Test performance and choosing a major

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I love charts like this one (click for full size), and I give them to my students regularly. The accompanying advice I give to my students is the usual-but-important advice about passion:

* Major in what you are most excited about, for then you’ll have more fun doing the hard work and you’ll be more likely to be good at it.
* If you haven’t found your exciting field yet, then be actively seeking it. Take courses in fields you’ve never studied, and really try them out for a semester.
* To that I add: other things equal, choose a major that is difficult. The difficult fields are the ones where you will develop your skills and habits the most. Hence the relevance of charts like the above: some majors’ students consistently perform better on graduate admissions tests.

A caveat about the chart, though. The results are probably in part due to self-selection by students who already have good verbal, quantitative, and writing skills. For example, the philosophy major may improve your thinking skills, but it is also likely that those who already have good thinking skills will be more likely to be attracted to philosophy in the first place. Thus, it’s not clear how much value-added credit the philosophy major gets.

Even so, a follow-up piece of advice: if one is still looking for a major, go where the smart students are — those are the classmates with whom one wants to associate.

Final thought: No field of study is necessarily weaker than any other. For example, a Harvard dean of liberal arts once called his school’s Education Department “an intellectual kitten that deserves to be drowned.” Amusing rhetoric, and likely true of the state of academic education field then and other fields today. But education is a field of great intellectual challenge, and that should mean opportunity for education professionals to improve the quality of the major. The same holds for other fields with often-deserved weak reputations.*

yogi-bear-50pxSource: Katrina Sifferd’s “Pleas and Excuses” blog.
* Still, we philosophy majors secretly like to agree with Yogi Bear: “I’m smarter than the average bear!”

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