Degree vs. Major: What’s the Difference?

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What’s Covered:

 

There’s a lot of terminology floating around the college process. Two words you’ve probably heard are degree and major. While related concepts, there are distinctions between them. A major is something you study, while a degree is what you ultimately earn.

 

Confused about what separates these two important concepts? You’re not alone. Keep reading for a complete breakdown of what majors and degrees really mean.

 

What Is a Major?

 

A major is the program of study you pursue in college. While you will often have additional requirements outside of your major, the vast majority of the courses you need to take in college will relate to it. For example, as an English major, you will probably be expected to study literature, history, foreign languages, and other humanities courses. Some students go into college planning to pursue a specific major, while others are undecided. 

 

Some colleges use different terminology for describing what essentially amounts to a major. For example, Harvard and Princeton call programs of study concentrations.

 

Curious about what types of majors are commonly available? Check out this list.

 

What Is a Degree?

 

A degree is a credential you earn after completing your major and additional college requirements. Undergraduate degrees are termed bachelor’s degrees when they follow the completion of a four-year college program (you can usually complete the program in more or less time, but the typical length of time is four years). You may also attend two-year vocational or community colleges and earn an associate’s degree.

 

Bachelor’s degrees come in different forms, such as a Bachelor of Arts (BA), a Bachelor of Science (BS), a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), and a Bachelor of Music (BM). These degrees describe broad categories encompassing a number of majors. A BS is usually awarded to STEM majors, while a BA tends to be awarded to graduates of humanities and some social science disciplines.

 

Some colleges and universities, however, only award one type of bachelor’s degree. At MIT, for instance, even humanities programs graduates earn a BS. This distinction generally won’t matter for employment or graduate school.

 

Dual Degree vs. Double Major: How Are They Different?

 

Dual degrees and double majors are important distinctions when it comes to your education. A double major means you’re declaring two majors but will earn a single degree from one school. For example, you might choose to major in both philosophy and history. You’ll need to complete requirements for both majors — different schools and individual programs have their own rules regarding whether you can double-count requirements for two majors. 

 

There are some benefits to double majoring, such as the fact that you’ll have a broader base of knowledge, opening the doors to more employment opportunities. But some students who choose to pursue two programs simultaneously need more time, beyond four years, to complete their requirements, which is more expensive than the traditional route.

 

If you choose to pursue a dual degree, on the other hand, you’ll graduate with two degrees. There are a number of combinations available from different schools, such as a BA/BS or BA/BFA. Some dual-degree programs also allow you to earn both an undergraduate and graduate degree, often in a reduced amount of time. 

 

BS/MD programs, which enable students to earn both their bachelor’s and doctorate of medicine, are one popular example. These typically guarantee admission to the medical school at the student’s undergraduate school either when you apply for undergraduate admission or early on in your college education.

 

Some colleges partner with more specialized schools or universities with broader program offerings for dual-degree programs, through which students earn degrees from two schools. For example, Brown and RISD offer a BS or BA/BFA program, through which students pursue an academic program at Brown and earn an art degree at RISD.

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When Do You Need to Declare a Major?

 

Many students apply to college planning to study a specific discipline. This is called an intended major, and it usually won’t affect your chances of admission. However, some universities, such as Cornell, require you to apply to a specific school within the larger institution, in which case you’ll need to narrow down your major to certain programs that are housed within that school. Particularly rigorous programs may be more selective than others, such as Johns Hopkins’ Biomedical Engineering major.

 

While you usually don’t have to put down an intended major on your application — you can apply undecided — at the vast majority of colleges and universities, you’ll need to declare your major at some point. For many schools, the deadline is the end of sophomore year, although particular programs may ask you to declare your major sooner to ensure that you’re able to complete your requirements.

 

For the most part, you can change majors, although bear in mind that it’s more difficult to transfer into a specialized program than out of one. Moreover, at schools like Cornell, transferring between schools is often difficult.

 

How to Choose a Major 

 

So, how do you choose your major? Here are just some of the many factors that should go into your decision.

 

1. Consider your strengths and interests.

 

This is usually the starting point for finding the right major for you. What high school classes are particularly interesting to you? Where do you excel? What kinds of extracurriculars do you enjoy? If you’re a math whiz who got a 5 on your AP Calculus BC exam and participate in research and competitions, then an engineering discipline might be something to consider.

 

2. Account for your career goals.

 

Some majors prepare students more directly for career paths than others. But the program you choose will provide some preparation for your later career. If you’re planning to become a journalist, for instance, you might declare a major in English, journalism, or creative writing.

 

Know that you can always change your mind — 18 is early to plan out your entire future — and it won’t mean that you’ve thrown away your college education. Many people end up in careers that are wholly unrelated to their college majors, but they still apply the skills they’ve learned.

 

3. Think about the ROI.

 

College is a huge investment, so it’s natural to want to consider what the payoff will be. Research the return on investment (ROI) for different majors. This takes into account the average salary graduates of specific majors end up earning at different points in their careers. Remember, though, that these are just averages, and career choices, of course, influence these figures, too.

 

When it comes to majors and degrees, there’s a lot to think about. Find out the ROIs and outcomes for specific majors and programs, and explore schools that offer them using our comparison tool. Plus, learn your real chances of admission to hundreds of schools that offer majors that interest you with CollegeVine’s free chancing engine.

 

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Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.

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