Going to college can sometimes feel like a series of tough decisions. Not only do you have to take standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, you also have to decide which colleges to apply to and write (practically) a million applications!
After all of that, picking your major sometimes feels like the easy part. But not so fast! Many schools offer a variety of majoring opportunities, including a degree path referred to as a double major where you concentrate in not one, but two different subjects.
This guide will take the mystery out of what it means to double major! We’ll explore the ins and outs of the degree path, including:
- Defining what a double major is...and what it isn’t,
- Discussing the pros and cons of double majoring, and finally,
- Helping you figure out whether a double major is the right choice for you.
So without further ado...let’s dive in!
Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
What Is a Double Major? A Brief Introduction
Simply put: a double major is one bachelor’s degree with two concentrations, which are more commonly known as majors. But what does that mean, exactly? First, you need to understand the differences between a degree and a major.
The Bachelor’s Degree
Universities offer a number of degree programs at three different levels: the bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree, and the doctoral degree. The first degree you earn is a bachelor’s degree, which takes approximately four years to complete.
There are different types of bachelor’s degrees awarded depending on your major. The two most common bachelor’s degrees are the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and the Bachelor of Science (B.S.)
A Bachelor of Arts is earned in any liberal arts related field. These include studies like history, philosophy, English, and foreign language. A Bachelor of Science is earned in science-related fields of study, like biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Some universities offer additional bachelor’s degrees, like Princeton’s Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E) or the University of Pennsylvania’s Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.S).
Regardless of what the degree is called, the most important thing to remember is that a bachelor’s degree is what you earn for completing all of your university’s requirements for a four-year undergraduate degree.
A major is a distinct area of concentrated study within your degree field. (Now that you know what a degree is, we bet this makes more sense!) So you can think of a major as an area of study within the scope of a degree!
Here’s an example to make this even more clear: let’s say you go to Harvard because you want to be an engineer. But wait! There are multiple types of engineering, all of which require different knowledge and skills. That’s why Harvard offers seven different engineering majors: applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, engineering sciences, environmental science & engineering, and mechanical engineering.
Since you want to work in cloud computing, you’ll probably choose to major in computer science...and once you meet all the program’s requirements, you’ll graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree!
The Double Major
When you double major, you will be getting a single degree/diploma that lists concentrations in two majors. In other words, as a double major you will complete the graduation requirements for two separate majors, both of which are in a single degree field.
Here’s what we mean: let’s say you want to go into politics, and you hope to work abroad as part of the U.S. Embassy in France. To do this, you know that you need a political science degree and you need to be bilingual in French. Luckily for you, your university offers a B.A. in French and a B.A. in Political Science.
This could be a tricky situation if you had to choose between one major and another—it would be hard to determine which course of study is most important! That’s why most universities offer a double major: it lets you fulfill the requirements for both fields of study, both of which will appear on your diploma. So someone who only majors in political science will earn a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, whereas your double major will result in a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and French!
But what does that look like from a practical perspective? Let’s take a look!
Meet Sophia, who has just been admitted to Cornell University. She’s decided that she wants to double major in history and philosophy (which are both part of the Bachelor of Arts degree). As part of The College of Arts & Sciences, Sophia’s first job will be to complete all of the college’s core requirements for graduation. After looking at the list, Sophia knows she will have to take at least sixteen classes as part of her core.
After that, Sophia takes a look at what classes she needs to take to major in history and philosophy. The history department will require her to take nine history courses to earn a major, and a philosophy major requires a minimum of eight philosophy courses. In order to earn a double major, Sophia will have to meet all the criteria for each major as well as finish her core studies.
While earning a double major might seem daunting, it’s definitely an achievable goal. In fact, 12.5% of college students graduated with a double major in 2015. We’ll talk a little more about how to decide if a double major is right for you in just a second, but first, let’s look at what a double major isn’t.
What a Double Major Isn’t
A double major isn’t the only alternative to a “typical” four-year degree offered by most universities. (Yep, that’s right—there are even more choices!) While we’re only focusing on double majoring in this article, it’s important to have a brief understanding of the alternatives to avoid confusion!
