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What’s the Better Major: Computer Science or Software Engineering?

Technology powers our world and is deeply embedded into nearly every facet of our lives. The prospect of working with computers as a career is becoming increasingly popular with high school and college students; the number of computer science majors is rising every year, and even younger students are getting involved with programming and building computer hardware.


There’s a good reason for this rise in interest. Demand is high for qualified employees in technology fields, and some of those positions offer particularly high pay and other perks. Someone has to invent, build, and maintain all that technology we use on a regular basis, and in the future, you might be the one filling that role.


If you’re interested in pursuing a college major involving computers, however, you might be confused by the variety of different programs with different names that are available at colleges across the United States. Mainly, you’ll find a difference drawn between programs that go by the name “computer science,” and those that are called “computer engineering” or similar names.


As a high school student with minimal experience in the field, you’re likely wondering what distinguishes these two fields, and which major it’s better to pursue. Read on for CollegeVine’s take on this popular field and its variations.


What’s the difference between computer science and computer engineering?

Variations exist in how different colleges and organizations use these terms, so it’s always a good idea to research what a particular major involves at a particular school. You might also find additional variations on this theme; MIT, for example, offers four different undergraduate majors that include computer science.


Variations aside, however, here’s how computer science and computer engineering are generally used as specific titles for undergraduate majors.


Computer Science

In some contexts, computer science can be used as an umbrella term that covers many different intellectual and academic endeavors related to computers. When it’s used as a specific field, computer science is typically more theoretical than computer engineering. It addresses the ways in which computers think on a fundamental level, requiring you to get to the root of how technology solves problems and meets human needs.


If you want to study computer science, you’re going to have to take a lot of math courses — you might be surprised at the amount of overlap between the two fields. Your math studies will be higher-level and more abstract than what’s covered in typical high school math classes.


An undergraduate computer science degree can qualify you to become a programmer or software developer, which is a job you can perform in almost any field, from healthcare to government to cutting-edge technology. Eventually, some positions or career paths may require you to get a master’s degree, but even with a bachelor’s degree alone, your career and income prospects are strong.


You’re more likely to find computer science as an option at a wide range of top-tier colleges than computer engineering. For example, all the schools in the Ivy League offer majors in computer science, but not all offer the ability to specifically major in computer engineering.


Computer Engineering

Computer engineering is generally considered to be a more practical, less theoretical major than computer science. While you’ll still need to build a strong math background, if you study computer engineering, you’ll spend more time working with actual computer hardware and focusing on practical, hands-on skills for working with technology and solving real-world technical problems.


Some computer engineering programs are specifically intended to teach you what you’ll need to know for a career as an information technology professional. IT professionals work in every industry to administer and maintain computer networks, manage an organization’s computer resources, and troubleshoot everyday computer issues.


Generally, computer engineering programs fall under a university’s engineering department, and may be grouped with electrical engineering. You’re more likely to find computer engineering (or a similar title) available as a major at engineering-heavy colleges and institutes of technology, or at public colleges that offer a particularly long list of majors. Check with your college for more information.


Which is the better major?

There’s no definitive answer as to whether computer science or computer engineering is the better major. Each has its pros and cons, and each approaches the subject of computer technology in a different way. Each major will prepare you for a slightly different career path, but neither path is “better.”


Practically speaking, you’re likely to find a lot of overlap between these two majors when it comes to what you’ll study. The basics of programming will be the same, and though computer engineering tends to involve somewhat less theoretical math, you’ll still need to build a strong understanding of how the subject relates to technology and programming.


Desirable companies like Google are notorious for including difficult, math-heavy programming tasks in their hiring process, even if you won’t have to do that kind of problem-solving on a daily basis in that position. At the same time, practical skills in working with computers are always beneficial when you’re planning to go into a technical field.


Rather than asking which of these majors is “better,” ask which of these majors appears to be the better fit for you — your needs, your talents, and your career plans. If one of these approaches to technology is particularly appealing to you, gives you opportunities to use your talents in a satisfying way, and allows you to achieve your personal goals for your adult life, it’s likely the better choice for you as an individual.


Finally, your choice between computer science and computer engineering as undergraduate majors may be less important than your overall choice of college. Choosing a college that’s a good fit for you across the board is tremendously important, and the presence of your preferred major may not outweigh the absence of other features you find important.


If you’re worried about your future career prospects, keep in mind that many jobs aren’t tied to one particular college major, and you’ll have time to amass work experience and other qualifications that are equally important. Also, remember that if you attend a competitive and well-regarded college (especially in the field of technology), having that recognizable name on your diploma will reflect well upon you, regardless of the specific name of your major.


You’ll also need to take into account the differences between specific computer-related undergraduate programs at specific colleges. Not all computer science or computer engineering programs are the same, and while a certain type of program might seem preferable for you in general, there may well be exceptions. (For example, you might be especially excited to work with a certain professor, and that might influence your college choice.)


Besides the importance of fit, you’ll need to consider that your future plans may change after you arrive at college. This is incredibly common — multiple studies have shown that a strong majority of students, perhaps as much as 80%, change their major at least once. If you choose a school that’s an all-around solid match to you, you’ll be better equipped to handle these future changes if they come to pass.



Questions to Ask Yourself When Deciding Between the Two

You won’t always have a choice between computer science and computer engineering at a given college; many colleges only offer one or the other. However, as you incorporate your preferences regarding your major into your college choices, it’s wise to think about which path is a better fit.


Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help assess whether computer science or computer engineering is a better choice for you, generally speaking:


  • How much do you enjoy thinking about high-level, theoretical mathematical concepts? Remember, this kind of math is most likely quite different from what you’ve studied in high school, and it can be very challenging to understand. However, some students love this type of intellectual exploration, and some end up using it to advance technology in truly mind-blowing ways. If this describes you, you might find computer science to be a better fit.
  • How much do you enjoy solving practical, everyday, hands-on problems having to do with technology? Do you relish getting called in as “tech support” for friends or family members? Do you find it immensely satisfying when you get your home network running perfectly? Is your home computer self-built, heavily customized, and always a work in progress? If so, you might be well-suited to a computer engineering major.
  • What computer-related careers suit you best? Working with computers isn’t just about the computers themselves. Some technology-related jobs, such as working at an IT help desk, require extensive people skills and a high level of patience in teaching computer skills to people with less knowledge of the field. On the other hand, if you’re working as a high-level programmer or computer science researcher, your interpersonal and communication skills may be less important than your ability to come up with creative and innovative new ideas for using computers to solve important problems.


Again, there’s a lot more to choosing a college than whether the school offers the best possible major for you. Don’t focus too much on your major — it will only be one facet of your college experience and preparation for the working world, and it may very well change later on.


Make sure you do your research about what else each college has to offer, inside and outside the classroom. Teaching style, campus facilities, financial aid availability, and the general “feel” of the campus are all important factors. Visiting the school is a good idea if it’s possible for you to do so, and talking to current and former students provides valuable personal perspectives.


For More Information

Technology is a burgeoning industry, and many high school students today are interested in building a strong background in the computer field. If you’re one of these students, it pays to get started early in exploring this field.


Check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog for more information about options you might find interesting:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.