One of the hardest parts about going to college is deciding on a major. Most universities offer tons of majors in many different fields, so it can be tough to choose just one! Good news, though: many universities allow students to earn a double major. It’s a great option for students who want to gain in-depth knowledge in a second field of study.
But while many people have heard of double majoring, many aren’t quite sure how to double major. That’s why we’re going to introduce you to the general requirements for double majoring, then give you two real world, step-by-step guides for how to double major at two top universities. Finally, we’ll wrap things up with four top tips for finishing a double major in four years.
So let’s dive in!
Feature image: David Pisnoy/Unsplash
Albert Herring/Wikimedia Commons
The Double Major: A Brief Introduction
Before we jump into the ins and outs of how to double major, let’s look a little more closely at why someone would double major in the first place.
What Is a Double Major?
In order to graduate from your university, you’ll have to declare a major and fulfill all of its requirements to earn a degree. Your major places you within a specific degree field, which is the degree you’ll ultimately earn when you graduate from college.
Here’s what we mean: Mark and Stephanie have just been accepted to Columbia University, one of the top schools in the nation. Mark wants to design incredible buildings, so he’s decided to major in architecture, which will ultimately earn him a Bachelor of Arts degree when he graduates.
Stephanie, on the other hand, wants to help communities take better care of the environment. That’s why she’s decided to major in sustainable development. Even though her major is very different from Mark’s, it is also part of Bachelor of Arts degree program at Columbia. In other words, even though Mark and Stephanie have different majors, they will both earn B.A. degrees when they graduate from school.
A student can earn a double major when they fulfill all the requirements for two separate majors within one college or school!
So let’s go back to our example above. Mark decides that he’s specifically in designing buildings that are good for the environment. To learn about both architecture and sustainability, he decides to double major in architecture and sustainable design, since they are both part of the same degree program and housed in the same college (i.e. they both earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College at Columbia University).
The best part about double majoring is that it’s super flexible. You can pick any two majors as long as they’re within the same school or college. Here are a few double majors you could choose at Columbia:
- Physics and philosophy (Bachelor of Arts)
- Applied mathematics and data science (Bachelor of Arts)
- Electrical engineering and engineering mechanics (Bachelor of Science)
So when it comes to double majoring, the sky’s the limit!
Why Would You Want to Double Major?
When you decide to double major, you’re committing to studying two different fields in depth. Often, that means you’ll be taking on more work with extra classes, more advising sessions, and more study time. But earning a double major has some pretty awesome perks, too. Here are our top three reasons for
#1: It Helps You Stand Out From the Crowd
Because double majoring is challenging, not very many students opt to do so. In fact, the 2015 American Community Survey census data showed that only 12.5% of the people between the ages of 20 and 29 had a double major.
Perhaps more importantly, this percentage has decreased even though the number of people with college degrees has been increasing from year to year! That means that earning a double major can help you stand out in a competitive job market. It’s also a testament to your ability to plan ahead, work hard, and achieve your goals.
#2: It Makes You a Better Problem Solver
When you double major, you have to learn to problem solve in different ways. For example, the way you have to think about a physics problem isn’t necessarily the way you’d tackle an economic one! Double majoring teaches you to look at things from new and inventive perspectives.
In fact, many of the world’s best inventions happened when someone looked at a problem through fresh eyes. Take the invention of Coca-Cola, for instance. John Pemberton, the inventor, was a pharmacist who had created “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca” as a cure for headaches. But when Atlanta banned the sale of alcohol, he removed the wine from his medicine and turned it into the world’s most popular soft drink brands.
This story just shows you how looking at a problem in a new way can change the world--and double majoring gives you the tools to do just that.
#3: It Opens up More Career Opportunities
Many students choose to double major because they have a specific career in mind. For instance, double majoring in psychology and biology would be useful for a student trying to get into a competitive psychiatry program! Having a double major has the potential to make you a better, more specialized candidate for your dream job (or your top grad school program)!
Additionally, when you double major, you gain the knowledge you need to enter two different career fields. So not only does a double major make you a more impressive job candidate, it qualifies you for more jobs than a single major would!
Can You Double Major at Every University?
While most schools allow students to double major, not every school has a double major program in place (Princeton doesn’t, for example). Additionally, not every school calls a double major the same thing (we’ll look at Stanford, that refers to a second major as a “secondary emphasis” in just a moment).
So if you have your heart on two majors, make sure you check that your dream school allows for double majoring. A little research now can save you a lot of frustration in the future.
