What is the Difference Between a Major and a Degree (and Minors & Electives)

What is the Difference Between a Major and a Degree (and Minors & Electives)
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Academic ranks and titles can be confusing, especially for prospective college students. This is to be expected, as there are many types of college degrees with many more specializations. To better understand them requires a basic knowledge of what degrees are and the differences between a major and a degree. Being familiar with these will be very helpful in education and career planning after graduating from high school.

In this article, we will not only give you a general idea of what degrees and majors are. We will also discuss other important considerations for degree planning as you enter college. These include the formal structure of a bachelor’s degree and the importance of declaring a major. To help you get a clearer picture, we will provide a list of popular degree offerings and a hypothetical degree plan. With these, you will have a better idea of how to plan your college education pathway and get a headstart on your career exploration.

Key Differences Between a Major and a Degree

A major and a degree are essentially related. Both are dependent on each other in many ways. The dependencies determine the key differences between a major and a degree. The main one is the fact that a degree is an academic rank conferred by academic institutions for doing coursework in a field, while a major is the specialization of the student in a given area of that field. The full degree title in a diploma shows the full major and degree meaning. For instance, one can earn a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (a field in the branch of applied science) with a Major in Civil Engineering (an area within the field of engineering). A bachelor of science degree is just one of the many types of degrees at the undergraduate level. Together with the bachelor’s of arts, they are the two most common degrees conferred by institutions. Other kinds of undergraduate degrees include:

  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (B.Eng.)
  • Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.)
  • Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (B.S.B.A.)
  • Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.)
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs (B.S.P.A.)
  • Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.)

Key Differences

AspectDegreeMajor
StatusDegrees are academic ranks conferred by academic institutions in particular fields of studyA major is a specialized area of study under the degree field/discipline
CreditsIt usually takes 120 credits to earn a bachelor's degree. These include non-major coursework. Major coursework credit requirements are 30 to 36 credit hours of the 120 total credits required to graduate.
TypesThere are different types of degrees, including associate's, bachelor's, master's, and a Ph.D., among others. Majors are areas under a wider field of study. There are also institutions that allow students to determine their own majors.
FocusTo earn a bachelor's degree, one has to take general education and elective classes. Other institutions require a minor or a secondary specialization (not to be confused as another major).Major coursework is a set of classes focused on a particular area of the field. It is the main specialization of a student.
Time of CompletionA bachelor's degree usually takes four to five years to complete. The first two years are normally spent taking general education and preparatory classes. One often declares a major during the the junior or senior year. It is during this time that a student starts to specialized.
DependencyA degree depends on one's major. To major in a subject area will earn you not only a major in that area but also a bachelor's degree.

 

Degrees and major titles depend on the institutions that award them and the credits that the students have earned. For instance, one can earn a B.A. or a B.S. in Engineering with different types of majors like civil engineering or chemical engineering. The general rule, however, is when you finish a major with more liberal arts courses, you will get a bachelor of arts degree. If you complete a major with more science- and math-related courses, you get a bachelor of science degree. More specialized programs award specialized degrees just like those included on the list above.

The Formal Structure of a Bachelor’s Degree

Usually, one needs to earn 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree. In the United States, college students enrolled full-time usually take 12 to 18 credits each semester while part-time students take fewer than 12. Required courses are structured into categories: general education, major courses, minor course, and electives.

General Education (60 Credits)

General education courses usually take up half of the coursework (60 credits). Courses under this category cover classes in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. The main purpose of general education is to provide students with basic general knowledge and skills, including awareness of national and global affairs. They also get to learn the basics of research, develop critical thinking, and hone their writing or composition skills. General education provides introductory courses for available major programs. Many times, general education classes also count as major credits depending on the program and on the institution.

The number of general or core curriculum coursework credits required can also depend on the degree that students are working towards. Liberal arts majors get a good mix of these courses from all fields, while specialized disciplines like engineering or nursing may require more coursework in maths and natural sciences. Generally, it takes two years to finish general education coursework before you can choose your major.

