Does Your Major Reflect Your Smarts?

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Usually, that’s considered an insult for instructors. Based on five different studies – over five different decades – it may also be the truth.

In a recent essay on Quartz, Jonathan Wai, a Duke University researcher, came to a surprising conclusion: Different majors attract students with different academic aptitudes. In fact, Wai ranked the cognitive abilities of students in various majors. And here’s what else he found: These rankings “remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades.”


Heresy, you say? Curious perhaps? Well, here’s how the majors shake out. The highest scores belonged to students in the STEM fields, particularly engineering, physical and biological sciences, and mathematics and computer sciences. And the lowest scores? Brace yourself: They came out of education and business.

That’s right: The next generation is being educated by professionals who were collectively among academia’s lowest performers (Can you say ‘ironic?’).

Let’s look at this in more depth. And we’ll start with “The 2014 SAT Report on College and Career Readiness,” which covered math and verbal aptitudes for 1.6 million high school seniors. Granted, these seniors might change majors once they arrive on campus. However, as you’ll see, their numbers reflect a pattern.

Here, math and statistics majors – as a group – notched the highest scores, averaging a 574 SAT. They were followed by the physical sciences (571.5), social sciences (557.5), engineering (553.5), and biological and biomedical sciences (544.5). Technically, prospective agriculture majors produced the lowest scores with a 473 SAT average. But they were certainly within striking distance of education majors, who averaged a 482 as a whole. If you’re worried about your health, you’ll take little comfort in knowing future health professionals scored a 490…nine points lower than artists and 49 points behind the ever-maligned liberal arts majors.

SAT scores


Looking for a silver lining? If you plan to major in business, you’re now middle-of-the-pack. Traditionally, students pursuing business barely edged out aspiring educators. Based on the latest SATs, business majors averaged a 507.5, slightly above communications and journalism majors (but still 66.5 points below alpha mathematicians. According to Wai, these rising numbers potentially herald a brighter future for future bankers, entrepreneurs, and marketing mavens. “Business appeared near the bottom from 1946 to 2005,” Wai writes, “but by 2014 had risen to the middle of the pack. This shows business is attracting more able students in recent years, perhaps due to the value of this major among current employers.”

And this data bears a striking resemblance to another academic barometer, GRE scores. In this exercise, Wai tabulated GRE scores from 1.2 million students from 2002-2005. And here’s what he found: Potential engineers supplanted their physical science and mathematics brethren as the smartest cohort – but not by much. Engineers generated a 594 average as a group, compared to 592 respectively for math and physical science. As you might guess, education finished dead last at 492 – 102 points below engineering. Alas, business prospects finished next-to-last at 517 (but still hold bragging rights over educators).