The difference between a major and minor can be captured with a comparison to a task that you hopefully engage in on a semi-frequent basis: laundry. To wash your clothes, you absolutely need some type of detergent or cleaning agent–choose not to add, and you might find yourself surrounded by a Pigpen-esque dirt cloud. On the other hand, while boosters like fabric softener, vinegar, and baking soda may enhance the life of your jeans or brighten your whites, they are completely optional. As such, think of your major as the detergent of your undergraduate experience–you have to declare one in order to graduate. Minors, however, are like laundry boosters: entirely elective but potentially beneficial amplifiers. As such, it’s important to understand the difference between major vs. minor so that you can tailor your academic experience (and course schedule) accordingly.
What is the difference between a major and a minor?
As noted above, the most basic distinction between majors and minors is that majors are required and minors are optional. In addition, coursework related to your major will occupy a significant percentage of your junior and senior years. Consequently, choosing a major has many different considerations. (For more information on that subject, consider reviewing our blogs on What Should I Major in? and The Admissions Impact of Your College Major Selection.)
If you take on a minor, it will require a smaller time commitment than a major. That said, and even though minors are optional, they have quite a few factors of their own to weigh. Let’s review the most important:
Major vs. Minor: Minors can provide breadth and/or depth to your major…or be completely different.
Translation: the sky’s the limit.
- While pursuing a major in anthropology, Jen becomes incredibly interested in human behavior. She chooses to minor in psychology in order to deepen her understanding of the brain.
- Eli, who is majoring in economics and planning to attend law school, wants to enhance his writing skills. He decides to minor in English with the hope that he’ll broaden his overall skillset.
- Mei hopes to become a high school history teacher. As such, she plans to major in history and minor in education.
- Kara is a biology major with a passion for sketching in her free time. She elects to pursue a minor in visual arts, which gives her much-needed formal space to engage in her artistic craft.
- Adarsh is interested in entrepreneurship (particularly in relation to the tech sector). Accordingly, he decides to minor in business while pursuing a major in computer science.
As you can see, it’s possible to make a good argument for any number of major vs. minor combinations. First and foremost, consider choosing a minor that allows you to develop or deepen particular skill sets in your major. Alternatively, you could pursue a minor that provides useful exposure to and/or training for your future intended career. Finally, you may want to pursue a passion that brings personal fulfillment but is completely unrelated to your major.
It’s worth noting that some schools prevent you from majoring and minoring within the same department. Also, in general, you won’t be able to use any courses in your major toward your minor. That said, the rules will vary depending on your institution so make sure to do your research.
Minor vs. Major: Minors—if they are available—can be solid alternatives to double majors.
At some schools, curricular requirements may make it difficult or impossible to pursue a double major. (For example, Princeton does not allow students to double major). Alternatively, even if a double major is within reach, you might benefit from a certain level of flexibility. In these cases, a minor vs. major can be a good solution.
That said, not every department at every college will offer a minor, and some programs may only be available as minors. For example, Harvard offers concentrations and secondary fields in many areas, including computer science and classics. However, biomedical engineering and Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology are only offered as primary concentrations, and Medieval Studies and Microbial Sciences are only offered as secondary fields. Similarly, Boston University offers popular fields like biology, psychology, and English as majors and minors. More niche programs, like Chinese and African Studies, are available as minors only. Still other departments, like art, acting, and biochemistry, only offer majors vs. minors.
In addition, some schools, like Berkeley, allow you to pursue any number of minors. Others, like Dartmouth and Northeastern, allow students to pursue up to two. Conversely, the University of Wisconsin Madison offers certificates rather than minors, and Claremont McKenna offers several “sequences” to complement their list of majors. Given their incredibly open curriculums, schools like Amherst and Brown have no minors at all. Brown, however, does offer five certificate programs.
Major vs. Minor: Minors may provide exposure to other schools or colleges within the university.
Large universities are often divided into schools or colleges. As such, once enrolled in a particular school, it may be quite difficult to change. For example, students enrolled in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences will have a hard time transferring to the College of Engineering should they change their minds. Likewise, transferring between colleges at universities like Carnegie Mellon or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign can be equally challenging.
However, at these schools and others, students may be allowed to minor in disciplines outside of their primary college. This can allow for excellent interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Although certain minors have restrictions, Cornell students are generally allowed to pursue minors in any department in any college that offers them. Carnegie Mellon has many open minors as well as minors that are only available to students in the School of Engineering or School of Music. Tufts BFA students enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts can pursue any minor in the College of Arts and Sciences. These include STEM-heavy programs like computer science or computational chemistry.
Difference between a Minor and a Major: Minors require fewer courses than a major.
Typically, majors require at least ten courses while minors only require five to seven. This translates to 15-20 credit hours depending on the college. Similar to a major, minors usually mandate a mix of lower and upper-level coursework. In addition, you’ll want to keep an eye on any prerequisites that could add time and intensity.
