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How to Know If a Nontraditional Major Path Is Right for You

A traditional four-year major isn’t the right choice for all students. Here’s a look at other undergrad program formats and how to know what's right for you.

Since childhood, there’s always been the overwhelming question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For many, this answer isn’t always as easy or obvious as you may think. The confusing time of college applications and decision-making can be beyond stressful. Deciding what you want to major in tends to be one of the most important yet overlooked items in the college application process. And this doesn't even touch on the plethora of major program formats outside of the traditional one-major program marketed toward high school and college students. Once you know what field you’re interested in, the real question is: How do you know if a nontraditional major is right for you? Here’s an overview of some nontraditional program formats you can choose from and how to tell what will work for you. 

Double majors

One of the most common nontraditional college program options is declaring a double major, also referred to as a dual major. Students who double-major in college earn one degree in two separate academic disciplines. Students with a double major tend to have an increased course load compared to those with one, although the time frame for degree completion depends on the declared majors. Double majors within the same general area of study will likely take the typical four-year time frame established for most undergraduates, but it could take an additional year or more if the areas of study are vastly different. When you declare a double major, it’s typical for your institution to only award one degree that lists both majors as opposed to two separate degrees. A double major is ideal for someone who’s passionate about two academic disciplines as it can help expand their skill set, allow for more opportunities, offer advantages for higher earnings in your field. However, you also need to be willing to dedicate more time to your degree, whether by taking summer courses or pursuing your undergraduate studies for an additional year or more, which often brings more stress with an increased course load and may cost more in tuition. 

Major with minor(s)

A minor is a secondary, more concentrated study specialization beyond your major. Usually, students choose a minor that complements their major area of study to get a deeper understanding of their desired career field, but a minor doesn’t necessarily have to match your major perfectly. Undergraduate students typically only need about 18 credit hours to earn a minor, so if the program is already somewhat associated with your major, it shouldn’t add any additional semesters to earning your degree because some of your classes may already count toward it. Majoring with a minor tends to be less work intensive than pursuing a double major, but it also doesn’t expand your qualifications to as many positions. Still, having a minor alongside your major can certainly be beneficial when applying for jobs, as it can give you an edge as a candidate. A minor can also be a potential area of specialty for graduate school or other further education. Additionally, there’s the option of double-minoring, which is simply taking on two specialization areas alongside your major.

Related: 3 Ways to Pick Your College Minor

Interdisciplinary majors

Interdisciplinary majors combine two or more traditional academic disciplines into a single major. By combining multiple traditional disciplines, you can encompass a variety of subjects that can give you a better perspective on a combination of topics, which can allow you to qualify for more specialized career fields. However, due to the highly specialized nature of this degree, some jobs may not exactly know what your curriculum specifically entailed, and there can be issues with coherently expressing in a résumé exactly your body of knowledge. This major would be best for someone who has a passion for a niche career field but would rather combine studies as opposed to having separate majors with more requirements. There’s still a difficult course load because you must cover many disciplines, which can lead to a greater amount of work for a single degree, but it does display a large array of knowledge and passion when it comes to further career exploration. 

Independent study

Independent study allows students to learn about a subject that’s unavailable in the established curriculum and explore a topic in greater depth after approval from faculty. When conducting an independent study, you’ll have the ability to create your own curriculum with supervision, determine what you study, and work individually with faculty to earn academic credit. This degree, akin to the structure of a graduate degree, allows you to gain a specifically tailored degree with one-on-one attention and more flexible scheduling. However, you’ll have no example to follow or the ability to ask questions to people in your same course of study, and you also must get everything approved prior to starting this kind of program. Unless you have a hyper-specific major in mind, you should have enough options at most schools to pick a course of study that resonates with you. But if you have the desire to study something outside of the established curriculum, this nontraditional major option may be for you. 

Related: How to Create Your Own College Major, Step–by–Step

Overall, there’s a wide variety of nontraditional program formats outside of the usual four-year, one-major program. Whether these options are best for you depends on your personal interests and goals. If you're passionate about multiple subjects or fields outside of the established disciplines, then a nontraditional major just might be best for you!

Check out our CX featured college lists to find schools with program formats that fit your needs and academic goals. 

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About Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a high school junior who has a passion for writing and speaking about the relevant issues of today. She's involved in activities such as speech & debate and writing/speaking competitions, which allow her to inform others and share her perspectives on causes she cares about. Her goal is to pursue a career in the medical field and specialize in Neurology in honor of her uncle who suffers from a rare neurological condition.


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