Degree vs. Major in College (With Examples)

March 22, 2023

degree vs major

Baking brownies from scratch requires a certain level of precision. For the best result, ingredients should be at room temperature, cocoa powder should be weighed and sifted, and good quality chocolate is non-negotiable. In addition, your end result will inform the order of operations: shiny-top brownies require you to fully dissolve your sugar in the eggs while crackle-top brownies need higher oven temperatures and baking time. Similarly, college degrees are composed of multiple course types–foundational, distributional, elective, and major-specific–that are typically completed in a particular order. As such, it’s helpful to understand what end result you’re working toward and what that process entails. This includes understanding the difference between a college degree vs. major.

Degree vs Major: The Basics

To earn a degree, you must complete a particular course of study as defined by the school. This course of study can vary depending on the school’s focus. However, most require students to take classes in writing, math, natural science, and the humanities.

Some schools, such as Babson and Rochester Institute of Technology, have stricter general education requirements while others, like Amherst and Brown, have no core curriculums at all. Still others have unique features–Northeastern’s co-op program allows students to alternate semesters of study with semesters of full-time work while WPI’s curriculum ensures completion of at least three major projects.

Bachelor’s degrees typically require students to complete about 120 credits, or 40 courses, to earn a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science, or a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Consequently, you’ll take approximately ten courses per year, although this number will depend on your college’s structure. While many colleges operate on a semester schedule, others–like Baylor and Carleton–operate on a trimester system. Moreover, some require summer work–Dartmouth’s Sophomore Summer and Bates’ Short Term are prime examples.

Let’s recap: since a degree is a specific course of study, a major can be defined as the focus of said degree. As such, there is difference between major and degree requirements. To complete a major, students typically need to take at least ten classes within a given department, some of which must be upper-level. There is often a structure to these ten classes, which may include core or survey courses, required subject area courses, electives, and thesis or capstone courses. Double and triple majors are possible, depending on the college.

Difference Between Degree and Major: BA vs. BS vs. BFA

In essence, the type of bachelor’s degree that one earns is determined by their program of study’s primary focus. Students enrolled in math- or science-heavy majors like engineering or computer science typically earn a Bachelor of Science while students who pursue humanities-focused majors earn a Bachelor of Arts. A Bachelor of Fine Arts indicates that a student’s curriculum included a high number of creative classes in their specialty.

Some schools offer multiple types of degrees for a given major. For example, Emerson offers a BA and a BFA in Media Arts Production. The BA requires 48 credits in Visual and Media Arts and eight credits in liberal arts, while the BFA requires 64 credits in Visual and Media Arts and only four credits in liberal arts. In addition, to earn a BFA, students must complete a yearlong capstone project.

Likewise, Cornell offers a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science. The Bachelor of Science is housed within the School of Engineering; the Bachelor of Arts within the College of Arts and Sciences. Although both majors have exactly the same structure, the difference lies in the courses required for the degree. The Bachelor of Science requires six liberal studies courses, math, physics, chemistry, computing, an engineering distribution, and two semesters of writing. On the other hand, the Bachelor of Arts requires at least eight courses in ten distribution areas like arts, literature, and culture; historical analysis; and physical sciences, 2-3 courses in a foreign language, and two semesters of writing.

In sum, the type of degree you receive will dictate overall structure and focus.

Difference Between Major vs. Degree: Planning Considerations

The nuts and bolts of a given degree and major are important factors to consider when choosing a college. For example, some students find trimester schedules to be more intense than semester schedules. Others consider capstone projects or theses to be an important aspect of their college experience. If a double major is on the table, it would be wise to look at schools with maximum curricular flexibility. Finally, students who hope to explore multiple fields of study before committing may prefer a curriculum that has few requirements.

In all cases, planning is essential. Does your college allow you to satisfy more than one requirement with a single class? Will you be able to use your AP credits toward distribution-level math or composition courses? Such considerations make it possible to explore a greater variety of subjects and/or take additional upper-level courses in your major. In any case, you’ll want to make sure that you’re staying on track in terms of timing.