A Double Major Isn’t a Dual Degree
A dual degree is exactly what it sounds like: instead of earning one degree with multiple concentrations, you will earn two separate degrees in two separate fields! This happens when a student completes the requirements for majors that confer separate degrees. For example, let’s say a student wants to study art history and biology. Because art history is a Bachelor of Arts and biology is a Bachelor of Science, this person will earn two separate diplomas (a B.A. and a B.S)!
Dual degrees are considerably more rare than double majors because a student has to earn two separate degrees that often require different core courses. If students are interested in another area that falls outside of their degree field, many choose to earn a minor rather than a dual degree.
A Double Major Isn’t a Minor
The best way to think about a minor is as a “mini major” in another area of study that interests you! Minors usually require four to six additional courses, and they are specifically designed to help students develop a little more knowledge in another area of interest. That’s why minors are sometimes called “secondary” emphases!
For many students, a minor lets them dig into a field that complements their major field of study. For example, someone studying American history might minor in African-American studies, especially if they’re interested in the Civil Rights movement.
The important thing to remember is that a minor is like dipping your toe into a subject, while a major involves gaining in-depth knowledge. That difference is reflected in your degree. While a double major lists both areas of study equally, a minor is noted as such—if it appears on your degree at all.
That means a double major carries more weight, which can be very important depending on your future career!
A Double Major Isn’t an Emphasis
Some majors require a student to pick an emphasis within the major itself. Unlike a minor, which is usually earned as part of a different program, an emphasis is a concentration on a specific subject area within a single major. For instance, many English majors are required to pick an emphasis because the field is so broad. These can be a certain time period, a certain genre, or even a specific skill (like grammar)!
The goal of an emphasis is to offer more tailored study within a major without requiring additional coursework.
Unlike a minor, which is totally optional, emphases are often required to earn certain degrees. For example, if you’re majoring in education, your department might require you to choose an emphasis like elementary education, secondary education, or even special education. Areas of emphasis vary between departments and universities, but keep in mind that an emphasis is the least intensive addition to a “typical” four-year degree.
In terms of order of importance, a major carries more weight than a minor, which carries more weight than an emphasis! Put another way, a second major gives you much more in-depth knowledge about a subject than either a minor or an emphasis.
Max Pixel/Max Pixel
5 Pros to Double Majoring
Now that you know exactly what a double major is (and isn’t!), let’s talk about the perks of double majoring.
#1: You’ll Develop Unique Critical Thinking Skills
One of the cool things about being a double major is that you get to learn a lot about two subjects that really interest you. But that also means that you’ll have to learn to think in many different ways since the problem-solving strategies you’ll need to succeed in your first major are probably a little different than the ones you’ll develop for your second major.
For example, let’s say you’re majoring in biology and chemistry. While many of the fundamental scientific concepts are the same, you’ll definitely have to use different skills to learn human anatomy than you’ll use when balancing equations! This helps you stretch your brain in new ways, which will make you a better critical thinker, strategist, and problem solver.
#2: A Little Extra Work Can Reap Big Rewards
This is especially true if you’re double majoring in related fields. Most schools allow you to count a certain number of classes toward two requirements. For example, if you take a sophomore-level chemistry course as part of your chemistry major, it might also count toward a molecular biology major, too!
Because you can sometimes double-dip to fulfill certain major requirements, the difference between a single and a double major can sometimes be reduced to just a few courses. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead no matter what major you choose—you definitely don’t want such a prime opportunity to pass you by because you found out about it too late!
#3: Double Majors Make You Stand Out in the Job Market
It’s no secret that today’s job market is tough, especially for new graduates. A double major can definitely help you stand out from the crowd. Not only does it offer a business a second area of expertise, it demonstrates your ability to plan ahead, work hard, and overcome challenges. Additionally, your second major will allow you to bring unique and valuable skills to the table that your peers don’t have. All of this combines to make you a more competitive candidate for better jobs!
