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Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are

Reuters/Jason Reed
A path is chosen.
  • Jonathan Wai
By Jonathan Wai

Research Scientist, Duke University

This article is more than 2 years old.

Do students who choose to major in different fields have different academic aptitudes? This question is worth investigating for many reasons, including an understanding of what fields top students choose to pursue, the diversity of talent across various fields, and how this might reflect upon the majors and occupations a culture values.

In order to explore this, I used five different measures of US students’ academic aptitude, which span 1946 to 2014, and discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades.

An important caveat: The data presented looks only at group averages and does not speak to the aptitude of specific individuals. Obviously there are people with high academic aptitude in every major and there can be larger aptitude differences between entire schools—for example the University of Chicago and a local community college—than between majors within a school. Also interests, which are not directly assessed here, likely play an important role in which major someone selects. One could argue that any one specific test and sample may not be an accurate reflection of the aptitude of specific majors, and this would be a valid point. However, this analysis uses five independent measures and samples of academic aptitude at different points in time—which include everything from tests of cognitive abilities to tests of academic achievement—showing these findings replicate and are quite robust.

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