The Hierarchy of College Majors

During my senior year in college, I received valuable advice regarding choosing a major. You might suggest such actionable intelligence would have come from a professor, or perhaps a recent graduate returning to dispense wisdom to his alma mater. The truth is, this advice wasn’t directed towards me. I overheard it.

I was sitting outside a computer lab in between classes. An adviser was giving a tour of the business school to high school students. One student said they were decided between Finance and Accounting. Which should they choose?

The adviser explained that within the business school, there was a hierarchy of majors. 

“Accounting is at the top. If you major and graduate with a degree in Accounting, you will be capable of performing the job responsibilities of an accounting major, plus each other major in the business school. You will be able to apply to related positions and be received warmly. Finance is next up. If you major in Finance, you may not be sufficiently trained to handle an accounting position, but you will be able to handle each other major on down the line.”

As a Finance major on the cusp of graduating, I found this advice illuminating, albeit a bit late for me to course correct. The University of Maryland had a handful of other majors within the business school to choose from, some of which were “ranked” higher nationally relative to the degree programs in Accounting or Finance.

When I graduated, I found this advice to generally be true. If I was applying for a position as an accounting analyst with my B.S. in Finance, I was not hearing back for interviews. But if I applied for a marketing role, many hiring managers would tell me during the interview process that having a finance degree was an advantage.

This applies even more so when you consider all of the majors available. If you are deciding between an engineering major and one in history, consider which might give you more latitude in the future. An easy way to identify the highest value major is often looking at the starting salaries when you graduate. This isn’t the only way, but likely the most straight forward. 

Please note, this is not intended to be foolproof. There are many other things you can do to make yourself stand out as a candidate when applying for jobs (I will discuss those in a future post). More importantly, this is not intended to shift you away from your chosen major or profession. If you know what you want to study and/or what you want to do when you graduate, follow your gut. But if you are undecided and making a decision due to a deadline, I would recommend selecting the highest value/most versatile major within your school of choice. 

In conclusion, when selecting a major, here’s the steps I’d suggest you take to consider which one is best for you:

  • If you already know what you want to study/be when you grow up, you don’t need to be reading this.
  • If not, spend time thinking about your first job. What do you want to do? Where do you want to work? This sounds obvious. It’s not. Many of us chose our major when completing our applications as a 16 or 17 year old and don’t revisit it. Don’t be that person. Look at the open positions at your dream companies NOW. What are their requirements? If you are like me, you will notice a preference for technical/STEM degrees, even when the position may not require it. Why? It indicates you are serious to future employers. You learned concrete skills and took a difficult road. People appreciate that. If you study finance, you will notice the same respect is given to individuals who make it through a few years of investment banking and management consulting.
  • Research the highest paying jobs by major, both nationally and at your school. This advice is not intended to discourage you. Your professional life does not have to be driven by money. It absolutely does NOT have to be. But a computer scientist or electrical engineer will often be in shorter supply and higher demand than most other majors. A healthy starting salary is going to make your personal life easier. It will give you more optionality in life. 
  • Fast forward 4 years to your graduation ceremony. What have you accomplished? Write it down to examine it plainly. Are you happy with your chosen path? Do you think you already have a job in hand? Transport yourself to that moment and commit to making your future self proud.
  • Add on additional majors, minors, concentrations. skills. What would make you even more valuable as a candidate? Want to be a Wall Street trader? Pair a computer science degree with finance or economics. Learn Portuguese and Spanish. How many of those are there? You will be walked into your first internship working a Latin American desk.
  • Don’t forget real world working experience. It’s perhaps the most valuable of them all. Contact professionals in the position you want to be in. Most people will be receptive if you are respectful and direct, particularly when you are 16-20. As you age out of that group, responds will lessen, so capitalize on it early.

Further Reading about Career Planning

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