How to Succeed in the Hardest College Majors

How to Succeed in the Hardest College Majors
Anissa Sorokin

What Makes a College Major Hard?

That’s a tough question, because there’s no one thing that makes one major harder than another. After all, we all have different interests and skills, and what’s difficult for one person might be a piece of cake for another. However, when you begin thinking about your own college major, you’ll want to consider whether you have both a genuine interest in and an aptitude for the kind of work your major will ask you to do. Being motivated is key--when the going gets tough, you’ll need to rely on your interest in the subject to sustain you.

One helpful objective way to measure difficulty comes from the National Survey of Student Engagement survey, a survey that examines the different ways college students interact with their colleges, majors, and peers. One important question the NSSE asks students is how long they spend preparing for class each week. By this measure, these are the 8 most difficult college majors:

  1. Biochemistry or Biophysics
  2. Astronomy
  3. Physics
  4. Cell and Molecular Biology
  5. Biomedical Engineering
  6. Aero and Astronautical Engineering
  7. Chemical Engineering
  8. Architecture

If you choose one of these majors, get ready to spend plenty of time each week preparing for class and completing assignments.

Study Skills to Succeed in Hardest College Majors

You’ll likely notice that all of the majors above are included in science, technology, engineering, or math fields--collectively known as STEM, for short. While good study skills are important to all majors, if you’re majoring in a STEM field, you’ll want to establish a set of effective study practices early on that you can use throughout your academic career. 

Making the Most of Class

To make the most of your STEM classes, it helps to think in terms of the three Ps--prepare, participate, and practice. Make sure that you’re ready for each class or lecture by doing the assigned reading before class. And don’t just read passively--be sure that you’re using active reading strategies like predicting, questioning, summarizing, and cross-referencing. During your actual class or lecture, be sure to take notes. (If you’re looking to up your note-taking game, try out the Cornell method or a mind map.) Finally, after class, be sure to practice the concepts you learned by completing your homework or developing your own problem sets.

Don’t Go It Alone

It can be tempting to move through your coursework independently, especially if you’ve got work or family commitments that require your time and attention. But it’s really in your best interest to seek out ways to add a social component to your learning. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to do that. Many institutions offer free one-on-one tutoring or Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) programs that give you an opportunity to review material in a casual setting with peers who may be struggling with the same concepts. And if your institution doesn’t offer any of those options, even joining or establishing an informal study group can help you keep to a set study schedule and develop supportive relationships with people who understand what you’re going through.

Why Hard Majors are Worth It

Though it might seem daunting to take on a difficult major (especially if you’re pursuing something that doesn’t come particularly easily to you), there are serious benefits to doing so. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re currently in a major decade of STEM job-related growth--and the market need for STEM majors isn’t expected to slow any time soon. And jobs in STEM pay well, too. The National Association of College and Employers notes that STEM majors in 2019’s graduating class can expect to make significantly more money than their peers when they join the workforce.

Pursuing a difficult major is a lot of work, so before you begin, be sure you’ve got the drive and commitment necessary to sustain you through the challenges you’ll face. Approaching your work with a dedicated study plan and a supportive network can help you make it through those tough classes and land the high-paying job you’ve been looking for on the other side.

Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.

Looking for study tips for succeeding in college courses remotely? Check out this great article: Tips for Effective Online Learning

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