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All About Harvard Majors and Academics

Thinking about applying to Harvard University? When applying to college, one of the things you should consider are what majors and minors the school offers and whether or not they match what you’re interested in. Did you know that at Harvard majors are called concentrations and minors are called secondaries?


Join Harvard grad Elias Miller as he discusses Harvard majors, or concentrations, and how honors work at Harvard.



Video Transcription


Concentrations and Secondaries


Today we’re going to discuss academic experience at Harvard starting with degree programs. So, at Harvard, a lot of things have their own names. Concentrations are the word for majors. Minors are not called minors, they’re called secondaries or more formally, secondary fields.


Double degrees do not exist, they are joint concentrations, and it’s a little bit distinct from a double degree. At a lot of universities, you can just kind of add on degrees if you choose and if you have time to complete them. Joint concentrations are a little more specific. You need both departments to sign off on working with the other department. Also, if you do a joint concentration, you always have to write a thesis. It’s just part of the program.


There are some concentrations that never offer joint degrees. So, some examples of that would be economics, psychology, and applied math. I’m not sure why. They just think it’s important that the people concentrating in those fields primarily focus on their studies in those fields.


Some departments are very happy to facilitate joint concentrations. Many smaller humanities degrees, like my department, the music department, have no problem doing joints with many other departments. Folk and myth is another example. Physics, strangely enough, is happy to offer joint degrees. I think computer science is as well. For physics, the reason for that is is because they have so few courses relative to most other concentrations that are required. So, you just have more time to do joints and the department doesn’t have a problem with that


Special Concentrations


I like to think of special concentrations as “choose your own adventure.” If none of the concentrations available really appeal to you and you want to do a specialized specific path, a special concentration could be the right way for you. It can’t just be an amalgamation of two other departments. It can’t be similar to a pre-existing concentration with some things added or subtracted. It has to be distinct. My one friend who did a special concentration studied nuclear geopolitics, which is a very specialized field. I don’t know too many other people who decided to do that.




Language citations supposedly certify a high level of competency in the relevant field. Don’t put too much faith into it. If you look at my resume, you’ll see that I have a language citation in Mandarin Chinese. I’m not sure that many of you would want to have a full conversation in Mandarin with me. I would not claim a high level of competency, but I did complete six semesters of Chinese at Harvard. A language citation isn’t just six semesters, it’s actually four semesters beyond the basics. So, if you come in at a higher level, you can just do four. For me, because I started with no prior knowledge of Chinese, I needed to do the two basic semesters that knocked my language requirement out, we’ll discuss that in a moment, and then I went on and did four more semesters to get my citation. 


Unlike a lot of other schools, you can’t do a secondary or concentration in most languages. Whereas at many other schools you might be able to do a major in Chinese, you can’t do that at Harvard. You can’t even do a secondary in Chinese. You can only get a language citation or you can do a secondary in East Asian studies, which can definitely include some courses in Chinese, but also it has to include some other history, literature, philosophy, other courses as well. There are some exceptions regarding secondaries, a few of those romance languages. You can do secondaries in those fields and those secondaries are a little bit more free. They can include like language classes, but also general romance language and literature classes, I believe.


What Concentrations Are Offered?


Harvard offers 50 concentrations, which may seem like a lot, but despite it being a lot, many that you may be looking for, if they are pre-professional or very specialized may not exist. You can’t do a business undergrad major or concentration at Harvard. Same goes for accounting, pre-med, hospitality, civil engineering, etc. You can take classes in these departments or at these associated graduate schools, but you can’t do specialized degrees. Harvard really feels that students need to do a liberal arts degree, get a liberal arts education, and that means that heavily pre-professional or specialized concentrations are mostly off the table.


Honors at Harvard


So, within concentrations, each concentration has about two different pathways. There’s an honors pathway, which could make you eligible to receive honors. There’s also just a basic pathway, in which case, you won’t receive honors. Now, how does Harvard give out honors? This is a very complex question. I didn’t know the answer despite having graduated from Harvard with honors. I really was not sure how it worked. To be honest, after I received honors on my senior thesis, I received a different set of honors from the university, and this was very surprising and confusing to me, and I didn’t believe it at first. I thought there might be a mistake, but no, it turns out that the process is just even more complex than I thought it was. I asked a couple of friends how they thought it worked, and they also didn’t know. I did my best research into it so I could claim to be an expert. I’m not sure I can, but I’ll try my best.


The way it works as I understand it is that there are different sets of honors at Harvard. There’s honors on your thesis should you write one. There are departmental or English honors, and those are just honors, high honors and highest honors. Finally there are Latin honors, which are our general graduation honors. Okay. So, how do you get each one? To get departmental or English honors, you have to follow the honors pathway of your concentration. A lot of concentrations require you to write a thesis—this was the case with mine. As a music concentrator, I had to write a thesis in order to graduate with honors. Some departments don’t, they just require you to take more courses than you might otherwise, and have a certain GPA to give you honors. Many departments do require a thesis.


Computer science, for instance, and engineering programs, I don’t think they require a thesis. For those, you just need a certain number of courses and a high enough GPA to get honors.  So, once you get your departmental honors, which is a combination of your honors on your thesis—if you wrote a thesis and got honors—and your GPA, then your department recommends you to the general university for some degree of honors, and the general university looks at your whole course load and your whole GPA, not just in your concentration, and they decide what honors you should get.


So, what honors did I get? I got Magna on my thesis. I’m pretty sure I had high year honors in the music department. I’m really not sure, honestly, but despite getting Magna and not Summa, I did graduate Summa cum laude from Harvard. So, I guess the university decided that my GPA was good enough that despite me not getting highest honors on my thesis, I could still graduate with highest honors. It’s confusing. Maybe you guys didn’t need to know all that, but if you really wanted to know about honors, you’re welcome.


Like I was saying regarding senior thesis, there are a few concentrations that require senior thesis, joint concentration being the prime example. Also History and Literature requires all students to write a thesis. History and Literature is a very specialized concentration. It’s famous at Harvard. It’s been around for a long time. It’s one of the three concentrations into which students must apply, the other two being Environmental Science and Public Policy and Comparative Literature. So, if you want to place in one of those departments, you do apply in your sophomore year. For programs where you have to write a thesis joint concentrations in History and Literature, you can get out of it if you really want to. Essentially you can just turn in a blank sheet of paper and say, “That’s my thesis.” And obviously, you won’t get honors, but they have to accept it. So, they say thesis required, but you can sort of get out of it.


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Short Bio
Asia is a graduate of Tulane University where she studied English and Public Health. She's held multiple writing positions and has experience writing about everything from furniture to higher education to nutrition and exercise.