Major (30 to 36 Credits)

An academic major is the main area of specialization of a student. In this respect, business majors are required to take core business-related classes like marketing, business communications, and business ethics, among others. Computer science majors take classes like artificial intelligence, data management, operating systems, and computer science theory.

Taking specialized courses help students better understand different areas in their major fields. These classes help them hone their proficiencies and develop aptitudes preparing them for professional work.

To earn a major, one typically has to complete 12 specialized classes, with most earning them three credit hours. This sums up to 36 credit hours.

In most, if not all, institutions in the United States, students are required to declare a major. However, it varies with the institutions and particular departments that supervise the major program.

Most students choose a major by their junior year, after finishing general coursework requirements. They will move on to more specialized classes. During the senior year, they can expect to encounter other requirements like internships, seminars, and a thesis.

Minor (18 to 30 Credits)

Minors are like a secondary field of specialization. There are institutions that require students to have a minor. Others do not.  Like major programs, a minor is also a grouping of specialized classes focusing on a particular subject matter. It is like a “mini-major” if you will.

For instance, one can earn a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a Major in Marketing Management and a Minor in Economics. This title means that a student has a B.S.B.A. degree and specializes primarily in marketing management with minor expertise in economics.

To complete a minor, one has to take 18 to 30 credit hours of classes.

Electives (18 to 21 Credits)

Electives are courses that count towards your total credits but are not required to complete a major. They, however, are required to earn a degree. Universities and colleges usually offer very interesting elective courses spanning across disciplines and offered by various departments and faculties. Students are often encouraged to choose elective classes according to their interests.

Usually, however, they are more focused on the liberal arts. Examples of elective classes include those for physical education, art history, and foreign languages.

credit breakdown, bachelor's degree

What is a major in college?

So, what is a major in college? Again, a major is a specialization that an undergraduate student commits to. “Commitment” is key as students, in general, are required to declare and commit to a particular area of specialization to graduate. If they do not declare their commitment to a program, they will likely be relegated to a lower division standing or be advised to major in some specific field. Those who do not wish to major in a specific field may choose to have a general-sounding major like liberal arts or general studies. In that respect, there are universities that allow students to create their own majors.

However, most universities and colleges “force” students to sign up for an available major program within a certain time frame. In the U.S., majors are often declared before the start of the junior year or the end of the sophomore year. This is after completing the required general education courses.

A major is, in essence, a set of core classes within a study area or subject matter.

For instance, if you wish to major in accounting, you will take classes focusing on that area. They usually include those for financial accounting, tax accounting, managerial accounting, and business information systems, among many others. Should you major in biology, you would take core classes like general biology, insect biology, biochemistry, computational biology, along with other biology-related coursework. These are set classes required to complete a major. Students do not have much wiggle room to personalize; not if they want to complete a set major that will determine their degree.

Generally, major classes are made up of 12 required classes, each worth three credits or semester hours. When completed together with other credit requirements for general education, a minor, and electives, a student is awarded a degree.

Difference Between a Major and a Minor

Both a major and a minor in college are similar in terms of being a set of core classes in a subject matter. The difference between a major and minor degree is quite simple. The major, as its name suggests, is the primary specialization of a student. Being so, more classes and credits are needed to earn a major for a bachelor’s degree. It takes 30 to 36 credits to earn a major, while it only takes around 18 to 30 credits to earn a minor.

A minor in college is the secondary specialization of a student when viewed in terms of expertise. This is not just because it only takes fewer credits to earn a minor, but a minor can be earned in a field that is somewhat separate from a major. A minor program gives students the chance not only to broaden their horizons but also to provide them with further credentials useful in the job market. Many students choose minors that are also directly related to their majors. Some choose even more specialized areas to bolster their appeal to employers or fit better to more specialized occupations or job titles.

There are institutions, however, that allow for greater academic freedom. Students are allowed to choose minors that are not totally related to their majors.

