In today’s world of undergraduate education there are numerous academic credentials a student can earn before graduating. I would go so far as to say there are too many options! Most every institution requires students to complete a major, which may or may not require the completion of a concentration or “area of focus.” Also, the majority of institutions allow students to double (or triple) major, pursue multiple minors, earn certificates, and add other academic credentials to their official transcript. It is no wonder that many students feel pressure to do as much as possible and earn multiple credentials before they graduate. After all, generally doing more in high school made them more competitive during the college admissions process. Unfortunately many maintain the mindset that they “must” pursue more than a single major as an undergraduate in order to be as competitive as possible for their post-graduate goals.
To illustrate my point, meet Max. Max was enrolled in 20 credits as a second-semester, first-year student. Max came to college from a highly-ranked public high school, with significant AP credits (24 credits) and 6 college credits already on his transcript. His appointment with me was during the first week of the spring semester and he indicated “major requirements and 4-year planning” as the reason for his appointment. We initially chatted about his winter break, time with his family skiing in Colorado (including a chuckle about an epic face plant he did on his last run one day-thankfully he was ok, save for his bruised ego), and his excitement over a recent invite to pledge a fraternity. Then I asked, “So what brought you in today, how can I be helpful?” It came as no surprise to me that there was an immediate change in his demeanor as he intensely blurted, “I am so stressed out, there is no way I am going to be able to take all of my classes before I graduate” as he opened his laptop to reveal an elaborate excel spreadsheet with a beautifully, color-coded, 8-semester plan. Max anxiously continued, “I am a pre-med, biology major planning to minor in computer science and global health. Even with 20 credits every semester, I can’t make it all work. I also really love music and would like to do something with that but it will be impossible.”
Discouraging “just” and “should”
Does completing “just one major” give the impression a student lacks ability or ambition in the eyes of graduate programs, medical schools, or future employers? “Should” a student pursue a double major, a minor, or multiple academic credentials beyond completing their primary major? How does a student go about deciding how to prioritize their academic plan? These are all common and understandable questions, particularly considering that many students are admitted to college due to the fact that they “went above and beyond”, took the most difficult path through high school, and often loaded up on classes whether they were of interest or not. Can we really expect students to shift their mindset after many years of hearing how they must “do more” both academically and extracurricularly to be competitive for admission to selective colleges? I believe that as parents, teachers, advisors, success coaches we all have a responsibility to help students learn to be reflective during their undergraduate experience, to understand the “why” behind what they are doing and before making decisions. I encourage us to help them resist thinking “more is better.” While we are at it, can we model the way and try removing the words “just” and “should” from our vocabulary. Then, hopefully they too will stop qualifying their goals with “just” and “should” when speaking about their engagements, goals and dreams…academically and otherwise. I heard these two words countless times every week in my years of advising in higher ed. “I am not double-majoring, I am just majoring in X” or “I just want to go to med school,” (when asking a student if they are interested in pursuing a MD or MD/PhD) or “I should pick up a minor,” or “I should join the X club.” My apologies, I digress. I will save more commentary about the use of just and should, as well as other subtle uses of powerful language that I believe leads to a lot of harm in students’ self-confidence for another blog!
Considerations for a student pursuing a credential beyond their major
Back to how to help students figure out if completing a double major, minor, certificate or any additional academic credential beyond their primary major will add value to their own unique, fulfilling college experience. First, it is critical to understand that figuring out how to optimize one’s college experience is a complex process. And, “doing more” academically in the form of multiple majors, minors, certifications, etc. doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes or a higher degree of career readiness. Also, keep in mind that overloading on courses, which a student would not likely otherwise take, in order to fulfill requirements for an extra credential may detract from the student taking courses out of pure interest or that will develop new skills. Additionally, taking more courses will reduce time for transformative experiential learning or extra-curricular activities, which develop important skills, increase career readiness and provide a great complement to more traditional forms of learning. These types of co-curricular learning opportunities often provide unique, applied opportunities that develop different skills than those developed via coursework and skills that are often highly desirable to employers (i.e., teamwork, conflict resolution, problem-solving, communication, and resource/project management).
College is not an arms race! Help your student assess what they want to achieve while in college, who they want to become, and what they want to prepare themselves for after college. Challenge them to think about skills they’d like to or need to develop as well as what subjects intrigue them. Then, empower your student to work with faculty and professional advisors, career development counselors, and other student affairs staff on campus to create their own unique, fulfilling experience; one that combines formal classes with other high impact opportunities. I heard one of my highly respected colleagues once say to a group of students, “Your undergraduate experience is a process completely unlike anything you’ve experienced before. How much you invest in authentic exploration and creating your own unique experience matters. It’s often what you put into these processes that determine what you will ultimately get out of the whole undergrad shebang!” I couldn’t have said it better myself, thanks Laurie!