General Requirements for a Double Major
Now that you’re familiar with what a double major is, let’s talk a little more about how to double major. A good way to get a sense for what double majoring requires is to start with some of the general requirements. (Don’t worry: we’ll give you real world examples of double majoring at two schools with different requirements in just a minute!)
#1: The Core Courses
In general, universities require students to have completed at least 120 course hours—or around 40 classes—in order to graduate. A chunk of those hours come from your core courses, or the cycle of classes that every student must complete before graduation.
Most liberal arts universities create a core that asks students to take a variety of classes from across multiple disciplines, including math, science, and the humanities. Actually, your core courses are kind of like high school: you’re taking a variety of classes to learn more about many different subjects to build up your knowledge in many different areas. And just like high school, the goal of your core courses is to help you learn more about the world around you to prepare you to “deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” This helps you become a more well-rounded person, which is always a good thing!
So the first step of double majoring is to understand your university’s core requirements and make a plan to complete those courses. Want to see some examples of universities’ core requirements? Look no further! Check out the core requirements for Purdue and Georgetown here.
#2: The Major Courses
On top of your core courses, you’ll have to take more advanced classes in your specific major in order to graduate. Once you choose a major, your university will give you a list of requirements you’ll need to fulfill to complete your major and earn your degree. In general, you’ll have to take somewhere between nine and 14 classes to complete your major. These are generally a mix of low- and upper-level courses designed to give you comprehensive knowledge in your chosen field.
(Quick note: the number and difficulty of classes you’ll need to take in your major field varies between programs, so it’s very important that you double check on the requirements for your specific major at your specific university.)
Okay...so what does all of this mean for a double major? Well, unlike a student with just one concentration, a double major will need to complete every requirement for two separate majors! That means you’ll have some additional courses to take before you graduate.
The second step to double majoring, then, is taking a close look at the requirements for both of your majors and understanding what you’ll have to do to complete the programs in a reasonable amount of time.
Are you not sure what major requirements look like? Take a minute and glance through what it takes to major in chemistry at Northwestern, MIT, and Duke. (You’ll notice that it’s a little different at each school, which is why you have to do your research!)
#3: The Elective Courses
At this point, double majoring--especially in four years--might sound impossible. Trust us: it isn’t! That’s why the third step to double majoring involves your elective credits. One of the biggest tricks to getting it done is putting your elective course requirements toward your second major.
But first, a little about electives. Your electives are a series of classes (usually somewhere between five and 10), that are included in your core curriculum. Unlike your other credits, which have to come from a certain subject, your electives are essentially “freebies”: you can take almost any class on campus and use it to fulfill one of your elective credits! Because there are no stipulations on how you spend your electives, you’re free to use them however you’d like. With a little planning, you can knock out some maybe all!--of your second major with elective credits.
For example, let’s say Vivian has decided to pick up a second major in Chemistry at Northwestern. A chemistry major requires 16 classes, but she’s allowed to take 5 elective courses as part of Northwestern’s core curriculum. If Vivian puts her elective credits toward her chemistry major, she’ll only have to take 11 “additional” chemistry courses to earn her second major!
Double-dipping is for more than just ice cream!
#4: The Double Dip
The fourth step to double majoring involves what we like to call the “double dip,” which is taking classes that fulfill two separate requirements. Most universities--but not all, so double check!--allow for one course to count toward fulfilling two different majors. By double dipping, you can maximize the efficiency of your course load!
So what courses can be counted twice? The short answer is: it depends on your university’s requirements. While most schools allow your elective courses to count toward a second major, that’s not the case everywhere! The same goes for core courses--some universities allow core courses to count toward a second major while others don’t. And neither of those scenarios accounts for programs specifically designed to help students double major (like Rice’s double major in Art and Art History).
So it boils down to this: while most universities allow for some amount of double-dipping, how this works varies from school to school. So be sure to check on your university’s specific requirements.
Okay, now let’s look at an example of double-dipping can work: Christen has decided to double major in economics and political science. The political science offers a junior-level class on international economics, which the economics department has listed as accepted elective. If Christen takes that class, she can double dip by counting it toward both her political science and her economic major!
That makes double dipping like a two-for-one deal, and it can help reduce both the time and financial burden of double-majoring.
#5: The Time Frame
The fourth step to double majoring is planning how long it will take to complete your double major.
Many of the top universities, like Yale, require students to get approval before double majoring to make sure they can complete their studies in a reasonable amount of time. Other schools, like Brown University, only allow double majors that can be completed in four years.