How Courses are Numbered

Ever wondered what the numbers at the end of courses mean? Like English 101, Analysis 101, etc.? Well, these course numbers signify course levels in terms of difficulty and specialization. While every college or university can have different numerical designations, the most general ones are:

100-level. These courses are introductory classes that are at the survey level of a subject matter. Classes in this course level are likely to include the words ‘general,’ ‘basic,’ and ‘fundamental’ in their titles. Examples are CHEM101 for General Chemistry, English 100 for Basic Writing, and ART-101 for Fundamentals of Art. Most of these classes are taken by freshmen. However, there can also be sophomores enrolled in these classes if they are still finishing general education requirements. Also, these classes do not require prerequisites to attend.

200-level. Unlike 101 courses, many 200-level classes have prerequisites to take. This is because, at this level, courses go a little in-depth into specific subject matters within the general purview of a broad topic. For example, as Biology 101 is General Biology, Biology 202 can be about Human Anatomy and Physiology. Also, 200-level classes are classes with intermediate difficulty. They lead towards more advanced topics and more nuanced theoretical and experimental treatments.

300-level. This level of courses in college is considered to be the start of advanced classes. They are usually taken by students in the upper divisions (junior year and senior year). Thus, there will be prerequisite coursework. Also, 300-level courses introduce students to more complex techniques and nuanced views in the discipline or in a particular subject matter. For instance, a biology major may be made more familiar with the mathematical models in biology and how they are constructed—things that they have just glossed over in lower-level courses. Students enrolled in 300-level courses are also expected to pursue independent study and research in the field. As such, they are usually tasked to produce well-written, comprehensive, and cohesive term papers.

400-level. These are courses that typically include specialized instruction and learning experiences like seminars and tutorials. They are generally reserved for students in the upper divisions close to finishing their majors. To take them, students must have already completed enough 300-level or prerequisite courses. Students enrolled in 400-level classes are expected to work independently under faculty supervision. Most 400-level courses are capstone projects requiring students to show their aptitude in synthesizing learned information and producing original presentations about the subject matters involved.

What kinds of majors are there?

There are many different majors available in many different kinds of subject areas. These subject areas include the natural sciences, formal sciences, applied sciences, humanities, and the arts. Note, however, that there are differing views pertaining to what falls into which category and the categorization themselves. So, take the categorizations below with a grain of salt.

Natural Sciences

This is the branch of science that focuses on the description, understanding, and prediction of natural phenomena from simple physics to complex ecologies. Students are taught the value of empirical evidence through observation, experimentation, and measurement in creating explanatory accounts or theories of these phenomena. The two main branches are the physical sciences and the life sciences.

Formal Sciences

This is a branch of science that deals with formal systems and their properties. The validity of theories in the formal sciences is not based on empirical observations but on the definitions and rules of these systems. Formal systems are the main objects of study in mathematics, logic, and theoretical computer science. Advancements in this field are helpful in the creation of models and theories in the natural sciences, social sciences, and, arguably, even in the arts, business, and the humanities.

Social Sciences

The social sciences focus on the study of human behavior, social relationships, and how societies work. There are also many interdisciplinary fields that make use of the natural and formal sciences to underwrite empirical observations on and theories about the objects of their particular fields.

Applied Sciences

This is the branch of science that applies known scientific knowledge to create practical products and methods that can enhance human lives, including other things that we care for. This covers many fields of study, including the health sciences, engineering, and business.

Humanities

The humanities is a set of disciplines that study particular aspects of human culture and societies. Unlike scientific fields, the disciplines in humanities rely on methods other than empirical observations and experiments. Many disciplines in the humanities use ‘armchair thinking’ tools such as comparative research and hermeneutics. Many topics of objects of study, however, also lend well to empirical methods of inquiry. This is true for certain topics in general fields like history, archaeology, philosophy, and anthropology.

Arts

Many consider the arts as a part of the humanities category. Art majors study not only how to create artistic products and express their ideas and feelings through their skills in their particular mediums but also the theories behind the different applicable aesthetics. They also take courses about the technologies that help make artmaking happen.

Motivations for Choosing a Major in the United States

There are many considerations in choosing your major in college. A United States survey in 2018 showed that 31% of college students considering the debt that they will have significantly affected the choice of their major (Hanover Research, 2018). A very significant 88% believed that their majors will get them a job, while 87% planned to get a job in the field that they were majoring in.

