Let’s say you have an idea of a few majors you would like to explore in college. How do you go about evaluating the academic programs that different colleges offer?
In this blog, we’ll provide a general overview, with tips and advice for researching colleges’ specific academic programs, followed by subsequent blogs on the majors themselves!
Liberal Arts vs. Pre-Professional
If you’re considering a traditional liberal arts major, you’ll be happy to learn that you have plenty of options when choosing a college; these majors are universally available at liberal arts colleges and larger universities alike. Traditional liberal arts subjects include the natural sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy), the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology, anthropology) and the humanities (e.g. religion, philosophy, history and English).
On the other hand, pre-professional majors typically only exist within specialized colleges or schools within a University. For example, engineering majors, such as biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and electrical engineering usually reside within a School of Engineering, such as at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. Business majors, such as marketing, accounting and finance, typically reside within a School of Business, such as at Tulane’s Freeman School of Business.
Some universities contain a variety of specialized schools. Northwestern includes schools of arts and sciences, communication, education and social policy, engineering, and journalism. Cornell consists of colleges of arts and sciences, agriculture and life sciences, architecture and art, engineering, hotel administration, human ecology, and industrial and labor relations.
But not all universities offer such a range of pre-professional majors. Both Princeton and Dartmouth have a School of Engineering, but no undergraduate major in business (or any other pre-professional area).
→Why does this matter? If you have specific academic or career interests, make sure the colleges that you are considering, visiting, and ultimately applying to, have appropriate programs for you.
How is the Major Organized?
Certain majors vary in structure, depending on the college. Computer science might be found among the liberal arts majors, such as at Brown; within the School of Engineering, such as at University of Pennsylvania; or even at its own School of Computer Science, such as at Carnegie Mellon.
→Check out the culture, values, and distribution requirements of the different schools within a university to determine which best match your preferences.
Is the subject offered as a major or minor? Oberlin is one of the few colleges to offer an undergraduate Major in Creative Writing. The program has five full-time professors and five affiliate and visiting professors; and provides depth in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. In contrast, Dartmouth offers a Creative Writing Program within the English department, with about 10 courses on poetry, fiction and memoir.
→Compare the depth and commitment at different colleges towards your specific fields of interest.
Are concentrations within the major available or required? Study the home page for the major to find out. At Washington University in St. Louis, biology majors can either acquire broad training in the field of biology, or choose to focus on a subfield, such as Ecology and Evolution, Genomics and Computational Biology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry or Neuroscience. In contrast, Swarthmore offers biology majors the option to pursue Interdisciplinary Special Majors, including Biochemistry, Biology and Educational Studies, Environmental Science, Neuroscience or Psychobiology.
How Strong is the Major?
The strength of a major is often very difficult to assess. Small departments with a low student-faculty ratio can offer more personalized guidance and mentorship. But larger departments often have the resources to provide more specialization and depth.
For instance, if you are interested in Artificial Intelligence (a field within Computer Science), you will no doubt be delighted to discover that the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), in existence for over 50 years, has 15 full-time faculty from related departments of logic, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Robotics, and more. In contrast, Amherst College has one course on artificial intelligence, offered every other year. So if you wish to study a specialized area, make sure that the colleges you are considering have depth in that area.
If you would like to dig deeper, investigate the research strength of the professors. Look on their bios to see the papers that they have published, how often they have published, and what the topics are. See how often professors’ research is cited internationally in the work of others. Call the department office to find out if undergraduates have an opportunity to conduct research with professors.
→Understanding the strength of a department and its research resources is particularly important if you have high-level aspirations for graduate school or employment opportunities.
How Do Alumni Fare after Graduation?
The Career Services Office typically maintains data about the post-graduation plans of the college’s alumni. You can find out what percentage of alumni go on to attend graduate school, what percentage find employment, and what fields the graduates entered. Not only do these statistics give you a good idea of the practical use you’ll be getting out of your degree, they also allow you to see how well-respected the college’s degrees are in the “real world.”
For example, the post-graduate activity of Cornell alums varies widely by the undergraduate school. The highest percentage employed was experienced by grads of Hotel Administration, at 91%; whereas grads of the Engineering School showed the highest percentage that went on to graduate school, at 34%.
Contrary to popular conception, the colleges whose graduates go on to earn the highest percentage of Ph.D.s tend to be liberal arts colleges, not specialized colleges. The top ten list includes Reed and Swarthmore, ranked # 3 and #4 after Cal-Tec and Harvey Mudd, as well as Carleton, Grinnell, Bryn Mawr and Oberlin. In fact, for the technical areas of math, physical sciences and physics, Reed is ranked in the top four.
→Check out colleges’ Career Services information to find out about the paths alums take after graduation.
For further guidance, contact us at www.collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!