Here’s an interesting way to advise a freshman on a major – a personality test. A published review1 of 12 psychological studies on college students stipulates that there are significant differences among students in different academic majors in terms of the “Big Five” personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness. Anna Vedel, the psychologist who published the review, gathered all the results from these twelve studies and upon analyzing them together, observed patterns among the “Big Five” personality traits. Let’s take a look at some of her conclusions.
Extraversion – This is how social and assertive you are when interacting with other people.
While the results were inconsistent for many academic majors, it is pretty clear in the study that economics, law, political science, and pre-med students scored higher than those majoring in arts, humanities, and other sciences.
Agreeableness – This is the tendency to be trustworthy and altruistic.
Law, business, and economics students scored consistently lower than other majors.
Neuroticism – This is marked by how moody and irritated you get as well as any instances of emotional instability.
Arts, humanities, and psychology students scored higher than most other majors. Economics and business majors scored consistently lower on this one.
Conscientiousness – This describes the lack of impulsive behavior as well as how goal-oriented you are.
Arts and humanities scored consistently lower than other majors while science, law, economics, engineering, medicine, and psychology were high.
Openness – This is a loose term that describes more or less your creativity and open-mindedness to try and develop a range of interests.
Humanities, arts, psychology, and political science students scored high on this one with economics, engineering, law, and sciences on the bottom.
Now, what about social effects? Does the school social environment (i.e. your friends) play a role in your major decision? Vedel reinforces these observations by claiming that two of the twelve studies measured the students’ personality right after enrollment (and hence, precluding socialization effects within the college)2,3. In both studies, these personality differences corresponded nicely with those that were done with students that were well into college. This supports the notion that these personality differences may very well be preexisting and not directly influenced by social effects within the college environment.
Vedel’s rather solid correlations could have practical implications too. She mentions how these notions could be used “to guide students in their choice of academic major.” So if the student has no clue what they want to study, their personality may be one way to guide their decision. Also, for professors, these results could enable them to “restructure the learning environment in a way that engages the students.” By taking the students’ personality types into consideration, certain types of teaching may better facilitate the students’ learning process in a way that makes them feel more comfortable. This could go beyond simply deciding between adopting a lecture or seminar format for classes, and may include how best to assess the students or the types of questions that appear on exams.
While this study could be a reaffirmation of life decisions for many students, some may be a little upset to think that certain major stereotypes may be true. However, if I were to give any sort of major advice, it would be more along the lines of doing something that you enjoy or are comfortable with. As long as you feel engaged with your course of study and believe that you will develop a meaningful and productive future out of it, then I guess any predeterminant behavior can take a back seat for the time being.
James Siriwongsup is a sophomore in McMurtry College at Rice University.
1. Vedel, A. Big Five personality group differences across academic majors: A systematic review. Personality and Individual Differences 2016, 92, 1-10.
2. Lievens, F. et al. Medical students’ personality characteristics and academic performance: A five factor model perspective. Medical Education 2012, 36, 1050-1056.
3. Vedel, A. et. al. Personality, academic majors and performance: Revealing complex patterns. Personality and Individual Differences 2015, 85, 69-76.