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Pros and Cons of Choosing a Niche Major vs. A Broader Major: A Case Study

Pros and Cons of Choosing a Niche Major vs. A Broader Major: A Case Study

Students, parents, and families look at niche majors for many reasons. Sometimes a student is interested in a specific/niche major. However, sometimes students and parents look at niche majors because the broader major might be a competitive major.

    Figuring out what to major in college can be a tough decision for any student. There are many variables involved in the choice:
  • Is this something you really like?
  • Are you interested enough in pursuing it deeper?
  • How easy is it change the major, even within the same department?
  • Do you have to take a whole different set of courses?
  • What are the job or graduate school prospects?
  • Are there any special application requirements for application to the major?
  • Is this a competitive major?
  • Which colleges offer the major?

Anytime you are thinking of a niche major, some more research is required. The reason is because there can be quite a difference in as far the breadth of the major, future directions, and the kind and number of colleges that offer the major.

As a case study, let’s take a look at biology, a very popular major and cell biology, a related but a fairly niche major.

Comparison of Biology and Cell Biology Majors. © 2018 O's List, LLC. Do not distribute without permission.
Comparison of Broad and Niche Majors: Biology and Cell Biology. © 2018 O's List, LLC. Do not distribute without permission.
    While cell biology is a very fascinating subject, as a major it is very specific as compared to biology. A few things jump out immediately while comparing the majors:
  • Cell Biology is offered at 45 colleges, while Biology is offered at 1339 colleges. That is a huge spread while deciding your choice of colleges for application. This is especially stark if the colleges that offer the specific majors are all quite competitive with low acceptance rates. That really makes for a tough application journey.
  • The size of college that offers the majors is very important factor. This is all about the elusive “fit” … a college that will fit your personality. Cell Biology is equally split amongst all sizes of colleges. Given its relatively sparse offering, this makes it challenging to have too many options across reach/target/safety colleges especially if you know the size of college that would suit you. If you feel that you would like small to medium sized colleges, that offers a choice of only 22 colleges across the nation! Contrast that with Biology where you can build a workable reach/target/safety college list within just one type of college: very small colleges anyone?
  • Often niche majors are not always as popular as the broad majors, which means that fewer students apply and graduate with an undergrad degree in the niche major. Now, this has both pros and cons. The positive thing about a niche major is that there may be a more defined career/graduate school path depending on the major. There are fewer applicants in the major and since the students are more focused about the major, and if you are a strong contender for a college, then it might result in a strong application. The negative of a niche major is that sometimes the future possibilities could become narrowed or too focused. This may pose challenges if you decide to change the major or branch out in a slightly different direction.

A similar scenario plays out if you compare Physics and Engineering/Applied Physics or History and American History, or Economics and Applied Economics. Go ahead and check out our major search if you are interested in knowing more about a niche major.

Does the reduced choice mean that students should not choose a niche major? Not at all! If you are really interested in the niche major, then go for it. It is really a matter of understanding the tradeoffs, especially when it comes to the choice of colleges for application and plan accordingly. Though in our opinion, you should also include a few colleges that offer the broader major, just in case you decide not to specialize so early on in your career.