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Majors and Minors and Certificates, oh my!

Updated: Jul 4, 2023



As you begin your college search process, a big factor in deciding where you're going to go is what you're going to study.


Here, I'll outline the degree pathways you can explore and how different schools may have different options for ways you can study topics you're interested in.


Majors. Your major is the area of study that you will receive a Bachelor's degree for upon graduating from a 4-year college. In layman's terms, it's your main field of study where most of your graduation requirements will revolve around fulfilling coursework in that topic. For example, math majors will usually have to take at least 7-10 math classes whereas engineers and physics majors might only be required to take 5 math classes. Physics majors will have to take more physics classes, English majors take tons of English classes, and Business majors will take math and economics coursework.


Sometimes, schools will also require general graduation requirements on top of your major's graduation requirements, regardless of what your major is. So, if you know that you're the kind of person who does not like foreign languages, you might want to avoid Duke and Northwestern which require about 3 upper-level foreign language courses for every student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Or, maybe being encouraged to learn a foreign language is something that you want to do to expand on your educational experience. Regardless, it's important to check what the graduation requirements for schools that you're thinking of applying to are to see if they fulfill what you want to get out of your higher education experience.


Beyond the general requirements, I highly recommend researching your major-specific requirements. There are a-many reasons for doing this, one, because the specific subfields that you can learn will vary from school to school. You can primarily notice this difference through the concentrations that schools list for their given major. For example, for really broad majors like Biology or Business, students are usually expected to "concentrate" in a topic like plant biology or marketing. However, not every school offers a plant biology or marketing concentration, so that's where it's important to see if you'll be able to learn the specific things that you're interested in in your major. This is true for majors that already seem super specific in name like Biostatistics and Environmental Policy.


Another way to learn more about the sub-fields that a given school emphasizes is by looking through that school's upper-level coursework. Generally, you should be able to find a list of courses offered by a given department for a school online, there, you will usually find "themes" that the school emphasizes in its upper-level electives. Those things can be really important because if you're a psychology major interested in learning about the effects of drugs on brain & behavior, you'll want to see if there are a lot of psychology electives related to drug uptake in the body and addiction. It's important to pay attention to even the number of these sorts of electives that different schools offer because that'll show you the consistency to which that school cares about that subfield.


What if I don't know what I want to major in? Or what if I want to switch majors after matriculating? Am I stuck with the major that I apply to the school for? At the majority of colleges and universities in the United States, you are not bound to the major that you said that you wanted to study, nor are you even enrolled in that major. You're not enrolled into any major until you declare your major during college, which usually, most schools don't allow you to declare your major until sophomore/junior year.


So, why do schools want to know what you want to major in? This is so that they can have an even distribution of their matriculating class. In an ideal world, the school wants every major to have a reasonable number of students involved in that major. So, they're not going to admit too many students interested in English, Statistics, and Neuroscience and have no students interested in Computer Science, Psychology, or Philosophy. They're able to intuit what fields the student body is generally interested in because when you apply, most schools will have you rank your top 3 fields of interest. For a lot of schools that I applied to, my list was something like 1) Biomedical Engineering 2) Bioengineering 3) International Relations (lol). Your list of top 3 majors will always vary depending on each school and whether or not that school actually offers a given major.


Finally, what are the consequences of ranking 3 majors you have no interest in studying, but think it will be easier to be admitted into the college for? One consequence is that if you're applying to a given university or college, they will generally have sub-schools like the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, or the School of Business. So, depending on what majors you rank interest in, they will place you into that sub-college when you enroll. You'll have completely free reign over the majors that are offered in that college, but you'll have to read into the school's policies about how easy the process of transferring between the different colleges is. For example, at Carnegie Mellon, it is known to be very difficult to transfer into the School of Computer Science if you're not directly admitted into it as a freshman. There is a whole extra application you would have to do to transfer into the School of Computer Science after you've already been a student for x amount of time where a committee evaluates your individual performance, level of engagement in CS on campus, and space in the department to see if you're allowed to transfer. Making the case to transfer from Environmental Studies (or any major for that matter) to Computer Science, in that case, would be very difficult as opposed to applying to the School of Computer Science in the first place.