Most employers, graduate schools and professional schools are interested in the specific courses you complete and the skills you developed both within and outside of your major. After all, the diversity of courses individual students chose to take within every major is significant. Furthermore, most often they value experiential learning and co-curricular opportunities more than additional academic credentials. Opportunities like research, engaged learning experiences, teaching assistantships, internships, co-ops, employment, athletics, community service help develop a range of skills different from skills developed in traditional courses that are usually highly desirable by employers and graduate schools.
A few minors may provide a deliberately structured set of courses that develop knowledge and skills helpful for specific future educational or employment opportunities (e.g., an Education minor, a Computer Science minor, a Business minor) or provide more general skills training (e.g., a Leadership or an Entrepreneurship minor). These make sense if they are complementary to your major and are of interest. I encourage students to use their limited time as an undergraduate to accumulate a breadth and depth of knowledge and skills rather than a list of credentials. If a student is genuinely interested in taking all of the classes required of a certain minor, then certainly there is no harm in completing a minor. However, if in order to complete a minor your student finds themselves having to take courses they’d prefer not to take, then challenge them to really think about why they are completing it. Beyond completing the classes students need to fulfill your primary degree requirements, encourage them to take the classes they want to take, either out of interest or to develop skills, regardless if they “get” a credential for it. If your student has an interest complementary to their major and has completed courses in that discipline, or if they have taken courses in which they have developed certain skills, be sure they highlight those on their resume. Students can create their own secondary area of depth of study by taking a cogent, related group of courses. Strategically selecting courses from one or more related disciplines, rather than completing specific requirements of a minor may yield a more meaningful and valuable experience. I recently worked with a student who, rather than pursuing a traditional business minor, chose to take select business courses and work jobs with Big Red Moving and Shipping, a student-run moving company, for two years. It was part-time during the academic year and full-time in the summer. He started out as Operations Manager and moved up to serve as General Manager where he learned and gained hands-on experience with all aspects of the business. This experience, combined with his degree in mechanical engineering, positioned him for a Business Analyst position focusing on strategy and operations with Deloitte Consulting upon graduating.
What Employers and Graduate Schools Value
Remember, employers or admissions staff for graduate or professional school programs want to know what courses were completed, what a student knows, what skills they possess, if they are “teachable,” and how they will fit in with the culture. Prospective employers and graduate/professional schools care about how individuals think, solve problems, communicate, and work with others. They want to understand what someone is capable of doing, both now and with training and development. And finally, they want to know about students’ interests, motivations and how they made decisions that have resulted in their path thus far. All of this has nothing to do with how many majors or minors you earned.
What about Max?
After taking a mixture of life science, info science and health policy classes in spring, many conversations with various staff and faculty on campus, and an intense clinical experience during summer, Max moved away from preparing for medical school prior to starting his sophomore year. He decided to combine his interest in global health and developing passion for computer science and analytical skills and pursue the computational biology concentration within his bio major. Max set his sights on gaining the knowledge and skills through coursework and experiences to be able to analyze big data to address some of the most pressing worldwide health issues of the twenty-first century. While Max ended up completing “just” one major, he gained mastery in the biological sciences, developed significant computer science skills, took numerous and related courses on health policy, and joined an a capella group where he eventually became president. He also joined a research team where acquired firsthand experience utilizing his comp bio skills. Following graduation he received multiple job offers, ultimately selecting a data analyst position with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) where he helps deliver timely, relevant, and scientifically valid evidence to improve health policy and practice. Not a bad opportunity considering he didn’t complete any minors and, again, “just” one major.
Make Thoughtful Choices
When all is said and done, please encourage your student to resist the mindset that “more is better” when it comes to majors and minors. Discuss the range of academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities available at their campus. Impress upon them the importance of having ongoing discussions with academic and career advisors, mentors, faculty, and professionals working in industries that are of interest. Engaging in a thoughtful process to make these decisions will go a long way in maximizing the return on their investment, the level of satisfaction with their education, and supporting their career readiness.
Are there credentials you have found to be valuable in your experience? Do you see overwhelmed students trying to do too much? Let me know in the comments.
Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.