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Researching Majors and Degree Requirements–A Vocabulary Lesson

What are the requirements for a Bachelor’s degree?  How are these requirements different from one college to another?  What is a major?  What will I actually be studying?  Will I like this major?

These are the academic questions at the heart of choosing a college. While there are many commonalities among colleges, there are many differences in how they structure their curriculum and degree programs.

Before you start researching, you need to first learn some vocabulary.

Catalog.  Once upon a time, colleges published a thick directory of every policy and procedure and course offered by a university.  College students everywhere carried these around, thumbed through them, folded the corners of important pages, and highlighted requirements.

Today, the catalog is entirely online.  But it still exists as a whole, and is located quite apart from the marketing glitz and pretty photos of a college’s main website.  Sometimes you have to dig for it.  The easiest way to find it is simply to type the word “catalog” in the search bar on the college’s website.  Enrolled students know about the catalog:  prospective students like you generally do not.  But now, you do.  So make these catalogs a regular part of your research on a college.

Hours.  The second essential vocabulary term is the use of the word “hour” to measure academic coursework.  Unlike in high school, most colleges measure units of study in the number of “hours” required.  Instead of saying, “we require you to take 3 courses in English,” you may find something like this:  “to complete the major in this discipline, you must complete 54 semester hours of coursework.”

A “semester hour” reflects the number of hours per week you will spend in class with your professor.  A three-hour course meets three hours per week during a 15-week semester.  A four-hour course meets four hours per week.   Some schools are on a quarter system, in which each term is only 10 weeks.  Thus you may find courses measured in “quarter hours,” meaning that a 5 quarter-hour course meets 5 hours per week for 10 weeks.  (And if you are wondering, a 3 semester-hour class is roughly equivalent to a 5 quarter-hour class).

This vocabulary is important so that you can translate “hours” into “courses”:  you will find that course listings indicate the number of “hours” that course is worth.  Some courses may be four hours, others two, others only one.  In the end, however, the total number of hours must add up to match the number of hours required for the degree.

Distributive Requirements. Back in the olden days, most colleges offered a core curriculum in which every student took an identical set of courses in a prescribed order.  Few such colleges exist anymore, but there are a few (St. John’s College, with its two campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, is perhaps the best and most famous example).  This is how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were educated.  Today, however, most colleges require some sort of mix of major requirements, free electives, and what may be called “general education” or “distributive” requirements.  Faculty at each college define what they believe is the proper mix of courses that will produce the kind of educated person they envision.  They may require that you “distribute” your courses in some fashion.  One of the most common ways is to require that you take a certain number of courses in the humanities (e.g., English, languages, literature, philosophy), social sciences (e.g., psychology, political science, sociology) and the sciences (e.g., chemistry, biology, physics).  Some colleges may also require you to take courses that build particular kinds of analytical or quantitative skills.  Others may want you to explore regions of the world with which you may be unfamiliar.  As you research colleges, you will want to pay particular attention these requirements; for they serve as the backbone of your education, and are a concrete expression of the fundamental philosophy of the faculty who teach there.


Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant and Researcher of Colleges


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