Tl;dr Your major is going to be the area of study that you spend the majority of your time on and it's important to find schools that emphasize the subtopics in that field that you are passionate about. Try to apply to majors that actually reflect your interests and do research into the schools you're applying to learn how they facilitate meeting your academic needs.


Co-majors. Co-majors are majors that the school will mandate that you can only study that major if you're also majoring in something else. Usually, this could be because the department for the co-major is much smaller and less topic-specific than other majors at the school, but there are still enough courses for you to earn a major in it, just not at the level of depth that that school would typically allow for you to earn a major. For example, at Duke, Global Health is a co-major, so you would also have to first major in something like Biology or Political Science in order to be allowed to major in Global Health. If you're the kind of person who likes to learn a lot of different things, having to major in something else on top of your co-major could be nice, but for those who don't, I would try to find schools that don't force you to co-major in order to study a topic you're passionate about.


Dual degrees. Dual degrees are programs where the school has a pre-existing route for you to major in two subject areas at the same time, usually resulting in you getting two degrees. For example, you can get a Bachelor of Arts diploma and a Bachelor of Science diploma, or a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering. Northeastern's extensive list of dual degree programs, or combined majors as they call it, shows you the realm of possibilities for different dual degree combinations like Computer Science & English or Mathematics and Sociology. Most schools do not offer as many dual degree options as Northeastern does, however, for those that do, they can be a really great program for you as a student if you know that you want to combine two areas of study. You'll find that some dual degree options are more common than others, for example, engineering & music is pretty common as well as computer science + humanities. It's important to note that sometimes dual degree programs operate via joint appointments with nearby schools that may offer academic programs that your main school doesn't, for example, if you want to pursue an engineering degree while studying at a humanities liberal arts college. Not a lot of schools offer dual degree programs, so if you find a school that facilitates your ability to mesh your interests and passions, that's definitely a great reason for why you may want to attend.


Accelerated Degrees. Accelerated degree programs are degrees where you are admitted into a bachelor's program and conditionally admitted to a graduate program. Conditionally admitted meaning, if you get a good GPA during undergrad and good graduate test scores (if required), you will be enrolled in a graduate program. Examples of accelerated degree programs include BS/MS, BS/MD, BS/JD, BS/MBA, BS + dental, BS + pharmaceutical, and BS + vet schools, etc. What's really nice about these programs is that it makes applying to graduate school much less stressful and likely less competitive for you. Imagine being guaranteed to go to med school after senior year of high school, I wish that were me, because then I wouldn't have to spend all this time trying to make my med school apps look better now after graduating from undergrad. Another type of accelerated degree I forgot to mention are 4+1 degrees, where you can do your master's degree conditionally guaranteed in only 1 year instead of two years. That's a great option for business students and engineers who know they need to get a master's degree in order to get a higher-paying job in industry. I'm doing Duke's 4+1 program for biomedical engineering, mostly because I had an "okay" undergrad GPA, and I want to show that I can do well in more school before applying to competitive graduate programs. Needless to say, not every school offers accelerated programs and if you know you're a student who eventually wants to go to graduate or professional school, then these are really great pathways that you may want to apply to to help accelerate you on that path.


Undecided majors. This one is tricky and where I would generally outsource my advice on it, so please do extra research beyond this blog post. I believe that as admissions have become more competitive, it is likely harder for students who are undecided to be admitted IF they don't have really great statistics, extracurriculars, and essays. This is because, schools are trying to create a diverse class in terms of thought, so they want to spread out how many students they have in each degree path, and it may make it a little bit more difficult for them to plan that out. However, if you know that you're passionate about a lot of different things and genuinely don't know what major you want to do and you're a very confident student in every other facet of your application, then I would say applying undecided is valid. But, in your essays and via your extracurriculars, you have to emphasize what it is that you are passionate about academic-topic-wise or hobby-wise. For example, you might really enjoy math and civic engagement, talk about why, how you like to explore those topics, how you would continue to explore those topics, but you could also see yourself committing to either one or the other during college given the opportunity to learn more about the fields in university.