While most universities understand if it takes you extra time to finish a double major, it’s important that you’re aware that more time in school can translate to more expense. Knowing how much time it will take you to finish your degree is important for your education and your budget!
#6: The Verification
The last step to double majoring is actually the most important.
While a lot of the general guidelines for double majoring are the same across universities, the specifics--like which classes count for credit and if one class can count toward two majors--differs not only by university, but by program. That’s why it’s important to double-check with each department to understand their individual requirements for double majoring. That’s why you’ll need to meet with your academic advisors early and often, too. They’ll be your guides (and sometimes, your advocates!) on your journey to a double major.
A bird's-eye view of Vanderbilt University
Real Life Example: How to Double Major at Vanderbilt
Okay, now it’s time to take what you’ve learned and apply it to a real-world example. We’re going to walk you through the entire process of declaring a double major at two of the top universities in the United States. We’ll kick things off by looking at double majoring at Vanderbilt University, which is ranked as one of the top 20 universities in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
Vanderbilt has four different undergraduate schools, so for this example, we’ll focus on the largest: the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science.
#1: The Core Courses
Like most universities, Vanderbilt requires students to have taken at least 120 credit hours (or between 30 and 40 courses) to graduate, and the first block of courses students have to tackle are in the school’s core curriculum.
Vanderbilt’s core is called the AXLE program, which requires every student regardless of major to take three to four writing courses (depending on AP credit) and thirteen other liberal arts courses in six different categories. Vanderbilt gives students a lot of leeway in which courses they can take to fulfill the core requirements as long as it falls in the six general categories specified, which is good news for double majors!
#2: The Major Courses
Now it’s time to take a look at what the College of Arts and Sciences requires for double majoring. (Remember: these differ between colleges and programs, so it’s important to do a little research!) Luckily, the College of Arts and Sciences gives students a clear outline on their website about what it takes to double major. They write that students who choose to double major “must include at least 24 credit hours that are being counted solely toward the major.”
Okay, let’s break that down a bit. First, we know that Vanderbilt does allow double majoring, which is great news!
Second, they require a certain number of courses be specific to each major. In other words, a student will have to take somewhere between six and eight courses that only count toward each major. That gives a little space for double dipping, which we’ll talk about in step #4 below.
Lastly, the outline points out that 24 hours is a minimum requirement. That means most departments will require more than 24 hours of coursework to complete a major. This is where it’s important to visit each department’s website and look closely at the major requirements. (Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science has 54 majors to choose from, so this might take a little time. But trust us...it will pay off in the long run!)
#3: The Elective Courses
Vanderbilt doesn’t specifically list electives as part of their core curriculum, but a little simple math reveals that on average, a student will have about five classes of elective credit, or hours they need to take to graduate that aren’t accounted for as part of the university core or major. That means that a double major can use those five classes to fulfill part of the requirements for their second major.
#4: The Double Dip
Vanderbilt does allow for some double dipping, meaning some of your classes can count toward both majors. As long as each major has a minimum 24 hours of dedicated credit, students can double dip with their remaining classes. (Again, the minimums are different from program to program, so this number might go up depending on your majors.)
Here’s an example of how this might work: if Marco is double-majoring in English and Creative Writing, he’s required to take courses in the History of Literature and Diverse Perspectives in Literature to fulfill each degree. An English degree requires 12 hours of these courses, and a Creative Writing degree requires 6 hours of these courses. So instead of taking 18 hours, Marco can take the requisite 12 hours and fulfill the basic requirements for both degree tracks. He can do this as much as possible, but he’ll have to have 24 hours of coursework that only counts toward his English degree and 24 hours of coursework that only counts toward his Creative Writing degree.
So depending on whether a student’s chosen majors overlap, they will be able to double dip on a few classes to kill two birds with one stone!
#5: Declaring the Double Major
Once you’ve decided to double major at Vanderbilt, it’s time to declare your double major to the school. This happens after you’ve enrolled at the university because Vanderbilt doesn’t allow students to declare a double major as part of the admissions process. In fact, double majors are usually declared when a student is either a sophomore or a junior.
When you decide that a double major is right for you, the first step is to print off a Declaration of Major form. Once you fill it out, you need to deliver it to three places: the College of Arts & Science and both departments you want to major in. You can’t just drop the form off, either--you’ll have to meet with a college advisor to go over your declaration. This is to make sure that your plan is feasible and reasonable. If everything looks good, the advisors will sign off on the form. Once you’ve collected the necessary approval and signatures, you file the completed form with the College of Arts & Science, and you’re good to go!
