You’ve doubtless come across degree majors before. Also known as concentrations, they’re the area that students focus their studies around in education systems that adopt a broader approach - like the USA’s.
For some students, they’re a source of consternation. Others - particularly those used to educational systems in which students apply for a single-subject degree, or who are set on a particular career - might have an easier time making the decision.
But even for those with a defined professional destination (like aspiring doctors), it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. And for counsellors and students less familiar with the credits and majors model, the whole thing can be a bit confusing.
So to make sure you can advise your students as they prepare their applications for American universities, we’re answering some of the most important (and common) questions about degree majors.
Read on to find out what they are, how students should decide, and what their significance really is - including for students hoping to pursue graduate professional tracks like medicine and law. Plus, we have some solutions for the students who are really overwhelmed (or put off) by the notion of having to decide at all!
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To understand what a degree major is, you’ll need to be clear on how American degrees generally work. There are two key components to understand: the credits system, and general education (a.k.a. GenEd).
The credits system is fairly simple. Students need to earn a certain number of credits to graduate with a bachelor’s degree - typically 120 credits. Most of those 120 can be earned in classes students choose from whichever departments interest them, but a certain number (usually 36) have to be from one subject - the subject they’ve chosen as their major.
There’s also a required number of credits to be completed in general education (GenEd) classes, which are designed to give students a foundation of knowledge in key areas like maths, writing, foreign languages, and history.
So essentially, a degree major or concentration is exactly what it sounds like: the degree’s major area of study, or the area students concentrate on.
Some of the most popular American degree majors are:
As you’ve probably seen, the thought of choosing a major can be stressful for some students. It can feel like they’re narrowing down their options or closing doors to career paths they might one day want to pursue.
But in fact, your students needn’t worry. To begin with, their major won’t be set in stone until far into their four years of university, so they’ll be able to switch if they change their minds. And before they start fretting that switching will be difficult or negatively perceived, let them know that around 80% of students change their major at least once, and many change it several times!
What’s more, the American degree major system is actually much less restrictive than degree structures which let students study just one (or at a push two) subjects in-depth. Because students at American institutions have broader experience, they actually keep more doors open.
You can see this in the fact that it’s estimated only 27% of university graduates in the USA are working in careers that are related to their degree major!
What really matters is the soft skills, flexibility and interdisciplinary thinking students develop thanks to the degree major system. And it’s not just us who think so: 93% of employers believe transferable skills like communication, problem-solving and critical thinking matter more than an applicant’s area of study.
Ultimately, all majors grant some skills and knowledge which will relate to students' desired job in some way. The best thing students can do as they think about their majors is choose something that interests them, and then think about how it could benefit them down the road.
It’s definitely true that for the most part, what students study at university won’t determine their careers. But there are also jobs where dedicated training is a prerequisite: law and medical professions (doctors, dentists, veterinarians etc) are good examples.
While in some countries, students can undertake necessary training as part of their undergraduate degrees, many countries require post-graduate study to join these professions.
As a result, many students with clear aspirations try to tailor their undergraduate studies towards a particular graduate track. You and your students have probably heard the terms ‘pre-law’ and ‘pre-med’ bandied around.
The all-important question is: do students hoping to attend a professional graduate school need to take dedicated degree majors?
And the short answer: no.
Very few graduate schools actually require students to have taken tailored majors at all, despite how popular that misconception is. In fact, many of them prefer that students haven’t, so that they arrive as well-rounded individuals with original contributions to make.
Note: Some medical schools do require students to have minimum credits in related subjects (and often writing-intensive classes like literature). And regardless of actual requirements, students would be well-advised to take classes in related subjects as aspiring doctors need to pass the MCAT to enter medical school!
If students are particularly anxious to tailor their learning to a particular graduate path, they don’t need to worry about it just yet. They can apply with some kind of related major and talk about their aspirations in their essays, and then seek out advice from academic advisers in their universities. They can help them design a course load that will prepare them best for their goals!
As your students fill out their applications to American universities, they’ll sometimes notice a section asking what they plan to take as their major.
Understandably, it can be a little alarming. Students haven’t had a chance to experience undergraduate classes in these subjects, let alone work out which one they prefer!
But many students feel pressured to fill in this section, especially as some advice suggests it increases their chances of acceptance.
As with many things, there’s not really a clear-cut one-size-fits all answer. Aside from the fact that every student is different, even admissions officers vary in what they think about applications with declared majors.
For example, Nancy Meislahn, the Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at Wesleyan University, urged students: “PLEASE resist the pressure to pick a major to make the college [application] process easier… Tell admission officers about ALL the things that interest you. We seek curious and creative students, well-prepared to explore across the curriculum.”
On the other hand, Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, argued that students should declare a major when applying to university, as it gives a clearer impression of who they are and how they’ll contribute to university life. "You want the admissions officer to read your application and understand how you would fit into that campus community or into that class."
There are pros and cons to both options, so students shouldn’t fret about which they go for! Rather than trying to predict what universities would prefer, they should be guided simply by whether they do have a firm idea of what they want to major in, and good reasons behind it.
