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Major problems

Triple helpings of course requirements can ruin your college experience
By MEREDITH HASSETT  |  August 13, 2008


If college was once about the transition from youth to adulthood — learning to feed yourself (or at least make Easy Mac), set your own bedtime (or drink a lot of coffee) and, most important, choose your career path — these days, the parenthetical amendment to that third goal may be, “or three.” With a job market as unpredictable as Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety, some students have decided the secret to succeeding after college may be to place their academic eggs in as many baskets as possible. Indeed, reciting a student’s college degrees when it’s time to hand out diplomas can be more difficult than giving a Starbucks order. Why are so many students taking on so much?

Gotta have friends
Part of the motivation for declaring multiple majors is the desire to expand your academic and social network. The green crusader behind you in line who slapped you a high five because you opted for soy milk may likewise shake your hand at commencement if you pair your business degree with environmental studies.

Susan Jackson, senior associate dean at Boston University, explains that declaring a major can mean more than just a title on a diploma. “Being in a major involves being in a community of other students and faculty members,” she says. And that’s a valuable resource, “ . . . particularly at a large university.”

More for your money
Beyond the warm-fuzzy feelings of camaraderie, a double or triple major also appeals to the student who recognizes how arbitrary the logic of the job market can be. Not many people keep the same job — or even stay in the same career field — for their entire lives any more. So instead of getting a business degree to inherit Dad’s furniture store, why not get an architecture degree on the side and maybe throw in some Italian? This way, if couches and dining-room tables become a thing of the past in 2030, you’ll always have a career as a translator to fall back on. Really, you’re just getting the bang for your buck out of a $40,000-a-year college education. This deal is buy one, get two free.

Showing off . . .
But it’s not only about loving a bargain. Some students see triple majors as an intellectual feat. “Multiple majors and minors present a particular kind of challenge and sense of satisfaction because it entails pursuing a subject in some considerable depth and moving from one question to another question to another set of questions,” says Jackson.

In some cases, the challenge of balancing three sets of course requirements may be appealing more for that “wow” factor than for the cerebral rush.

“Everybody gasps with awe when you say you’re triple majoring with minors and a full-time job and 24 hours of community service a week,” Jackson points out.

. . . perhaps to no avail
This search for the “wow” may be a value a student embraces even before the first day of school. Some kids arrive at college dreaming of piling on the credentials. Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, explains that when students are taught to be overachievers in high school, they confuse the yardsticks for success in that closed environment with what brings success in the real world.

“They get ahold of this idea in high school that there needs to be something unique about them,” she says, “and they mistake what makes them unique in high school for what makes them unique in adult life.”

In other words, a student whose hours in the library brought him a 4.0 GPA and glittering prizes at Central High assumes the same overachieving tactics are the keys to success in college and beyond.

Another high-school souvenir that over-achieving students bring with them to college are Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Passing these subject-specific exams while still in high school allows ambitious students to bypass some introductory college courses, which in turn makes it easier for them to jump into multiple majors because they have more free-credit time. Ironically, in the same way that these tests help students get more majors, the measure of success in the AP world is also defined in terms of quantity not quality. The top level of AP scholardom is established more by how many AP exams a student takes than by his actual scores.

Yet the skills that allow students to succeed on AP exams and thrive in triple majors may not translate to success after graduation. “It’s proven that people who get straight A’s are not necessarily successful in the work world,” Trunk says. In fact, Trunk argues that employers may even hesitate to hire a triple major.

“It’s a red flag that the person didn’t do anything that they had to structure themselves,” she says. While a student pursuing a single major is left with time to explore African dance and wine tasting, the triple major is confined to a strict set of required courses.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Education , Higher Education , Business Schools ,  More more >
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