Educational consultant and admissions counselor Mark Montgomery lends his expertise to advise on taking double majors at liberal arts colleges: if the spirit of liberal arts is breadth of knowledge, it’s best not to narrow your focus to the details of two separate majors, but to take one major and get the whole picture. While some universities such as Tufts allow double majors, others, like Princeton, don’t.
Well, I’ve spent the last week visiting a whole bunch of colleges on the East Coast, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and a lot of places focus on — when you go to their information session they focus on the academic piece, right? Because these are colleges and we want to focus on the academics there. I have found it kind of interesting to listen and try to get an idea of what the emphases are at different schools.
I was at Princeton yesterday, and Princeton, it’s interesting, it’s a relatively large school but has a relatively small number of majors, 40-something. And Princeton does not allow double majors. Versus a school like a Tufts, the tour guide at Tufts was talking about how so many of the students at Tufts double major in two different things. When asked why Princeton doesn’t allow for double majors, it’s that they really have that ethos of the liberal arts, that the idea of the liberal arts is breadth, not depth. So we want, at Princeton, we want you to take as many different kinds of courses and subjects and expand your intellectual horizons as far as possible, while at the same time you’re doing a major and you’re also, at Princeton, doing a senior thesis. Every student is required to do a senior thesis. So you’re going to go deep, but only in one area. You could do a minor but you’re going to do only one major.
I personally think that if you are interested in the liberal arts, that you should avoid thinking about double majors. I think it sort of defeats the purpose of the whole liberal arts ideal that you are broadening your understanding and awareness of the world, rather than narrowing. If you really want narrow, then you don’t need to go to a liberal arts college like Tufts with a liberal arts curriculum. If you really want to go narrow, you could go a place with an open curriculum and you could go just do only science or only English literature if you want. But again, that sort of defeats the purpose.
If you want to go to these kinds of schools that have this broadening mission, then why do a double major? No one is going to ask you what your major is, really, once you get out of college. Maybe your first job, it’s going to matter, and it might matter if you’re going into certain professions like engineering, it might matter if you really are focused in on business or accounting, especially, but that’s not a liberal arts major, right? Business? It might matter for medicine, except there are plenty of kids now who are majoring in things like religion and philosophy and psychology, and going on to medical school. There is no required major for entry to medical school, just a set of prescribed courses.
So I mention this because I find it’s an interesting puzzle in choosing which college you want to attend. If you feel that you want that breadth of understanding, you want that liberal arts ideal, then follow it through by choosing only one major and then allowing yourself to explore all the different kinds of things that a liberal arts college may offer so that you do, not just choose that priority, but you live it. That’s why you have the major, is the compromise between depth and breadth. If you do two majors, you likely are going to sacrifice the breadth, because you simply do not have room in your academic career to put that breadth in, and also complete two majors. Of course, rules are made to be broken and certain students may end up with two majors without thinking about it. But if you value the liberal arts ideal, then live it and do what they require at Princeton: one major with a thesis to find the depth, and then breadth in everything else.