Double majors can also give you a leg up if you’re applying to graduate school. Not only does it show that you can manage an intense workload—and make no mistake, graduate school is much harder than earning an undergraduate degree—it also shows admissions committees that you’ll bring new ideas to their department.
This is especially true if you have a unique double major combination! For instance, a competitive Master’s of Business Administration program will likely find someone who double majored in advertising and psychology a more compelling candidate than someone with just a single business-related major.
#4: You’ll Have More Career Opportunities
When you have to majors, you effectively open up a second career path. Your second major opens up more opportunities, which can be incredibly useful if you’re dream job is in a competitive industry.
Here’s an instance of how this can work. Steven majored in geology and statistics. He had hoped to work as a petroleum geologist, but new laws and trade agreements have made those jobs pretty scare. Instead, Steven applies for (and land!) a role as a risk analyst for a major oil company. Now that he’s gaining experience in the oil and gas industry, Steven will be an excellent candidate for any geologist position that becomes available in the future.
Additionally, a second major can help you secure more unique career opportunities. For example, someone who majors in Spanish and marketing has put themselves in a fantastic position to enter the growing Spanish-language advertising industry. Your second major will make you a much better candidate for a position like this than if you’d majored in Spanish or marketing alone.
#5: You’ll Develop a New Perspective
One of the amazing things that happens when you study new ideas is that it gives you a new, innovative perspective on existing problems. For instance, did you know that Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, studied English and history at Harvard? Or that Rashida Jones—also a Harvard alum—graduated with a degree in religion and philosophy?
Double majoring gives you a robust knowledge base lets you see things from fresh angles, which leads to unique ideas, concepts, and solutions that other people would have missed! That’s not only important for a successful career...it can help you change the world, too.
5 Cons to Double Majoring
Now that we’ve discussed the pretty awesome perks of a double major, let’s take a closer look at some of the drawbacks of double majoring.
#1: You Have to Plan Ahead
We mentioned this already, but it bears repeating: if you want to double major, you absolutely must plan ahead. That means more than just looking at class offerings before you can register. We’re talking sitting down with your advisor the first weeks of your freshman year and mapping out your course of study for the next four years.
Furthermore, you need to understand the requirements of each major from the get-go so that you can figure out how to maximize your courses. For instance, how many can count toward both majors? Are there summer courses you can take to help speed things along? These are just some of the questions you need to think about to make sure you’re making the most of your time and money.
#2: It Can Take Longer to Graduate
Is it possible to graduate with a double major in four years? Absolutely! But it takes careful planning, like using your elective credits toward your major. The four-year degree plan also gets more complicated if your majors are extremely different. For example, if you’re majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and sociology, you probably won’t have many classes that can count toward both programs. That can add eight (or more!) courses to your schedule, which might require an additional semester or two to complete.
#3: Double Majoring Can Make College More Expensive
Speaking of money...double majoring can be more expensive than earning a traditional degree because you’ll have to take additional courses. This means more than just a hike in tuition: you also need to consider the cost of books, supplies, and even gas if you’re traveling to campus more than usual. (This is especially important since many scholarships and grants only cover tuition!)
Also, keep in mind that the total cost of college increases with each additional year it takes to finish school. While one year might not seem like a long time, it’s another year of rent, utilities, and food. This can add thousands of dollars to the total cost of your degree, so make sure you’re planning both your course load and your budget carefully.
#4: You’ll Have Less Time to Explore Other Interests
Many students opt to use their elective credits to help knock out some of the requirements for their second major. This is a great plan, but it also means that you won’t have the opportunity to take classes that interest you just for the sake of learning more about the topic. (Electives credits exist to serve this very purpose!) So if there’s a geology course on dinosaurs or an astrology class on sunspots that you’d love to take, you might have to pass so you can put that time and money toward your second major instead.
#5: It Can Be Hard to Participate in Activities Outside the Classroom
For many students, one of the most exciting parts of college are the things that happen outside of the classroom. Whether that’s cheering on your football team or joining an all-campus choir, universities provide students tons of extracurricular opportunities to learn, play, and grow. But when you’re double majoring, your time is precious; it can be hard to find enough time to join extracurricular activities and make good grades in your courses. If having a complete “college experience” is important to you, you might reconsider whether a double major is the right fit for you.