Moreover, there are also other socioeconomic and cultural reasons for choosing a major. In a paper by Keshishian and colleagues (2010) called the “Motivating factors influencing college students’ choice of academic major” published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, they submitted that students’ “self-reported racial/ethnic backgrounds influence their decision of whether to choose pharmacy as their academic major.” They found that “African-American and Hispanic students were less likely to choose pharmacy as a major than Caucasians, whereas Asian-Americans were more likely to choose pharmacy as a major. Pharmacy students were more likely to be interested in science and math than nonpharmacy students.”

The data in these two different studies suggest that not only are there many reasons for choosing a college major but also where these motivations are coming from. From these, we can infer that the main ones are perceived financial or career stability and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. One can argue that these, too, influence intellectual curiosity and aptitude—the ideal motivations for choosing one’s major. Both of these ideal factors, however, are also partly shaped by a student’s family background and the interactive decision-making within their families.

Patnaik, Wiswall, and Zafar (2020), in their working paper “College majors,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, surveyed other innovative studies concerning the motivations for choosing college majors. They mentioned works, including Zafar’s (2012) use of data on subjective expectations, that found “parental approval is an important factor for choosing majors, particularly in the context of double majors.” Also, they pointed out the work of Xia (2016), which showed “the probability of a student choosing a major related to the occupation of a close family member is strongly correlated with the family member’s wages at the time the student is choosing the major.”

However, if these studies really describe the whole or majority of the picture, then a career-centric view is what the majority holds. A good balance between this and the ideal factors of intellectual curiosity and aptitude in choosing one’s major seems to be quintessential. This is if we want the country to have the best people for the right jobs.

Source: Hanover Research, 2018

Example of a Degree Plan for Bachelor of Science

As mentioned earlier, you will have to take core general education requirements together with the requirements for your major and some electives to earn your bachelor’s degree. The minimum requirement, again, is usually 120 credits or semester hours. Below is a sample degree plan for a Bachelor of Science in Biology program at the University of Houston-Victoria.

General Education / Core Curriculum Requirements

General education or core curriculum course requirements are made up of classes in different disciplines and fields. They introduce students to the basics of such disciplines and subject areas. They are also designed to build the students’ skills in key areas needed for a successful college and also their majors. In the table below, one can see how the classes that students take can also count towards their majors.

AreaCoursesCredits
Communication
  • ENGL 1301

  • ENGL 1302
  • 6 credits
    Mathematics
  • MATH 1314 - College Math or Higher
  • 3 credits
    Life and Physical Sciences
  • Natural Science - May take BIOL 1306/1106 to meet Program Requirements

  • Natural Science - May take BIOL 1307/1107 to meet Program Requirements
  • 6 credits
    Language, Philosophy, & Culture
  • Humanities, Literature, PHIL, Modern or Classical Lit.
  • 3 credits
    Creative Arts

  • ARTS, MUSI, or DRAM
  • 3 credits
    American History

  • HIST 1301

  • HIST 1302
  • 6 credits
    Political Science

  • PSCI 2305

  • PSCI 2306
  • 6 credits
    Social/Behavioral Sciences

  • Anthropology, Criminal Justice, Economics, Geography, Political Science, Psychology or Sociology
  • 3 credits
    Institutionally Designated Option

  • SPCH 1311, 1315, 1318, or 1321

  • COSC or BCIS
  • 6 credits

    Major Requirements

    These are the core classes that students need to have to earn their majors. In some universities, like our example here, there are general requirements for the kind of degree you are getting, again just like in our example below. The rest are specific classes in subject matters that are the objects of study of their chosen major. As you can see below, these are categorized into two divisions: Lower Division and Upper Division. The Lower Divison signifies classes typically taken by freshmen and sophomores, while the Upper Division classes are generally for juniors and seniors.

