answer all together, this time for a philosophy major interviewing for a management consulting job.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of exploring an issue or topic from different angles and engaging with it critically and creatively. In high school, I loved any classes where we were encouraged to really dig deep and have a discussion about why a historical event might have occurred or why the events in a novel played out the way they did. And after reading an intro-level philosophy book for an AP English project, I was hooked on learning more about different philosophies and applying them to as many scenarios as possible. I chose this major because I knew how important looking at problems and ideas from different angles and finding new solutions would be in almost any job. In my senior year, I decided to take a business class that required groups to come up with a plan for a business that would help solve the problem of limited access to fresh produce in inner cities. I was able to use my critical thinking skills to examine the problem from new angles and come up with creative solutions in collaboration with my group. Our project ended up getting an A as well as a lot of praise because of how inventive it was. I’m excited by the opportunity to do this again with different businesses’ real-world problems.”