The beautiful Stanford Commons at Stanford University
King of Hearts/Wikimedia
Real Life Example: How to Double Major at Stanford
At Stanford, things work a little differently. Unlike Vanderbilt, you can only declare a double major within the same bachelor degree program. So if you’re already working toward a Bachelor of Arts, you can declare a second major that will also earn a Bachelor of Arts. You can’t declare a second major that would earn a Bachelor of Applied Science.
So for this example, we’ll focus on the steps it takes to double major and graduate with a Bachelor of Science from the Stanford School of Engineering.
#1: The Core Courses
In order to graduate from Stanford, students must complete 180 units of University work. This starts, of course, by tackling the school’s core courses.
Like Vanderbilt, Stanford gives students a lot of flexibility in fulfilling their core curriculum. Every Stanford student has to complete what Stanford calls their “General Education Requirements,” which include sixteen different courses in four different categories. (Stanford accepts AP and IB credit, so this number might be less depending on what classes you took in high school.)
While it’s important for to explore all the opportunities Stanford has to offer, the School of Engineering cautions students to take math and science credits early so they can hit the ground running when they start to work on their major.
#2: The Major Courses
The College of Engineering separates the major coursework into two categories: the engineering core courses and the Depth of Major courses. Every engineering student, regardless of major, has to take a series of core courses that are unique to the school. These would include:
- 36 units in mathematics and science
- Three units (or one course) in technology and society
- Two courses in engineering fundamentals
Like Stanford’s General Education Requirements, these engineering core courses will count toward both majors. That means you only have to take the core courses once while earning your Bachelor of Applied Science degree.
Once those are complete, a student can begin tackling their Depth of Major courses!
The Depth of Major courses are the classes that are specific to each engineering major and must be fulfilled separately in order to graduate. For instance, if you’re double majoring in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, you’d have to fulfill these requirements separately. Even if a class is listed as counting for both majors, you’d have to apply it to one major over the other. That means you’ll have to take around 60 additional credits--or somewhere between 15 and 20 additional courses--to get a double major in engineering from Stanford.
#3: The Elective Courses
Also like Vanderbilt, Stanford does not include a set number of elective courses as part of their core curriculum. Additionally, the major requirements for each program vary quite a bit! Because engineering programs are so intensive, most students only have a few elective units available, so it’s important to make each one count!
#4: The Double Dip
As we discussed earlier, Stanford’s rules are very clear: they don’t allow students to double dip to fulfill their major requirements, no matter what college they’re enrolled in. So while the General Education Requirements and the engineering core courses can count toward both majors, the specific, additional criteria for each major has to be completed independently. In other words, you’ll have to take all the classes for each major with no overlap!
#5: Declaring the Double Major
To declare a double major, you have to do this after you’ve already declared your first major through the Office of the University Registrar. Double majors are approved through the same office by submitting the Major-Minor and Multiple Major Course Approval form. Unlike Vanderbilt, there’s no formal departmental approval process, though it’s very important you independently meet with departments to get advice for success.
As a school, Stanford is very picky about letting students double major. They are committed to helping students graduate in four years regardless of how many majors a student wants to tackle. In fact, Stanford reserves the right to limit a student to a single major if it’s taking too much time even if the school previously approved a student’s double major. Here’s the explanation from the registrar’s website:
That means it’s super important for a double major to map out their coursework ahead of time!
We've got some great tips for how to fast-track your double major
4 Tips to Double Major in 4 Years
One of the most frequently asked questions is can you double major in four years. The answer is absolutely, but it takes some planning and a lot of hard work! Here are four ways you can make sure that you finish your double major in four years.
Tip 1: Start in High School
You can get a double major done in four years once you get to college, but it’s even better if you start that work in high school! Here are a few ways that you can maximize your time now to save you time later.
Take Dual Credit Courses
Some high schools allow students to enroll concurrently in a local college to earn freshman course credit for basic classes like composition or math. Enrolling in a program like this can help you earn transferable college credit that counts toward your university core! However, we advise that if there’s an option, you take AP/IB courses instead of dual credit since AP/IB courses are generally accepted by all universities, whereas dual credit is awarded on a case-by-case basis. (This is because AP/IB tests are standardized, whereas the rigorousness of dual-credit courses varies between schools.) If you want to make sure you’re getting the credit you deserve, AP/IB courses and tests are the safer bet.
