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Articles / Applying to College / Does College Major = IQ?
Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 12, 2015

Does College Major = IQ?

I stumbled upon a rather provocative article the other day: Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are. Even before I read a word of it, I started thinking. As I’ve chronicled here before, I started out in Business Administration in college because, as an 18-year-old interested mainly in tennis and girls, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a living.

I don’t know what that decision said about my IQ, but it turned out to be the wrong decision for me. My mind was numbed by numbers. (I just noticed that the first four letters of the word “numbers” are n-u-m-b. Coincidence?) Anyway, after a full semester of balance sheets and all-nighter statistics projects, I surrendered to my true love — music history and literature — and changed my major to that. Now I’m wondering if that put me into the double-digit IQ category.

Ultimately, I got my degree in MH&L and the broad liberal arts base that that major provided led me to a number of similarly themed jobs. For me, at least, it was the smart move. Now, how about those of you high school seniors out there who will be heading to your respective halls of ivy this fall? What are your plans for selecting your college major?

The opening paragraph of that provocative article gets right to it:

Do students who choose to major in different fields have different academic aptitudes? This question is worth investigating for many reasons, including an understanding of what fields top students choose to pursue, the diversity of talent across various fields, and how this might reflect upon the majors and occupations a culture values.


Author Jonathan Wai then explains his methodology:

In order to explore this, I used five different measures of US students’ academic aptitude, which span 1946 to 2014, and discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades …

… In 1952, a study by Dael Wolfle and Toby Oxtoby published in Science examined the academic aptitudes of college seniors and recent graduates by discipline. The first sample used to investigate this question was standardized test scores on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) scale from a sample of 10,000 US college graduates from 40 universities in 1946. The AGCT was originally used as a selection test of general learning ability in the military, and its modern equivalent is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is still in use today.

Wai then goes on to a series of charts and graphs (the kind that numbed me out as a Business major) that he uses to support his contentions, which, by the way, he caveats:

… The data presented looks only at group averages and does not speak to the aptitude of specific individuals. Obviously there are people with high academic aptitude in every major and there can be larger aptitude differences between entire schools—for example the University of Chicago and a local community college—than between majors within a school …

Perhaps the most meaningful (at least to me) exhibit is a bar graph that displays the link between major and innate “smartness.” (I’m hesitant to make the sweeping designation of “IQ.”) Wai explains:

… The next sample comes from over 1.2 million students who took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) between 2002 and 2005 and indicated their intended graduate major. The data were adapted from the earlier study (pdf), which also used Project Talent.


As you can see, “Business” lurks beneath “Arts.” Am I vindicated in my switch to MH&L? Naturally, the tech degrees rule in this comparison.

One more chart, which uses a more familiar standardized test, the SAT, reinforces Wai’s thesis.

In these results, “Business” does a little better, hopefully not canceling the advantage MH&L gave me in the GRE data.

Wai wraps up his argument this way:

… Why has the rank order of average academic aptitude across various areas been strikingly the same? That remains unclear. For one thing, however, it reflects upon the majors and resulting occupations that US culture has consistently valued for the last seven or more decades. We will have to wait and see if in the next seven decades, this pattern of academic aptitude across majors will change, and if so, in what ways. What majors and occupations future generations of top students choose to pursue directly impacts a nation’s future economy.


The contention that innate IQ is related to college major is a volatile stand. To test reaction to that, I posted a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum referencing Wai’s article. Here are a few reader comments:

– When I was a student, I recall that the kids who couldn’t cut it in their initial choice of major switched to business, sociology or psych.

Some of the sharpest critical thinkers I knew were English majors & history majors. 

– There are countless possibilities. Another is a kid who opts for an “easy” major (and, obviously, X may find something undemanding, while Y finds it difficult) to accommodate worthwhile — or frivolous — time demands. Some of the smartest individuals I’ve ever known, majored in near-fluff areas, to have more time for college fun (and many of them did astonishingly well in professional schools, some of the highest stature).

– Majoring in whatever the college’s “easy A” major may be a strategy taken by pre-law and pre-med students who are aiming for the highest possible GPA due to law and medical schools’ focus on GPA, at least for initial screening of applicants.  

– If we’re going to try to correlate something to how “smart” a person is, then we’d better come up with less problematic definitions of “smart” than a bunch of standardized tests. Sheesh.  

– It’s a correlation/causation issue. Perhaps the things measured in the standardized tests happen to place more value on concrete intellectual skills than things like passion, creativity, insight, and acumen?  

– IQ also can’t measure intelligence, nor is there anything approaching a consensus on what “intelligence” is. There’s ample scholarship on the subject.


Check out Wai’s complete article, then read the entire CC thread. Form you own opinion about the link between college major and intelligence. I think you’ll generate an opinion fairly quickly. When you do, let’s us know what it is, either in the comments section below or on my thread (or both).


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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