In 2013, there were over 52,000 undergraduate English degrees awarded in the United States – and this is true of not just English, but of many academic concentrations. Whether your major is biology, English, or another less specialized field, you may be tempted to add a minor to your degree in the hopes of distinguishing yourself from the many students who graduate with similar degrees and similar grades. But is a minor always the answer? And if it is for your particular situation, what is the best way to select and obtain it? Before you move forward with a minor, consider these three key questions:
1. Will a minor truly be useful?
Answering this question requires you to define your post-graduation goals, as well as to understand the purpose of a college degree in this age. For instance, your major provides a potential employer with a general sense of your skill set. English majors should excel at reading and writing, while science majors should excel at developing experiments. Your major also provides an organizing theme for your undergraduate studies, and it ultimately leads you to some degree of mastery in a subject area’s content.
A minor, in contrast, indicates an interest with a lesser degree of mastery. As alluded to above, a well-chosen minor can indicate useful diversity in your educational background. But what is a well-chosen minor?
A well-chosen minor is one that adds evidence of a skill that is applicable to your major, but not necessarily contained within it. For example, a political science degree with a statistics minor would indicate an ability to analyze large data sets. Likewise, a computer science degree with a minor in philosophy may indicate that you are interested in logical structures and ways of knowing, which might give you an advantage when applying to a start-up that hopes to change the world.
A less useful minor is one that is too close to your major, or one that has no connection to your career or graduate school goals.
2. What will you sacrifice in order to complete a minor?
For many students, one of the most important factors in securing a great job after college is completing an internship or undergraduate research while in college. If the coursework necessary to fulfill a minor would prevent you from completing an internship, think very carefully about pursuing that minor – an internship may be more immediately useful to you, as it demonstrates hands-on industry experience.
A minor that requires you to remain in school for an extra semester may also be unwise. Remember that you are not only spending additional tuition money, you are also facing the opportunity cost of entering the workforce six months later. Assuming a modest $30,000 starting salary, those six months will cost you $4,000 to $20,000 (or more) in tuition and living expenses, in addition to $15,000 in lost potential wages.
3. When should you decide for or against a minor?
Perhaps the worst time to declare a minor is in the first or second semester of your senior year as you prepare to enter the job market. Rather than declaring a minor in the hopes of enhancing your resume, consider applying for an entry-level position that will allow you to gain applicable work experience.
A better way to declare a minor is to develop a comprehensive plan at the end of your sophomore year. By this point in your college career, you will have been able to explore different academic fields, and you will have likely settled on a major. If your career plans include a certain degree of specialization within a broader field, this is the ideal time to select a complementary minor. This long-range planning will allow you to integrate the six or so courses for a minor into your academic plan, while still leaving time for undergraduate research and/or an internship.
Keep in mind, however, that a minor will have a negligible impact on your prospects if your performance within your major is lacking. All students, no matter their career plans or concentrations, should first focus their energy on achieving strong grades in all their classes.
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors, the leading curated marketplace for the top private tutors in the U.S. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University
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