    LevelsCoursesCredits
    BS General Program Requirements
  • ENGL 3430 – Professional Writing

  • SPCH 1311, 1315, 1318, or 1321 (CORE)

  • COSC 1301 or 1401, or BCIS 1305 (CORE)

  • 4 credits
    Major Program Requirements – (Lower Division)
  • BIOL 1306/1106 – Biology I for Science Majors w/ lab (CORE)

  • BIOL 1307/1107 - Biology II for Science Majors w/ lab (CORE)

  • CHEM 1311/1111 - General Inorganic Chemistry I w/ lab

  • CHEM 1312/1112 – General Inorganic Chemistry II w/ lab

  • BIOL 2320/2120 – Microbiology w/ lab

  • PHYS 1301/1101 – College Physics (must include lab

  • MATH 2312 – Pre-Calculus

  • MATH 2413 Calculus I

  • CHEM 2323/2123 - Organic Chemistry I (must include lab)

  • CHEM 2325/2125 or PHYS 1302/1102 - Organic Chemistry II or College Physics II (must include labs)

  • 31 credits
    Major Program Requirements (Upper Division)
  • MATH 3391 – Probability & Statistics

  • BIOL 4310 – Biochemistry

  • BIOL 4313 – Genetics

  • BIOL 3332 Research Methods (Fall Only)

  • BIOL 4203 Biology Seminar (Spring Only)



  • May select 4 courses from the Human concentration OR 4 courses from the Environmental concentration


    Human, select 4 from: BIOL 3330, 3322, 3343, 4303, 4337


    OR


    Environment, select 4 from: BIOL 4335, 3326, 4337, 3340,
    3300


  • BIOL Lecture

  • BIOL Lecture

  • BIOL Lecture

  • BIOL Lecture

  • 26 credits
    BIOL UD Laboratory Requirement
  • BIOL Lab

  • BIOL Lab

  • BIOL Lab

  • BIOL Lab



  • Students must complete a minimum of 4 credits of UD BIOL 31XX or 41XX Labs. Concurrent enrollment in the lecture is required. Deviation requires advisement.

    4 credits

     

    Electives/Minor Requirements

    Getting a minor is not required by all institutions. As you can see from our example below, students get to choose whether they want to or not. Electives, however, are required to graduate. While minors are, like majors, structured to focus on a particular subject area, elective classes are just as the name suggests, elective. For electives, students can choose from a wide range of courses across all disciplines. So, students can choose the most interesting ones for them.

    LevelCoursesCredits
    Upper Division Free Electives
  • Upper Division Electives
  • 2 credits
    Lower Division / Upper Division Free Electives
  • Lower Division / Uppder Division Electives

  • Lower Division / Uppder Division Electives

  • Lower Division / Uppder Division Electives

  • Lower Division / Uppder Division Electives
  • 12 credits

     

    Can you have a degree without a major?

    The short answer is no. You cannot have a degree without a major. Again, as discussed in the previous sections, completing a major is a requirement to get a degree. Your chosen major determines which kind of degree you will be earning. Moreover, college students usually declare their majors at the end of their sophomore year. Other institutions allow for students to declare earlier. For instance, after their third semesters or the first semester of their sophomore year.

    In the United States, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the most popular bachelor’s degree by field of research is in business with 390,654 degrees awarded during the academic year of 2018-2019 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). The second is the health professions and related program field with 251,355 conferred degrees. The least popular degrees are in precision production (47), library science (99), and military technologies, and applied sciences.

    most popular field of research, U.S.A.

    Why is it important to declare a major?

    There can be many consequences when one does not declare their major on time. Firstly, there are universities that will reclassify students to a lower division if they fail to declare before or on the deadline. One of which is the University of Rochester. When juniors leave their majors undeclared, the university will reclassify them to sophomore standing. This holds back the student from graduating within the usual allotted time.

    Moreover, students who do not declare their majors might run into problems with their financial aids (University of Rochester, 2021). This could compound into more student debts or the possibility that financial aids will get pulled out altogether. Thus, universities and colleges, in general, get undeclared students to meet up with advisors so they can get help in plotting out their academic careers by enrolling in a major program.

