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Originally published October 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2006 at 5:24 PM

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Hot majors: Sift through the popular to find your passion

Every year, about half the nation's freshmen swing onto campus without a declared major. If this is you, don't panic. In college, students will...

Special to The Seattle Times

Every year, about half the nation's freshmen swing onto campus without a declared major. If this is you, don't panic.

In college, students will be exposed to a whole range of brand-new subjects that may spark their interest, says Catharine Beyer of the University of Washington's office of educational assessment.

"Who ever heard of ethnomusicology, the comparative history of ideas, or bioengineering in high school?" she says. "Students have little high-school exposure to some of our biggest majors, such as psychology and political science."

The undecided freshmen of fall 2006 face a boggling array of possible majors, set against a backdrop of geopolitical and economic uncertainty. Should they follow the pack into popular majors? Try to jump on a new trend that might be part of a future job boom? Be a trailblazer in a brand-new major, such as Washington State University's program in organic agriculture?

College advisers say it's good to know about emerging programs, and to check out the trends in majors and in employment. But ultimately, the most important factor in choosing a major is passion.

"Studying what you're interested in matters a great deal to college success," says UW undergraduate adviser Kay Balston. "It's a lot easier than forcing yourself to study something just because you think there might be a good career there."

If students aren't smitten with a subject, what can they do? Linda Landis Andrews, author of "How to Choose a College Major" (McGraw-Hill, 2nd Ed. 2006), recommends students keep journals and reread them to uncover their interests. They can also conduct informational interviews with people in various career fields.

Once at college, it's never too early to sit down with a faculty adviser to brainstorm. Andrews also says students shouldn't get too hung up about what major they pick.

"What's important is the skills you learn in college," she says. "Perseverance, coping, planning skills, concentration, critical thinking," she ticks off. "In almost any major, you will learn some of those skills."

WHAT'S HOT

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Still want a sense of what the popular majors are locally these days? Here's a compendium of the most competitive and fastest-growing programs at the UW, Washington State University and Seattle University:

Nursing

Seattle University admissions dean Michael McKeon says this is one major where, with the continued aging trend in America, the boom is expected to continue. The university's program has expanded its faculty by more than 70 percent since 2002. McKeon says the program is limited by the shortage of qualified professors and by the finite slots in local hospitals for nursing-student training.

Biology

Nationally, McKeon says, biology programs admit the lowest percentage of applicants of any major. The bottleneck is lab space — it's expensive to build and can serve only so many students at a time. UW's Balston reports many of their current biology majors aim to be doctors. But likely most will switch to other biology fields rather than tackle the grueling premed curriculum. One hot niche at the UW: bioengineering, a field that includes everything from medical devices to genetically modified food. Enrollments in the major almost doubled from 2003 to 2005.

Accounting and finance

Recent business-accounting scandals have created lots of work for accountants — and a boom in interest in these two business-school majors, says Vikki Day, UW business-school undergraduate-programs director.

Criminal justice

It could be all those cop shows on TV, or the booming homeland-security industry, or our bulging prisons and courts. In any case, enrollments in this major have mushroomed in the past four years, says McKeon. Within criminal justice, one of the hottest programs at Seattle U is forensic science and forensic psychology; the evidence suggests the "CSI" effect.

International relations

From the roiling Middle East to instability in Asia, current events have drawn students to this major. This interest can manifest across other majors such as foreign languages, too. "We certainly have more students interested in taking Arabic," says Paul LePore, an assistant dean at UW's college of arts and sciences. The UW program has gotten tougher to get into, admitting 96 percent of applicants in 2000 but only 58 percent in 2005.

Social sciences

While some degrees are quite specific, WSU's popular general-social-science degree is broad-based, says associate provost for enrollment Vicki McCracken. It's also one of WSU's fastest-growing programs, shooting from 400 to 526 students from 2002 to 2005. She said students like the wide variety of science and humanities courses they can take under the major.

WHAT'S NEW

They're not big programs yet, but several recently introduced majors are catching on at WSU. The organic-agriculture major, new this fall, has faculty getting queries "from all over the country and the world," says WSU's McCracken.

Another growing new major at WSU is digital technology and culture, which has jumped from a 2003 introduction to have 220 students spread among WSU's three campuses.

"They're looking at the cultural aspect of what happens with digital media," she says. "Grads get multimedia and Web-development jobs with a lot of high-tech firms."

The budding biotech program is also attracting interest as biotechnology firms grow in the region. The program shot from four students in 2002 to 46, McCracken says.

GOT JOBS?

Students nervous about what the job market will hold when they graduate can check out a recently released study from Challenger, Gray & Christmas (see "Related links" above). The Chicago-based executive-search firm surveyed 100 human-resource directors about the areas where they plan to add jobs.

The jobs the study predicted will have the best employment growth: accounting, physical therapy, engineering, foreign languages, international relations, speech and acting.

Of course, many in college admissions are skeptical of such forecasts.

"If you got in your way-back machine to 25 years ago, nothing they said then would have any bearing on what the future proved to hold," says UW's LePore. "Computers and telecom didn't exist. People wouldn't have predicted it would be the century of the life sciences."

SAVING THE WORLD

One growing area of student interest isn't reflected in a single major category. But students' urge to do social good is showing up in courses in many majors, says UW's LePore. The UW has 20 different programs that include service-learning opportunities, and he says the number will double next year.

An example of a hot socially conscious major at UW is environmental studies. The program nearly quintupled enrollment from 2000 to 2005, when it topped 100 students.

"There isn't a 'change the world' major, but students in a number of fields are looking to do that," LePore says.

UW's Day says business students are part of the trend.

"Some want to take their business skills and work in nonprofits," she says. "Others want to change business from within."

SWITCHING

Ultimately, one thing is certain: College students will change their minds. LePore says the average UW student switches majors three times. Switches are fairly painless early in school, but past junior year can be costly, as a switch may extend a student's stay if they need additional courses.

If a student is going to switch majors anyway, how do they choose a school? LePore says that's more a matter of finding a school with the right cultural fit. Students need to weigh academic reputation, the size of the student body, class sizes, location and ethnic diversity, among other factors.

"They need to ask if they're going to fit in," he says, "if they like the clubs, the campus."

If a student decides on another major that doesn't have a strong offering at their current school, author Andrews says that, increasingly, they feel free to pick up and transfer to another college in midstream.

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