How to Determine If You Should Double Major
Perhaps you’re still on the fence about whether you should double major. Never fear: we’ve created a quiz to help you gain some clarity about whether a double major is right for you!
Take a few minutes and answer each of the following questions. Make sure you’re being honest with yourself, especially since there are no right or wrong answers.
- Detailed notes everywhere. My planner runs my life!
- I write down the major stuff.
- I carry it around with good intentions, but it’s pretty empty.
When it comes to projects, I:
- Start a month ahead of time.
- Start thinking about it when it’s assigned, but I won’t start working on it until a week before it’s due.
- Pull a few all-nighters to get it in before deadline.
Picking a major is overwhelming because:
- I have too many interests! It’s too hard to narrow down what I want to do.
- I want to have a chance to take classes in a few subjects before I make such an important decision.
- I’m pretty sure I’ll change my mind five times before classes start.
- Be early than late.
- Be right on time.
- Arrive once the party has started.
How did you feel about meeting with your guidance counselor?
- I met with her a few more times than I needed to because I wanted to make sure I was on track.
- The meetings we had were helpful and brief.
- I thought they were a waste of my time.
If I graduated in more than four years, I would:
- Not be super happy about it, but as long as I was setting myself up for success, I’d manage.
- I would do it if I had to, but graduating on time is pretty important to me.I want to get in and out of college in four years.
- I have big plans for my career, and I want to get started as soon as possible.
Would you consider doing summer school?
- Sure! I took classes at the local community college in high school.
- Yes, but only if I had to in order to graduate on time or raise my GPA.
- It’s not an option for me.
Okay, now it’s time to score your quiz!
If Your Answers Are Mostly 1's
You’re a great fit for a double major. You have a strong vision for what you want to achieve during college and after graduating. You’re also a very organized person who appreciates a good plan, which is critical when you’re double majoring since half the battle is sticking to your educational road map! It also sounds like you’re no stranger to hard work, which is important since double majoring means you’ll be taking harder classes more often.
If Your Answers Are Mostly 2's
A double major is still a good fit, but you might have to work on your study and/or organizational habits. If you answered mostly twos, you have all the fundamental skills it takes to be a double major! You’re a good student, take an active role in your education, and know what it means to work hard.
But the increased workload of a double major means you’ll have to plan farther ahead than your used to. For example, starting projects a week in advance only works if you have one project due, but most college courses require either a final exam or a final project as a major part of the course grade. You’ll have to learn to be a little more proactive about both your study habits and your schedule if you decide to double major.
If Your Answers Were Mostly 3's
Think about minoring instead. It sounds like you’re not 100% sure about what you want to major in, much less what you’d like your future career to be. And you know what? That’s totally fine! Many people use their first year in college to explore their options before settling on a major or a career path. But because double majoring requires a lot of forethought and planning, it might make more sense to think about a minor instead. That way you can use your electives to follow your passions before deciding what you’d like to study!
The Bottom Line: Is a Double Major Right for You?
Even though double majoring is hard work, it’s far from impossible! But it is definitely a big commitment that requires planning, preparedness, and persistence. But earning a double major can definitely pay off, especially once you enter the job market.
Right now, take some time to think about what you want your life to look like in ten years. Is a double major a critical step in achieving your dreams? As you consider your decision, don’t be afraid to talk to your parents, teachers, and counselors. They know you best and can give you valuable advice about whether a double major is right for you.
If you’re still not sure about what to major in, check out this handy guide that helps you determine what majors might be right for you.
Regardless of where you go to college, the goal of a university degree is to train you for your career. But not all job prospects are created equal. This list walks you through 26 majors with low employment rates and salaries. Trust us: your future self will thank you for reading this post.
Like we mentioned earlier, a dual degree is another alternative to a double major that lets you earn separate degrees from different colleges at your university. Learn more about dual degree programs, and compare them with double majors to determine which path is right for you.
Want to build the best possible college application?
We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.
We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.
Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.
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.