Note: If students do declare a major, they should tailor their application to it - they need to demonstrate passion and commitment! As well as scoring highly in related subjects (and ideally taking them at the highest possible level, like AP or Higher Level IB), they should seek extracurricular activities, professional experiences, MOOC or summer schools - any kind of exposure they can get to their chosen field.
Whether they’re looking to narrow down their options pre-application, or they’re worrying about how to design their first semester of studies to get the best sampling of subjects, there’s plenty of advice you can give your students.
There’ll be lots of factors at play in the decision, and different circumstances require different priorities. For the most part, though, students should answer these questions as they work on selecting a major:
The fact that students have almost two full years of study to make their decisions might not be enough to set some anxious minds at rest.
There are also some students who might not think that narrowing down to one major is right for them. There could be lots of reasons for that, from pedagogical philosophies to distinct and significant talents, or simply a belief that having several areas of expertise will prepare them well for the world of work (and the world more generally). We can’t say we disagree!
Luckily, there are several options available to students. It’s worth students exploring these as soon as possible because it could determine not just the shape their application takes, but where they choose to apply.
The most well-known and simplest solution for students who don’t want to commit too fully to a degree major is to add a minor. It works just like a major, except fewer credits are required to earn a minor (it’s all pretty intuitive!).
What students decide to minor in depends entirely on them, and can be affected by factors like their long-term career goals, their interests, and the strengths of the academic departments in their university.
Some students choose a minor which directly complements their major (like economics and maths, history and politics, English literature and creative writing).
Others prefer a minor which adds a new dimension to their qualifications (e.g. international relations with a foreign language, journalism and psychology), or even one which offers a total contrast (a stark example might be creative writing and chemistry).
How they choose to pair up the subjects depends on what they hope to achieve! There’s no set formula, but they definitely need to give it careful consideration.
A slightly more challenging alternative is to undertake two degree majors. Of course, that can require more credits than a major and a minor, and is often something students should decide earlier on.
The same advice holds true regarding the subjects they choose to pair - it should be an individual but thoughtful decision.
Note: Students should bear in mind that pursuing a double major, especially if they take the decision later in the degree, can mean they have to complete more than the required number of credits for their degree. That can mean more time and money!
Students who are particularly keen to take an individualistic and tailored approach to learning rather than sticking to a predetermined degree major can look for universities that let them create their own path to graduation.
This is why it’s important students consider their degree majors early on! Otherwise, they might not even think about this option existing, let alone seek it out.
Different universities offer a ‘build-your-own-degree’ format in slightly different ways. One example is Amerhurst, where it’s known as the Divisional System. In it, students begin their first year taking several courses taught through a range of interdisciplinary lenses. In their second and third years, they develop a concentration that is interdisciplinary and entirely unique to them, in which they then complete an extended project in their final year.
There’s also the famous Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. As its name suggests, it, too, encourages an individualised approach and - like Amerhurst - has students explore many interdisciplinary areas and forge their own ‘concentration’. Gallatin is keen to stress that “a Gallatin concentration is not simply a substitute for a traditional undergraduate major.” Instead, it draws from many different traditional disciplines/subjects and is organised around a generative idea.
There are also students who might have the opposite problem. Particularly those accustomed to a more focused higher education system (as is often seen in the UK and mainland Europe), the thought of having to take seemingly unrelated classes can seem burdensome.
After all, students are investing a lot of time and money into their education, so if they’re absolutely certain they have no interest in, say, literature, they might want to focus entirely on the area they hope to dedicate their life to.
In this case, students needn’t worry. They can stick to their ambitions of studying in the USA and still take a more tailored approach! That’s where the meta major comes in.
This is a relatively new development in the world of degree majors, and isn’t (yet) available at all universities - again, this is why it’s important students think about their options before they decide where to apply!
Essentially, meta majors are broader than traditional majors. Instead of choosing a specific subject, students choose from a range of ‘umbrella’ subjects. These are areas like:
They then take all (or a vast majority) of their courses within that meta major. As a result, their GenEd classes are more directly relevant to their field of interest, but they still get to explore more widely within that area.
A great benefit of this approach is that not only do students develop greater expertise in the subject, they also tend to complete the required credits for graduation on time at a much higher rate. It’s thought that that’s because they’re not using up credits on unrelated classes and then having to make them up to secure a major, and they’re more interested and invested in the classes they are taking, so perform better overall.
Note: You can see the success of the meta-major system in Georgia State University, where its implementation led to a 30% reduction in students changing majors later in their degrees.
The main takeaway from this article is probably that different students are seeking different things from the degree major system, and that there are suitably a lot of different ways of executing it!
To make sure students understand how they work best, find corresponding institutions, and create the strongest possible applications, they’ll need to start early and do plenty of self-exploration and university research.
These can be long and tricky processes, but with our eBook it all becomes much simpler and more structured! Download Helping Students Find Their Perfect University Match to uncover in-class activities and solo tasks for your students that will ultimately lead to their best-fit course.
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