Before you declare your major, you better know what you’re getting yourself into, collegiettes! Not all majors are created equal; some are harder than others. We found a study by the National Survey of Student Engagement that measured how college students spend their time. The organization surveyed 416,000 full-time freshmen and seniors from more than 670 colleges and universities, and the results showed which areas of study had the students who spent the most time preparing for class. The more time students spend studying outside of class, the tougher the major was considered. College students from around the country in these majors told us why their areas of study are so difficult.
Across the board, students studying engineering spent more time preparing for class than any other major. The average was 19 hours per week! This accounts for all types of engineering students, from electrical and computer engineers to architectural and biomedical engineers.
But Molly Schmerbach, a sophomore engineering student at Iowa State University, says she spends up to 25 hours per week studying for her classes. “Engineering is, hands down, one of the most time-consuming majors because there is so much to know and professors expect a lot out of their students,” she says. “Most classes have a lab tied to them, so I spend five hours a week in (one) class but only get three credits for it. That means we have class homework and lab homework.”
And because there are so many types of engineering, these students need to learn many different areas of the major as part of their general education courses. “All engineers need a somewhat wide skill set encompassing physics, calculus, (and) chemistry at the fundamental levels,” says sophomore Tom Jennings, who’s studying engineering at Marquette University. “Plus, those skill sets have to be well-developed.” This requires a lot of individual studying outside of class to be well-versed in multiple areas of engineering.
But there’s a good payoff: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for engineering graduates in 2011 was $61,872. For those who like math and science, pushing through the major’s demands is worth it. “I think it is a difficult major, but in the end, I find everything I’m doing interesting, so I want to do it,” Molly says.
2. Physical Sciences
Physical sciences include chemistry, astronomy, earth sciences, physics, and math. These students come in a close second, reporting spending up to an average of 18 hours per week studying.
What makes physical sciences so time-intensive are the labs required for classes. “There is a complimentary lab class that goes along (with) many of the core classes that chemistry students take,” says sophomore Tom Smith of his chemistry classes at the University of Illinois. “I think one of the challenges of having both of these courses is that there is just so much going on at once. There are weekly problem sets, upcoming tests, and lab reports that all have to get completed in addition to the rest of the coursework that you have.” Tom says he’s written lab reports of up to 50 pages—certainly a time-consuming task.
The lecture-based parts of these classes also include lots of independent studying and tests. “I typically don’t have busy work. Usually the professors just expect us to keep up with the material independently,” says Katie Nelson, who’s studying chemistry at Drake University. “Other than one or two homework assignments, our grades are completely based on tests. I also feel like we never really get a break when it comes to tests—I usually have about two big tests a week, on top of all the other independent work the classes expect.”
3. Biological Sciences
On average, all types of biology majors—from marine and molecular biology to botany and zoology—spend around 17 hours per week preparing for classes.
Dana Mitchell, a senior biology major at Benedictine University, says her major is so demanding because students have to learn a lot of material in a short amount of time. “There really isn’t time in the semester to slow down if we don’t understand a topic. In that case, I have to spend a lot of time outside of class to figure it out or ask the professors,” Dana says. And, just like with physical sciences, biology can require a lot of lab components. “Another frustration is that, at least at my school, the labs are typically three hours long, but only one credit hour,” Dana says.
Biological sciences are also difficult because many undergrads studying bio go on to medical school, so they need to be prepared. “Some classes, although they don’t officially say, are there to weed out the people who can’t handle it,” Dana says.
Biology majors—prepare to be challenged! But with enough dedication outside of the classroom, you can undoubtedly success in the major and even in medical school.
4. Arts & Humanities
While math- and science-centered majors have a reputation for being harder, arts and humanities students prepare for classes just as much as biological science students—around 17 hours a week. The arts and humanities category includes English, philosophy, journalism, history, religion, and fine arts, like design, music, or theater. The common denominator of these majors? For the most part, students are evaluated on something they create—whether it’s a painting, a paper, or a play—rather a traditional test.
Yolis Arroyo, a sophomore studying theater at Texas State University, estimates that she spends more that 17 hours per week preparing for her classes. “Being a fine arts student takes a lot of rehearsals, studying history, and various methods of acting that isn’t just something you can learn from reading a book,” Yolis says. “It’s more about making yourself better at what you want to accomplish rather than sitting down and reading books for tests.” But that doesn’t mean it’s all performance-based; Yolis says she watches, analyzes, and critiques the characters and acting methods seen in plays, too.
Twenty hours of work per week seems more accurate for Jill Osterhaus, a sophomore philosophy major at Drake University. Between reading up to 50 pages per class every night, preparing for class discussions, and writing lengthy papers, Jill says she’s always busy. The most difficult aspect of this major—and many other humanities majors—is that there isn’t necessarily a correct answer to any question or problem. “There’s no concrete and absolute answer that you find in math,” Jill says. “And because there’s not an absolute answer for tests and essays, it’s impossible for a professor to grade or teach completely unbiased from their own views on the subject or interpretation of the texts.”
Though studying philosophy is difficult and challenges the way you think, it’s one of the best areas of study for those looking to go to graduate school. Philosophy majors consistently score high on the GRE, earn better scores than political science majors on the LSAT, and outscore business majors on the GMAT.
Education majors reportedly spend an average of 15 hours per week preparing for their classes. But the NSSE study reports that they also spend 13 hours per week student teaching—more than any other major. So although education may be viewed as an easier major at some schools, ed students spend plenty of time working outside of class.
Allison Neal, a sophomore who’s studying special education at Illinois State University, thinks working in real classrooms adds to the difficulty of the major. “At my school, we have something called ‘field base,’ where you’re teaching in a classroom and a student, too,” she says. It’s similar to student teaching, but the college student is working a real classroom, plus taking classes full-time. Between planning lessons and processing classroom observations, plus going to college classes and doing your own homework, education students are undoubtedly very busy.
Remember, collegiettes: just because these majors are hard and time-consuming doesn’t mean they’re not worth pursuing. In the end, the difficulty of any major comes down to you. If the subject is something you’re passionate about or good at, the hard work won’t seem so hard!