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Important things to consider as you visit colleges: What are the attributes of a strong major?

As we travel to colleges across Ohio, we always ask, “what do you consider to be your college’s strongest (signature) majors and why?” Admissions counselors are quick to list their “strongest” majors – never a problem. They know that many students visit their campus because of those majors! It’s the “why” part that can be a bit more challenging. In our experience, a “strong major” seems to be a “know it when you see it” sort of phenomenon, at least it is if you listen to admissions counselors.

Over time, and with the help of faculty in these “strong” majors, we have developed some criteria that we believe reasonably correlate well with a major that can be considered to be, “strong.” Strong majors will exhibit most or at least some combination of the following criteria:

1. Strong majors have more rather than fewer faculty and they will have sufficient faculty to cover the most significant sub-disciplines in the major. For example, a strong Chemistry major will have, at a minimum, faculty with specialized expertise in Physical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, and Analytical Chemistry. They will also be proud of their faculty and tell stories about what they are working on or interested in.

2. Strong majors exhibit strong resourcing – that is, the institution is proud enough of them to invest in them! Look for new or well-maintained buildings, named schools, floors, or dedicated classrooms tied to specific majors. Look for well-equipped labs, “endowed chairs,” modern equipment relevant to the major, up-to-date technology and software, and/or strong support services.

3. Strong majors have a sizeable presence on campus – that is…plenty of students. Strong majors attract, retain, and graduate students and those students will be excited and proud of their major. Of course, some majors are large everywhere (e.g. Business Administration, Nursing, Psychology, etc.) so size alone is no guarantee of a strong major.

4. Strong majors will have one or more active student organizations. So a strong history major may have an active History Club. These organizations bring together students around their major area of interest and often extend that interest beyond the classroom into the community or beyond.

5. Strong majors will offer major-related study abroad opportunities to students. For example, a Finance Major may sponsor faculty led trips to major financial center cities so students can extend their learning outside of class while connecting with each other and professionals as well.

6. Strong majors measure things that are important and can tell you about their metrics. Nursing programs measure their NCLEX pass rates; Engineering Programs can tell you about their specialty accreditations; English programs may measure % of graduates admitted to graduate school or certified to teach, etc. Many majors measure job placement rates, etc.

7. Strong majors connect students beyond the college. Perhaps they have an external advisory committee that helps ensure that the curriculum is relevant and helps students acquire internships or coops. Perhaps there are active efforts to connect students to field experiences or place them after graduation. Perhaps there are resources to support students in their efforts to identify and achieve admission to graduate schools.

At CBA, we recommend that once your student has identified one or more majors of interest and a few colleges of interest that students and parent’s request to meet with a faculty member from each of those majors and ask a few questions aligned with the criteria above. Then compare what you learned across colleges. We bet that after a few of these visits you may just become a connoisseur of “strong majors” yourself!

About the Author: After touring 60 of the best colleges in Ohio, Dr. Jay, a prior faculty member and dean, founded College Bound Advantage (CBA) – a Columbus, Ohio college consulting firm. CBA specializes in helping families optimize college selection around 18 “fit factors” and helping students clarify co-curricular and major options while exploring colleges that specialize in them.  College Bound Advantage serves all of Ohio including Cleveland, Akron, and Cincinnati metro areas.