January 15, 2015

Getting a "Minor" in College:

What it Means when Someone says "I minored in that"

Brady Norvall, M.A. (with four minors, of course)

Founder and C.E.O. at FindaBetterU®


This is going to be short and sweet, people:

Most universities (note: not all) have three requirements for graduation:

1)      That the student has completed the required number of credits. Credits correspond to courses taken. But just because a student has the required number of credits does not mean they can graduate. Indeed, they must also have …

2)      General curriculum/general education/core curriculum requirements completed. This is most often going to resemble more or less the following, 1 lab science, 1 social science, 1 math, 1 foreign language, 1 writing seminar, 1 humanities course. It varies a bit from one school to the next. There are some schools which don't follow this same structure but they do offer a core, nonetheless, that which comes to mind is Columbia University, which is entirely humanities-driven (read about it here, http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/core). This leaves us with the third component of a student's classroom efforts …

3)      The major. When a student gets a degree, that piece of paper does not say anything about the credits achieved or the core curriculum requirements met. What it says is that the student has completed the requirements for a Bachelor degree of either Science (B.S./S.B.) or Arts (B.A./A.B.) with some other options possible, as well (Bachelor of Fine Arts, BFA; Bachelor of Science, Engineering, B.S.E.; Bachelor of Business Administration, B.B.A.). Let's just take English as the example (because literature is so popular these days, obviously). If a student wants to pursue English, she must fulfill the major requirements from her university's English department. Thus, an English degree varies from institution to institution. Even within the institution, if 10 people graduate one year with degrees in English (B.A./A.B.) it's quite possible that none of them took all the same courses. It's more than possible, in fact, it's probable. Because to get the degree, one must take somewhere around 12-14 courses, on average, in that field. But in English, for example, those 12 courses could be broken up into 4 areas, wherein a student must take 3 classes from each. It could look like this


Area 1

Area 2

Area 3

Area 4

European Literature

American Literature


Contemporary Lit.

25+/- options

25+/- options

15+/- options

25+/- options


Under each of the 4 areas, there can be easily twenty-five different courses from which one could select (depending on the size of the institution). So each student selects the 3 courses under Area 1 that most appeal to her. Then, she does the same for Areas 2-4. After the 12 courses are completed from the 4 areas, the student has completed the necessary requirements for the English department to confer her Bachelor degree.

Seeing that the other two requirements are met, as well, the student can then graduate.

But this article is not about graduation requirements, (and please now forgive my statement about this being "short and sweet"). Rather, it's about what "a college minor" actually means. But we can't understand the minor without understanding the rest … or perhaps I just like to watch myself type.

What is a minor then, you ask?

A minor can be anything from someone taking 5 philosophy classes of his choosing (not following any area-type requirements, as in the chart above), that could qualify in certain departments, at certain institutions, as a minor. Some universities will have students follow a certain regimen, such as 1 class from each of the 4 areas and then 2 other classes of your choice. That means 6 classes, in total. For minors, there is no standard rule. A minor is something one should pursue simply because they're fascinated with a subject and want to use a few elective courses to delve more deeply into that area. Twenty years ago, the same thing could have been said for majors. But now that everyone has become so outcome-oriented and majors are expected to lead to a professional skill-set (this is not my hope, but it is the expectation of many these days), majors no longer are the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge-sake. Minors are. Minors do not show up on a diploma. Let me repeat this, MINORS DO NOT SHOW UP ON A DIPLOMA! They typically aren't even listed on a transcript. Anyone could show you her diploma (let's say a B.A. in Biology) and include that she also had three minors: Chemistry, French, and Political Science, and you would be none the wiser (until you speak to her in French about global policy around the chemical consequences of … okay, I've been outed. I do NOT have a minor in any of those three areas). You get the point.

I'm not "revealing" a trick. Rather, it's a clarification I want people to understand. Minors are great. They show more depth of interest in an area than most university students without that minor would likely have. At the same time, they're not indicating any general knowledge in a specific sense. In other words, one could get a minor in philosophy without ever studying William James or Immanuel Kant. That's not possible if one pursues a philosophy major. In this regard, minors are exactly what they sound like "a minor amount of critical knowledge". A minor in anything is best for these reasons (in no particular order):

1)      Dinner party banter

2)      First date braggadocio (assuming one does not want a second date)

3)      Strictly because the material is exciting and/or the professors teaching it, great.   

If you have another reason why a minor would be beneficial, feel free to leave it in the comments.