How to Double-Major and Still Graduate in Four Years

If you're a college student looking to increase your post-graduation marketability - or if you just want to expand your academic horizons - double-majoring might sound like a pretty appealing option. But can you complete two majors and still get out of school in four years? Sure you can! How difficult that's going to be depends on how disparate your chosen subjects are.

Why Double-Major?

There are a lot of compelling reasons to take up two majors in the course of your college study, and many of them are pretty obvious. For starters, with mastery of more than one discipline you can increase your attractiveness to potential employers. Two majors will probably look good on your college transcripts, and you've also (in theory) doubled the skill set you can use to find jobs. You're also going to learn a lot more about a specific discipline that you would have missed had you not picked the double-major route, which hopefully should keep you more engaged in your schooling than a group of gen-ed requirements might. And while some argue that focusing a liberal arts education too narrowly on only two disciplines contradicts its very point, others assert that real, unique learning happens when you synthesize knowledge from two (possibly very different) majors.

Double-Major with Similar Disciplines

If the two majors you've got your eyes on are pretty close together academically, double-majoring may not add too much stress to your college workload. Since a lot of the general education requirements will be the same, many of your non-major classes will be killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Then it's just a matter of taking the right courses within your majors - and if you enjoy them (hopefully you do!) that should be a lot of fun.

For this author, double-majoring came pretty naturally. In 2002 I enrolled at the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign as an English major, but I ended up taking several philosophy courses to fill gen-ed requirements just because I was interested in them. Towards the end of my sophomore/beginning of my junior year, I started to think that I should legitimize my interest in philosophy by adding a minor in the field to my degree. I spoke with my advisor, and he informed me that double-majoring would only require 4-6 more classes than the minor. Since I was interested in most classes in the department, that sounded like a good deal to me! So I added a double-major in philosophy and, taking only one summer class my whole time in college (an independent study), I graduated in 3.5 years.

Now, that's a somewhat atypical scenario, but English and philosophy are fairly related disciplines, so all the gen-eds I took for English still applied when I began seeking my second major. At that point, I saw adding a double-major as merely focusing my interests. Every school has different policies and requirements, of course, so you'll want to consult with your advisors before making any decisions, but in general when you've got two closely related disciplines it shouldn't be too difficult to meet all your requirements in the standard 4-year time - or less!

Double-Major with Different Disciplines

What if your academic interests lay in totally separate fields, like economics and biology? In that case, you're quite a bit less likely to run into many courses that fulfill requirements for both disciplines, thus increasing your course-load significantly. But don't worry, you've still got plenty of options to get out of school on time!

The key here's going to be using less traditional methods to knock out as many prerequisites and non-major courses as you can. For instance, if you're a high school student who's already decided a double-major's for you, you could take advantage of the College Board's AP tests to gain credit for low-level college gen-eds before you even get to school. That can help you test out of courses that will only eat up time in your early days at college. Or, if your high school days are behind you, consider the College Board's CLEP exams, which award college credit for experiences gained outside school - that could mean on the job, in a military tour of duty or really anywhere you're learning things. CLEP tests do charge a small fee, but it's nothing compared to the cost of taking a college course, and the time it saves can make a big difference.

Basically, if you've got a unique, seemingly incompatible double-major in mind, a large part of graduating college in four years involves your flexibility. Look for alternative means of gaining non-major credits so you can spend more time plugging away at your required courses. Despite some critics of double-majoring, I speak from experience when I say it can be a totally rewarding, fruitful endeavor - but of course it's also very rewarding to not have to spend an extra year or two in college.

Some schools are challenging what it means to declare a major in the first place. Check out Indiana University's Individualized Major Program.

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