How to Create Your Own College Major

by
Vice President of Enrollment Management, Stephens College

Individualized major, student-designed major, self-designed major, interdisciplinary major, special concentration, create-your-own major—different names for the same thing: a program of study developed by a student with an advisor and approved by the registrar.

The most commonly used term for this type of program is individualized majors. Basically, the student is the chief architect working with an advisor and then submitting the course of study for approval, usually to the academic departments involved and/or the Dean. Some schools do this through an actual center for individualized learning, but that is rare. Most importantly, the student is the architect and the advisor is the guide.

Why would a student want to create their own major? Usually they want to pursue a course of study not available at their institution, but instead of settling or transferring, they stay put and build their own course of study.

A student may also be struggling to find connections between their courses of study. Either way, all students should at least choose elective classes that are of particular interest and/or tie into their intended program or make the connections clear. They shouldn’t just take a course and say the advisor made them take it. Make a self-investment in your educational choice. Odds are, as with most students looking into this kind of major, you are already self-invested, interested in a particular topic, and will succeed by owning your education.

Related: How to Choose Your Major (or Not)

The range of individualized majors is as vast as the individual students creating them. An area such as, say, Sports Management, might even have become an “official,” now broadly accepted major after being created by some entrepreneurial student years ago. Industry and individuals are usually way ahead of academia. I’ve seen colleges actually create an official major based upon the popularity of students joining one another in a self-created, individualized major field. It’s a great way for a college to let the students sometimes guide their curricular offerings!

Types of individualized majors

An individualized major is typically highly interdisciplinary and combines at least two distinct areas of knowledge. Generalizing here, an individualized major usually goes one of three directions: 1. A wide variety of courses across many disciplines; 2. A very specific set of courses going more in depth in a particular field than what is available in a broader major or when the major is not offered; or 3. A combination of two fields of study without actually trying to double-major (full course completion in two majors, usually resulting in the need for many more than the minimal number of credits to graduate).

The academic process

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Designing your own major takes a lot of effort, plus skill in selling yourself and your major. At most universities, students must persuade at least one professor to sponsor and advise them. They must tie their major to a specific field of work or future study. Most are required to produce a weighty final project or paper. Self-designed majors hinge on a theme, such as women’s health, international relations, or environmental sustainability. Students then pick classes to support their topic. Advisors may suggest (or require) a certain foundation of classes, but students generally have plenty of freedom in their selection.”

An important point here is that, to be taken seriously, the student must not only be a good student but a serious one. If courses have been a struggle (i.e., bad grades), then it seldom works for that student to propose an individualized major—there would need to be an advising office to help convince the academic powers that the struggle is because of the need for an individualized major.

Generally, an individualized major is allowed for students who are already excelling and are seen as responsible, smart, and “needing more.” When this is true and perceived to be as such, that only especially talented students would even be allowed to have an individualized major, one can see the impact this would have on graduate schools and the like. The student as a graduate school applicant is naturally seen as persistent, smart, self-motivated, and one that has grit.

Even though schools ask you to declare a major before you step foot in the door, colleges generally don’t let students officially apply for a major until they have a defined number of completed credits (say, 60 credit hours—late sophomore or early junior year). The early “declaration” is usually so an advisor from the field and/or some introductory courses in the named field can be scheduled.

Sometimes the student is unable to formally set up an individualized major until this time (though that doesn’t mean you can’t start planning earlier!). In reality, the greatest percentage of college students enter as “undeclared,” which is really what basically everyone is. Particular majors, especially heavily tracked ones such as Education or Pre-professional programs (like Nursing) may accept the student directly into the program rather than just the college. These leave little room for flexibility and an individualized major.

Related: Top 10 Tips for Exploring College Majors

Picking an advisor

Most times, students don’t enter college having arranged an individualized major. They generally enter as “undeclared” and, like most first-year students not in pre-professional programs (Education, BFA , etc.), they take mostly general education courses and maybe a course or two in their “major” field. It’s often at this time, during the first year or even later, that the student gets the idea for an individualized major. So by then, they probably know some professor or, if they’re fortunate, have a faculty advisor whom they can approach with the idea. Either that faculty member or someone they refer the student to becomes the advisor for the individualized major and helps the student carry the proposal through formal channels. A student really cannot do this alone; they must have that “sponsor.”

Building the major and structure

An individualized major should be designed to allow you to accomplish something you want to do but can't do otherwise. For the most part, an academic curriculum for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) totals around 124 credit hours (though it varies) and consists of credit hours spread out with one-third general education courses, one-third major courses, and one-third elective courses.

This ratio can vary widely depending on many things, like if the course of study is be a pre-professional program. Those have a rather prescriptive course of study resulting in the major courses consuming almost all the elective courses—aka  one-third general education courses and two-thirds major courses. Many times, a capstone course and a large paper or research project is required as the final step—so plan accordingly.

It’s always great for the student to speak with someone actually doing what the student wants to do. They should ask them what classes, skills, etc., they needed and/or wished they had to get there. Be aware that fields are always changing, so what someone studied 10 years ago may not be how one captures that particular job today. Talk to both newbies and veterans. Want to work for a particular company or go to a particular graduate school? Ask them directly what they are looking for in an applicant! Then build the course of study based on that research. 

Naming an individualized major

Be careful not to get too funky when naming your own major, or no one will understand it and you’ll spend too much time explaining it to graduate schools and interviewers. The name doesn’t need to be a dissertation title (that can be reserved for your thesis capstone project); rather, think about how the name stands alone and markets itself. Short, sweet, intriguing, and applicable to today is great. Is it a name for a major that others will want to major in? Now there’s a winner!

Sometimes the name guides the course of study, but sometimes it’s the other way around.  How does one write a paper—title first or last? Maybe that’s how they come to the title of their individualized major. While some institutions require using “Individualized Major” on the diploma or transcript and others allow the approved title of the “new” individualized major, virtually all will allow some sort of note on the transcript that allows the naming of the new major—thus explaining what the course of study is meant to be.

Pros and cons of designing your own major

Areas where it works better:

It’s especially good for Pre-med and Pre-vet, where schools are looking for someone who is inventive, visionary, and outside the usual. It also works when the student has a particular vision for what they want to do as a career. 

Not so good:

It doesn’t work as well for students who want to earn a graduate degree in a highly tracked academic field (with no elective choices). Also, it’s impossible to do if the student wants to go into an undergraduate area that requires some sort of certification as a degree outcome.

Overall, when imagining if one should pursue an individualized major, the student must have a lot of initiative or want to go deeper into a subject area or attack it from different angles. Also, the student must be able to work on this and stay motivated since they will mostly be working alone. After all, the operative word is “individualized.” If someone is just going to college to “go to college,” then it really doesn’t matter so much what their major is. That student is not investing in actual learning and application of that learning but just wants a job higher than entry level and figures a college degree will get them there—a job, not a career. Someone looking into an individualized major is way past just studying to pass a test; they’re a student who’s actually interested in learning.

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