Secondary Majors. A secondary major is a major where you will have it listed on your transcript but not your diploma (depending on the school). This is because if your primary major has a lot of coursework that would also "double count" for the secondary major, they'll just print your primary major in the diploma. I discovered this is what I did when I studied BME + Neuroscience (BS2), so I strategically chose 3 BME classes that could also double count for my neuroscience secondary major. I think that it should still count as a double major, butchyahknow, I digress. What I will say is that some schools have pre-existing secondary major pathways, so, Duke is one example that did that for BME + neuroscience, but they don't have it (at least on the website) for something like biology + neuroscience.


Double Majors. A double major is where you study two majors, without any coursework overlap. Both majors are generally in the same "degree" so they're both a Bachelor of Arts or both a Bachelor's of Science. The only difference for a secondary major is that then both degrees will appear on your diploma. I think that the nuances between a secondary major and double major isn't the biggest of deals and the policies will actually likely vary from school to school. But, needless to say, it gives you a concept of the amount of workload that might be necessary to study two topics of interest for you from school to school. Stanford has details for students who are interested in either double majoring in International Relations or who want to get a secondary major in the topic at their school.


Interdisciplinary majors. An interdisciplinary major is a single area of study that happens to already combine two interests. In this case, you wouldn't have to double major or get a secondary major at all in order to learn about two fields that you're already interested in combining. One example of an interdisciplinary major is Carnegie Mellon's Music & Technology major. Interdisciplinary majors are generally very unique to each school in terms of what fields of interest they'll combine and in what ways they'll combine those interests.


DIY majors. For lack of a better term, there's also a thing called a DIY major, where you get to create your own major. Every school will have a different name for it, but essentially, you are able to work closely with a faculty member sponsor to create a sequence of courses that makes sense for you and your passions while also meeting the adequate amount of depth necessary for a bachelor's degree. This is best done in the event that there is not a pre-existing combination of majors or dual degrees offered by the university and you don't want to take all the irrelevant major requirements you might have to do for a double major. An example of a school that offers a DIY major includes Villanova University's Individually Designed Major. Before you tell a school that you're interested in the DIY major option when you apply as a reason for "why that school" is special to you, first please please do your research to make sure that there isn't already a dual degree or interdisciplinary major that synthesizes the two fields of study that you want to learn about.


Minors. A minor is a certification that does not show up on your diploma but will generally appear on your transcript and designates that you studied a field with reasonable depth during college. Generally, the requirements to obtain a minor is about 5ish classes depending on the school. There's still a sequential hierarchy in which you have to complete those classes, so you can't just do 5 intro courses, they generally have to increase in depth to fulfill the requirement of obtaining the minor. Minors are really nice if there's a skill or topic that you want to be more well-versed in during college to supplement your education. For example, students will minor in a foreign language if they want to keep that skill up, which could help with a future career that would involve a lot of travel. You can basically minor in anything to gain moderate expertise in a field, I know some biomedical engineering who minor in computational biology, English, global health, and computer science because, for whatever reason, they feel like that area of study will positively supplement their academic experience. I highly recommend sharing an interest in minoring in your academic passions that you're not going to major in when applying to college. That can just help paint the bigger picture of who you are academically and how you can add to the academic diversity of the school, with your unique degree pathway interests.


Certificates. Finally, a certificate is somewhere in between a major and a minor. It demonstrates more commitment to exploring a specific topic and depending on the school, can also require a research or real-world experience component. Not every school offers certificates to begin with, so finding one that facilitates that level of in-depth study can be really rewarding for you as a student to get to explore a topic beyond the classroom. You can check out some certificate programs like Brown's Intercultural Competence certificate and George Mason University's Health Practice Management Undergraduate certificate.


Needless to say, I hope that this overview helps you in your college search and narrowing down which schools actually fulfill your academic interests. In the upcoming posts, I will discuss strategies for discovering your primary major and how to present your fields of interest in the college admissions process.




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