7 Tips for Creating Your Own Degree Program

By: Stephanie Brooks

If you’re a crossword puzzle or Sudoku fan, you probably know that Will Shortz currently edits the daily crossword puzzle for The New York Times. But did you know Shortz holds a degree in enigmatology, a major he created himself and pursued thanks to Indiana University’s Individualized Major Program? An individualized major is a degree program a student creates, with guidance and approval from college faculty, that addresses specific, sometimes unusual areas of study. Ethology (the scientific study of animal behavior), music promotion, and the sociology of fashion are just a few individualized majors created by students to address their unique interests and post-college career goals. If the traditional MBA isn’t for you then check out these seven tips for creating your own unique degree program.

  1. Decide what you want to do and how you want to do it:

    If you find that after a year or two in college, you are still trying to determine what it is you want to do after college, or you enjoy many areas of study not necessarily favoring one over the other, then an individualized major program probably isn’t for you. Creating your own degree program requires a lot of effort and focus, as well as the ability to sell your commitment to your individualized major to college faculty for approval. If you have a vision for yourself, can articulate it to others, and find that more straightforward majors aren’t going to teach you exactly what you need to pursue your goals, then an individualized program may be ideal for you.

  2. Find out if your school offers an individualized major program:

    According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 900 four-year colleges in the U.S. offer individualized major programs. And that number is growing. Unfortunately, there currently isn’t an up-to-date, centralized resource for students listing all of the colleges offering individualized major programs, so you’ll have to do your research on a school-by-school basis. Be sure that any college you are seriously considering applying to is an accredited institution, as there are non-accredited schools (sometimes called “diploma mills”) now offering individualized major programs.

  3. Find out when you can apply:

    Students are generally encouraged to apply to an individualized major program in their sophomore or junior year. This gives a student time to determine exactly what areas of study they want to pursue. However, it may be possible for you to apply as early as the second semester of your freshman year or as late as the beginning of your senior year. Keep in mind though if you apply later, you will probably need to spend at least another year in school in order to complete your degree.

  4. Find a sponsor:

    Most colleges with build-your-own-degree programs require that you have a faculty sponsor (or several) who will advocate for and assist you with your individualized study program. There may even be faculty already flagged by your college as potential sponsors. That information will most likely be found on the college website. Your sponsor will help you prepare your application and a statement describing your customized major and why you want to pursue it. Your sponsor will also help you prepare for and accompany you to the final admission interview.

  5. Schedule and prepare for an initial meeting:

    Keep in mind that every college has a slightly different set of steps you need to take to create, propose, and then complete your custom major. At some colleges, an orientation meeting may be offered to you before you have secured a sponsor. At other schools, you may need to secure a sponsor first before you can attend such a meeting. At the initial orientation meeting, you’ll be able to ask the college’s individualized program director questions about the program, its requirements, and the application process.

  6. Get ready to be interviewed:

    Many customized programs at accredited colleges require you to go through an admission interview, where, accompanied by your faculty sponsor, you will be interviewed by a committee and asked to make your case for what you want to study and why. You’ll have to explain why your needs cannot be met by established majors, double majors, or interdepartmental majors. You’ll also be asked to explain how your proposed major will benefit your post-college career goals or postgraduate work. You and your sponsor can go over the questions you’re likely to be asked well in advance, and thus prepare strong responses.

  7. Trust yourself:

    Years after American mythologist, college professor, and writer Joseph Campbell told people, “follow your bliss,” that simple bit of advice is still considered by many to be unhelpful, and even irresponsible. Your vision of an individualized, perhaps interdisciplinary degree program may seem crazy to your friends and parents. But if you believe such a program will be of value to you after you graduate and are looking for work, then the only thing you need to be concerned about is how to best articulate your vision to your school’s faculty and staff. We all know completing a traditional four-year degree does not guarantee you will find a job after graduation. So why not pursue a course of study that you’re truly passionate about? That passion and the pride you feel for having completed your personalized major will probably do more to sustain you in these uncertain times.

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