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Articles / Applying to College / College Majors for “Smart” People?

College Majors for “Smart” People?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 3, 2019
College Majors for “Smart” People?

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope that you had a safe and enjoyable holiday break. Now that the festivities are over, it's time to get back to the business of figuring out the mysteries of higher education. That whole process can be very mysterious at times.

One of the ongoing mysteries for high school seniors is which major to pursue in college. Many of you may already have decided in which academic area you will consider. Others of you, though, may be among that sizable contingent of first-year collegians who are “undecided." If you are undecided about your college major, don't fret. You're in good company -- quite a lot of good company.

I have always thought that being required to declare a specific area in life you want to go after, at the age of 18 or so, is terribly unfair. I had trouble deciding which clothes to wear in the morning at that age, let alone project my thoughts across a certain kind of life's work. Maybe you're feeling the same way and have some stress about having to make a decision about your college major.

Colleges understand the plight of the undeclared. If you noted “undeclared" on your application(s), it won't be a deciding factor concerning whether or not you're accepted. So don't spend any time worrying about that. You'll have plenty of time to explore your options freshman year.

However, I thought that it might make some sense to take a look at various majors and how they may relate to you and your thinking about “programs of emphasis," as some colleges refer to majors. A while back, I stumbled upon a rather long, provocative article: Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are. That kind of straightforward statement can be a punch in the face, if you're not prepared for it.

Even before I read a word of the article, I started thinking about the title's provocative declaration. As I've chronicled here before, I started out in Business Administration at college because, as an 18-year-old interested mainly in tennis and the opposite sex, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a living, let alone for the rest of my life. Okay, I'll admit that I dreamed of joining the professional tennis tour and meeting Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad.

I don't know what my business administration 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 sub-100 IQ category.

Ultimately, I got my degree in MH&L, and the broad liberal arts base that it 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 majors 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 forum-member 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 form you own opinion about the link between college majors and intelligence. I think you'll decide fairly quickly about whether or not there is a positive correlation.

Obviously, this is not quite “settled science." My purpose in presenting this information is to give you some perspective on the level of relationship, such as it is, between who you are, how you think (assuming that you are thinking about your future) and how you may relate to the offerings your ultimate college will present to you.

One final thought: It's entirely possible that your college major will have no apparent relationship to what you end up doing with your life's energies. What it can do for you, however, is expose you to new topics and information about which you had little, if any, previous knowledge. As you take this information and college experiences with you after graduation, many times the cumulative effect of all this can be a kind of compass that points to a rewarding direction.

That certainly happened to me. It can happen to you, too. Think about that as you make your “major" decision!

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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