Take AP/IB Courses
AP and IB courses are often referred to as “college prep” courses for a reason. Not only are these classes designed to prepare you for the college workload, they also give you the opportunity to test out--and sometimes even earn credit!--of certain college courses. Loading up on AP and/or IB classes in high school can help save you time and money as a double major.
Don’t Be Afraid to Test Out
If your high school didn’t offer college prep courses, there’s still hope! Many universities offer exams (like the CLEP test) that you take the summer before your freshman year. These function a bit like AP tests, only you don’t have to take an AP class to qualify for the exam! Depending on your score, you can be exempted from or earn credit for certain college courses. The availability of these tests varies from school to school, so be sure to check with your university to see which ones they offer.
Tip 2: Plan Ahead
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” In order to double major in four years, you need to have a solid plan. Here are three tips for building a road map for your double major.
Map Out Your Ideal 4-Year Graduation Plan as Soon as Possible
Planning your courses out early is key to maximizing your time and effort. Meet with your advisor and departmental advisors to build a plan of action. They help students pursue double majors all the time, so they’ll have excellent insight and advice to help you graduate on time.
Stick to the Plan
Once you have your road map, stick to it! If you have any issues--like overlapping class times--be sure to meet with an advisor. But working your plan is a key component to managing your workload while graduating on time. (And hey, lots of students find that a four-year plan makes things less stressful since they know exactly what to take every semester!)
Double Dip Whenever Possible
If your university allows for double dipping, take advantage of it at every possible moment. Take a look at the course catalog and departmental websites to figure out which classes, if any, can count toward both majors. Also don’t be afraid to talk to your professors and advisors about whether your university has independent study or interdisciplinary programs that can help you customize your degree while still graduating on time!
Tip 3: Be Smart About Picking Your Majors
In order to double major, you first have to choose which two majors you want to study. This can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re curious about many different fields. Here are three tactics that can help you narrow down your choices.
Pick a Passion and a Profession
One way to pick a double major is coupling one of your passions--which might not have many career options--with a professional field. For example, you may love to sing, but you don’t want to become a professional singer; you’d much rather work as a financial planner. A double major is a perfect choice for you since it lets you study your passion (vocal performance) while coupling it with a major that will help you in your future profession (business finance).
Work Toward a Specific Career
Like we mentioned earlier, there are some career paths that require very specialized knowledge. A double major is a good way to study both fields while earning a degree that sets you apart in a competitive job market! A good example of this is someone who wants to be a museum curator. Often, museums look for curators with knowledge about the museum’s subject as well as a background in public education, so a double major in art history and education would be especially valuable! When building your double major, ask yourself how you can create a “customized” course of study that will land you your dream job.
Choose Majors That Naturally Overlap
There are some majors that naturally fit with one another, so much so that many of the courses overlap. These are natural fits for a double major, since a student will often take classes that count toward both degrees regardless of whether they actually plan to double major or not! This usually happens with related fields, like English and journalism, or international relations and foreign language. In some cases, students can find themselves just a few classes shy of double majoring with little extra effort. Be sure to check your departmental website to see if there are complementary majors that you can take advantage of.
Tip 4: Get to Know Your Advisor
This might seem scary when you first get to college, but remember: your advisors are people who are passionate about helping you chase your dreams. They’re specially trained to help students like you! Here are some of the ways your advisors can help you on your path to double majoring:
They Can Approve Your Course of Study
At some schools, your advisors have to sign off on your double major before you can start working on it. This is to make sure students are in the best possible position to succeed! Getting to know your advisors is an important step in making sure you’re approved for your double major in the first place.
They Provide Guidance
You aren’t the first--or the last--student to double major, so your advisor already has a good sense of how to help you finish two majors on time. They will be able to help you pick classes, balance your schedule, and declare your major.
They Can Help Override You Into Classes
Classes can fill up fast! If your advisor knows you, they can work to make sure you get into the classes you need to finish on time. This includes the ability to enroll you in a “full” class to make sure you take the courses you need when you need to take them.
Now that you know what a double major is, you might be more interested in a dual degree. Here’s a great explanation of the similarities (and differences!) between the two.
If you’re a junior or senior in high school thinking about double majoring, make the most of your time now. A good place to start is learning more about how universities treat AP credit.
Did you know you can earn transferable college credits while in high school? Take a look at how those courses differ from AP classes to learn more about whether a college credit course is for you.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.