Major vs. Degree: Flexible Degree Plan Examples

Brown University

There are no core or distribution requirements at Brown. Instead, students create their own personalized courses of study via the renowned Open Curriculum. Typically, this means that students explore a range of subjects before committing to a particular concentration (essentially a major). Moreover, there are over 80 to choose from. Each concentration requires at least 10 courses and sometimes have prerequisites and/or capstones. Options include everything from Behavioral Decision Sciences to Egyptology & Assyriology to Chemical Physics.

Related: How to Get Into Brown

Amherst College

Like Brown, Amherst has no core or distribution requirements. As such, students choose the courses that they are most interested in (with the help of faculty advisors). With so much flexibility, an amazing 30% of students double major. When students are ready, they can choose from 41 majors in the arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the usual slate of majors–such as biology, English, and psychology–are on the table, students can also choose from unique majors like Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought and Biochemistry & Biophysics.

Related: How to Get Into Amherst

Grinnell College

“Grinnellians aren’t too fond of pre-determined paths” should tell you everything you need to know. Students only have one required class outside their major: a First-Year Tutorial that builds skills in writing and communication. Otherwise, students work with a faculty member to create their own Individually-Advised Curriculum. Grinnell offers 42 majors and concentrations to choose from that include linguistics, biology, and digital studies. Here, the difference between degree and major could be minimal.

Related: Best Colleges for Biology; Best Colleges for Psychology

Degree vs. Major: Somewhat Flexible Degree Plan Examples

New York University

Students at the College of Arts and Sciences must engage in a five-part Core Curriculum. The Core includes first-year seminars, expository writing, and foreign language. In addition, it includes the Foundations of Contemporary Culture and Foundations of Scientific Inquiry requirements, which mandate courses in areas like expressive culture and life science. Students in schools outside of CAS typically take a slightly altered (but similar) array of core courses. From there, students choose from over 270 programs across nine colleges. Program categories include arts & media; business; humanities & social sciences; science, technology, engineering, and math; and education & health-related fields.

Related: How to Get Into NYU

Johns Hopkins University

Although there is no core curriculum at Hopkins, there are distribution requirements. Arts and Sciences students take nine credits in each of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, quantitative, and engineering. Engineering students must take 18 credits in the humanities and social/behavioral sciences. In addition, students must complete a writing-intensive requirement, and Arts & Sciences students must take a First Year Foundations course. Finally, there are 52 majors to choose from. These include everything from Space Science & Engineering to Financial Economics to the renowned Writing Seminars.

Related: How to Get Into Hopkins

Colby College

In order to earn a degree from Colby, students need to complete a First-Year Writing course and three semesters of a foreign language. They also need to take at least one course in each of the following areas: arts, historical studies, literature, quantitative reasoning, and social sciences. In addition, they must take two courses in natural sciences (including one laboratory) and two diversity-related courses. Finally, they offer 56 majors, including Computational Biology, Classical Civilizations, and Performance Theater and Dance.

Related: How to Get Into Colby

Degree vs. Major: Less Flexible Degree Plan Examples

Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Tech students must take core curriculum courses prescribed by the University System of Georgia. As such, there are ten areas: Constitution and History, Communication Outcomes, Quantitative Outcomes, Introduction to Computing, Humanities, Fine Arts, and Ethics, Natural Sciences, Math, and Technology, Social Sciences, Global Perspectives, and US Perspectives. In addition, students must complete coursework in ethics and wellness. Finally, students can choose from 130 majors across six colleges, and all students earn a BS. Options include everything from Aerospace Engineering to Psychology, and humanities-focused minors, such as French and History, are available.