    There are universities, however, that allow students to create their very own major. This is great for students who want a unique, individualized college experience. They are given the academic freedom to study a subject area at a greater depth or study a broad range of topics spanning across different disciplines. This may be appealing, especially to those who want to quench their personal intellectual curiosity. However, the major and the degree may not be very valuable in today’s job market.

    Career-wise, with financial stability in mind, the major you choose can greatly affect your life after school. Your major is an important signal to future employers and, as you may know, plays a part in determining your career prospects and salary.

    Patnaik and colleagues (2020) showed that when it comes to the mean and median salaries of people aged 25 to 34, those who have STEM-related majors earn more than their counterparts. Those who have social sciences, humanities, and education degrees have the lowest in this regard. STEM degree holders earn 25% to 30% more than those who have degrees in the social sciences, humanities, and education. Those who graduated with degrees related to economics and business are in the middle of the pack. Those who did not graduate or just had some college education earned 40% to 45% lower than graduates with social sciences, humanities, and education degrees.

    Earnings and Employment Status by Major Categories

    Major CategoryLabor Force ParticipationUnemployment RateMean EarningsMedian Earnings
    Business / Economics91.51%2.65%$6,650$5,840
    STEM89.69%2.47%$7,150$6,490
    Humanities / Social Sciences / Education89.89%2.86%$5,620$4,810
    Some College (No Grad)84.29%5.48%$4,020$3,510
    Source: American Community Survey in Patniak, Wiswall, & Zafar, 2020

     

    Choosing the Right Major: Important Considerations

    First, consider your intellectual interests, passion, and aptitude. This is because you really need to be interested in and be passionate about a field to do well in it. This is not only during your college career but also your professional life as well. The first two are almost requisites to developing the general aptitude and skills for a field.

    Typically, once someone is very interested in and passionate about a certain thing, aptitude almost certainly follows—given the right dedication and training. These three factors are the building blocks of the “stick-to-itiveness” that we can find in successful people. And this is what will fuel you to complete your education in that field and drive you to be successful as a professional in it. These are very important in reaching your career goals.

    So, why choose a major that you think will not bring you intellectual pleasure and success (however you define it)?

    Well, there are the other considerations that belie the love of pure education. These are career prospects, financial stability, and life-work balance. We have all heard anecdotal “what I wanted to become but…” stories of people who chose a different path from their interests. Most of the time, it is because of financial difficulties, socioeconomic barriers, personal quirks, and family problems. Choosing or just settling with a major because of these things is not quite ideal. But these are real concerns and considerations.

    The hard reality of it all is that you have to find adequate work that matches your skills, talents, needs, and preferences after college—unless you are very lucky. So, it is also a good strategy to base your choice of major on the profession or occupation that you wish to have.

    Choosing what degree to take also has consequences for the people around you. This is not only limited to your family, friends, and other loved ones. It also seeps out to society at large. This is because choosing a major is like choosing how you can contribute to society as a whole, or at the very least, to the field that you love. Like the data from earlier suggests, choosing a major is not all you.

    So, choose wisely.

     

    References:

    1. Hanover Research. (2018, June). 2018 Future workforce survey. Statista.
    2. Keshishian, F., Brocavich, J. M., Boone, R. T., & Pal, S. (2010). Motivating factors influencing college students’ choice of academic major. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 74(3). AJPE.
    3. National Center for Educational Statistics. (2020, June). Digest of education statistics 2020. Statista.
    4. Patnaik, A., Wiswall, M. J., & Zafar, B. (2020). College majors. NBER.
    5. University of Houston-Victoria. (2021). Degree plan. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from UHV.
    6. University of Rochester. (2021). Major declaration FAQ. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from University of Rochester.
    7. Xia, X. (2016). Forming wage expectations through learning: Evidence from college major choices. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 132, 176-196. ScienceDirect.
    8. Zafar, B. (2012). Double majors: One for me, one for my parents? Economic Inquiry, 50(2), 287-308. Wiley.

    Newsletter & Conference Alerts

    Research.com uses the information to contact you about our relevant content. For more information, check out our privacy policy.