Let’s look at three examples of minor vs. major:
Major vs. Minor: Cornell
|Field of Study||Major Requirements||Minor Requirements|
|Computer Science||Calculus sequence (3 courses); introductory programming (2 courses); computer science core (5 courses); computer science electives (3 courses); computer science practicum or project course; upper-level technical electives (3 courses); upper-level external specialization (3 courses); major-approved electives (3 credits).||Object-Oriented Programming and Data Structures OR Computer Systems Programming; Data Structures and Functional Programming, Computer Systems Organization & Programming, OR Embedded Systems; upper-level electives (4 courses).|
|History||History pre-1800 (3 courses); Asian, North American, European, or Global South (Africa/Caribbean/Latin American/Middle East) history (4 courses); seminars, one at the 4000-level (2 courses)||Any five courses in the Department of History, with at least one 2000-level (or above) seminar.|
|Psychology||In consultation with their advisors, students choose 40 credits worth of courses that cover a range of topics within psychology. Generally, students must take at least one course in each of Behavioral and Evolutionary Neuroscience; Perception, Cognition, and Development; and Social/Personality Psychology.||In consultation with their advisors, students choose 18 credits worth of courses that cover a range of topics within psychology. Generally, students are encouraged to take one course in each of Cognition; Development; Neuroscience; and Social and Personality.|
Minor vs. Major: Duke
|Field of Study||Major Requirements||Minor Requirements|
|Computer Science||Introduction to Computer Science OR Foundations of Data Science; Introductory Calculus I & II; Data Structures and Algorithms; Discrete Math for Computer Science; Introduction to Computer Systems OR Computer Architecture; Design & Analysis of Algorithms; CS systems (1 course); math/statistics (2 courses); upper-level electives (5 courses).||Introduction to Computer Science OR Foundations of Data Science; Data Structures and Algorithms; Introduction to Computer Systems OR Computer Architecture; three electives, with at least two upper-level choices.|
|History||Gateway Seminar in topic of your choice; one course each in any three of six geographic areas (3 courses); Thematic or Geographic Concentration (4 courses); pre-modern courses (2 courses); Senior Capstone Seminar.||Minimum of five history courses, with at least three upper-level courses.|
|Psychology||Introductory Psychology; Methods and Statistics (2 courses); survey courses in major areas such as biological, cognitive, and developmental psychology (3 courses); one seminar; one 300-level course; 9 electives; quantitative studies and natural science electives (5 courses; 3 must be upper-level).||Introductory Psychology; biological or cognitive psychology (1 course); abnormal/health or developmental/social psychology (1 course); one upper-level course; one elective.|
Major vs. Minor: UMass Amherst
|Field of Study||Major Requirements||Minor Requirements|
|Computer Science||Introduction to Problem Solving with Computers; Programming with Data Structures; Programming Methodology; Computer Systems Principles; Reasoning About Uncertainty; Introduction to Computation; Calculus I & II; Multivariate Calculus or Statistics; Intro to Linear Algebra; upper-level electives (8 courses); lab sciences (8 credits).||Introduction to Problem Solving with Computers; Programming with Data Structures; upper-level electives, with two being “core” CS classes (5 courses).|
|History||Introductory survey courses (2 courses); electives at any level (2 courses); upper-level electives, with one being an Integrative Experience Course (7 courses); Junior-Year Writing Seminar; Historical Methods.||18 credits total that include no more than two introductory courses and at least four upper-level courses.|
|Psychology||Introductory Psychology; Statistics in Psychology; Methods of Inquiry in Psychology; 1 core course in cognitive neuroscience or psychology; Introduction to Neuroscience; two core courses in developmental, social, and/or abnormal psych; Junior-Year Writing Seminar; advanced lab or seminar; upper-level electives (2 courses); Interdisciplinary Directions in Psychology.||15 credits total not including Introductory Psychology, which is a prerequisite.|
When shouldn’t I pursue a minor?
It’s true that pursuing a minor can add to and develop your skill sets. However, it’s worth emphasizing that your time will be at a premium in college. Between the college’s core curriculum/distributional requirements and your major-related coursework, research pursuits, internship/work opportunities, and extracurricular activities, it’s easy to spread yourself thin. For instance, you may need to choose between a faculty-led research project on decision-making or a minor in behavioral economics.
Before committing time and energy to a minor vs. major, consult with your advisor and weigh all possible options. After reviewing minor requirements, you might find that you only want to take two or three of the courses. You’ll also want to ensure that a minor will not add additional semesters and/or years to your undergraduate degree. If it does, you’ll need to weigh the associated costs (literally) and benefits. Otherwise, undertaking a minor might be the equivalent of throwing a red sweater in with your whites and ending up with a whole bunch of pink socks.
Final Thoughts – Major vs. Minor
While choosing a major, you’ll have the exciting opportunity to explore a number of different areas of study. In doing so, you may identify a secondary area that either enhances your major or provides a chance to explore a disparate interest. As long as the time and energy required will positively impact your undergraduate years and benefit your postgraduate plans, pursuing a minor can absolutely contribute to a well-rounded college experience.
Additional blogs & resources of interest:
- Degree vs. Major in College
- 12 Most Popular College Majors
- 10 Hardest Majors
- 10 Easiest Majors
- Colleges Worth Your Money
- Choosing a College Major: What You Need to Know
Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and is currently pursuing graduate work in writing instruction at Johns Hopkins University.
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