Related: How to Get Into Georgia Tech

Loyola Marymount University

At Loyola Marymount, students must take 13 core courses. These include a First Year Seminar, Rhetorical Arts, Theological Inquiry, Understanding Human Behavior, and Ethics and Justice. Moreover, they also need to take an Engaged Learning course, which integrates classroom studies and experiential learning. Students in the College of Science and Engineering take a similar set of core courses. From there, students can choose from 55 different majors across six colleges. Some majors, like Applied Physics and Physics, require students to complete a senior thesis in order to graduate.

Related: Best Colleges for Drama; Best Colleges for Marketing

Pennsylvania State University

The General Education program at Penn State requires that students take 45 credits across three different areas in order to earn a degree. This includes 15 credits worth of foundations courses in writing, speaking, and quantification, 30 credits worth of Knowledge Domains in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and health and wellness, and six credits worth of integrative studies courses that bridge Knowledge Domains. In addition, students must take a First-Year Seminar and complete other coursework in culture and writing. BA candidates must achieve proficiency in a foreign language. Students can choose from a whopping 275 majors that include the usual suspects as well as unique options like turfgrass science and wildlife and fisheries science.

Related: How to Get Into Penn State

Difference Between Major and Degree: Major-Specific Requirements

To fully understand the difference between degree and major, let’s compare major-specific requirements at one institution from each of the above categories.

Bachelor of Arts in English

Brown (Flexible) How Literature Matters (1 course); Medieval and Renaissance Literatures (1 course); Literatures of Modernity (1 course); Literatures of the Color Line (1 course); Literary Theory & Cultural Critique (1 course); five electives.
NYU (Somewhat Flexible) Literary Studies Track: Introduction to the Study of Literature; Literary History (3 courses); British Literature before 1800 (1 course); Critical Theories and Methods (1 course); three electives; senior seminar.


Creative Writing Track:  Introduction to the Study of Literature; Literary History (3 courses); Reading as a Writer; British Literature before 1800 or Critical Theories and Methods; Creative Capstone Project; Creative Capstone Project Colloquium; two electives; senior semester; two creative writing workshops.

Penn State (Less Flexible) Introduction to Critical Reading or What is Literature; Senior Thesis or Senior Seminar; electives in literature, writing, or rhetoric (18 credits total, 9 must be upper-level); one specialized, 12-credit track (either Traditions of Innovation or Writing and Literature in Context).



Bachelor of Science in Biology

Brown (Flexible) Prerequisites: Single Variable Calculus, Part I & II; Equilibrium, Rate, and Structure; Organic Chemistry I; Organic Chemistry II or Biochemistry; Basic Physics A; Basic Physics B

Core Courses: Foundation of Living Systems; Cell/Molecular Biology (1 course); Structure/Function (1 course); Organismal Biology (1 course); 6 additional courses chosen from biology or neuroscience departments; a two-semester research requirement; one three-course Track (options include neurobiology, immunobiology, and biomedical informatics, among others).

NYU (Somewhat Flexible) Principles of Biology I & II; Molecular and Cell Biology I & II; five upper-level biology courses (which include those related to laboratory skills, quantitative skills, and reasoning skills); two additional upper-level electives; General Chemistry and Laboratory I & II; Organic Chemistry and Laboratory I & II; General Physics I & II; Calculus I.
Penn State (Less Flexible) Experimental Chemistry I & II, Calculus with Analytic Geometry I & II; Basic Concepts and Biodiversity; Populations and Communities; Molecules and Cells; Function and Development of Organisms; Chemical Principles I & II; a physics course; a statistics course; a 46-51 credit Option (Ecology, General Biology, Genetics and Developmental Biology, Neuroscience, Plant Biology, or Vertebrate Physiology).

Final Thoughts – Degree vs. Major

A college’s degree and major structure has an enormous impact on your academic experience. Whether or not you have decided on a major, spend time comparing and contrasting curricular requirements at different institutions. You’ll walk away with a better understanding of what your degree–as well as your major–will require from you.

Degree vs. Major – Additional blogs & resources of interest: