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Thinking of Double-Majoring?

How to pursue two degrees at once and still have a life

George Colligan, B.A. in history and B.F.A. in theatre ’16.

Can You Complete a Double Major in Four Years?

Many double major students earn their degrees within four years. But some students take longer.

Depending on which two degrees a student is pursuing and the particular student’s circumstances, a student may need to add classes in the summer term, January term or May term in order to finish within four years, says Meadows Degree Counselor Janet Stephens.

“Regardless of which two degrees a student pursues, researching each degree’s requirements and preparing your schedule – academic, personal and social - is paramount,” says Stephens. “Some combinations of degrees, such as dance performance and applied physiology/sport management, don’t have courses that count toward both majors. In those cases – and depending on the individual student’s academic portfolio - it can be more difficult to reach completion in four years.”

Zach Biehl, B.A. creative computing and B.F.A. dance performance ’17, says double-majoring with one of the degrees in a performance art requires the ability to stick to priorities. “When you're rehearsing four-plus hours in the evening on top of technique classes, plus a second major and UC courses, prioritizing what to do and when to do it is critical,” he says. “You have to learn to balance the workload without shorting either major from your full creative effort. While concessions have to be made at times, I always try and make myself fully available creatively to all of my tasks and projects.”

Students pursuing degrees in similar fields such as Fashion Media and Communication Studies may have a comparatively easier time completing their degrees within four years. Affiliated or similar degree programs have several courses to choose from that satisfy both majors.

Whether to position themselves better for choice careers or to blend multiple interests, increasing numbers of SMU students are double-majoring. Their combinations of degrees are as varied as the students themselves: dance and economics; film and accounting; journalism and human rights; and more.

Thanks to recent changes to SMU’s University Curriculum (“UC”) - core courses that all SMU undergraduates must complete - certain courses can now count toward more than one degree’s requirements, making the path to double degrees wider.

But though the path is wider, it isn’t necessarily easier. To help students figure out how to double-major and still have a life, ten current double-major students from Meadows School of the Arts give their top five tips on getting ready, keeping it together and managing the delicate balance between studies, sleep and social life.

#1. Map It Out.

Successful double majors have a mantra: Know the curriculum … know the degree requirements … know the syllabi … (repeat).

They are also sticklers for mapping everything out before the semester begins.

“Dates and deadlines are going to be thrown at you all the time and it’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says Kelly Zitka, B.F.A. in dance performance and B.B.A. in general business ’15. “If you put them on a calendar, you can visually see which weeks are going to be harder than others.”

To keep up, double majors often rely on the “Semester-at-a-Glance” calendar available free of charge from A-LEC, the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center located in the Ford Stadium building on the northeast corner of campus. With the calendar, they can see their entire semester on one page.

“I get to see which weeks will be my hell-weeks,” says junior Diana Oteiza, B.A. in advertising (creative track) and a B.B.A. in marketing, “and I just have to make sure that I make the most out of the weekend before that. Clearly, the weekend before a hell-week is not the best weekend to go to Austin and visit your friend.”

Sarah Israel color-codes everything in her Semester-at-a-Glance calendar. She is a triple-major junior pursuing a B.A. in music, a B.A. in human rights and a Meadows B.A. in interdisciplinary studies in nonprofit organization studies, and she also plays in the Meadows Symphony Orchestra and Meadows Wind Ensemble, works at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and is the executive director of a nonprofit. Her secret? “The key is advance planning,” she says. “The only real difficulty in double-majoring is that you have to be hyper-organized.”

Organization can mean the difference between thriving and crashing. “In high school I used to do everything at the last minute and didn’t even own a planner,” says Diana Oteiza. “But when I got here, I realized that wouldn’t work anymore. Now, the first thing I do is grab all my syllabi and put everything on my planner.”

Regarding familiarizing yourself with degree requirements, sophomore Gabriella Bradley, B.B.A. in marketing and B.A. in fashion media, says to look for classes that count toward more than one degree or toward satisfying UC requirements. “This can take a lot of time and planning but is so helpful once you get everything in line,” she says. “Because I’ve maximized each class, I’ll be able to take only 12-15 hours each semester until I graduate, which even some single-majors can't do.”

#2. Work with Your Advisors, but Take the Lead.

Degree counselors, advisors and professors help students explore which courses to take and can advise on general requirements, but because every student’s path is unique, our double-major experts say it’s ultimately up to the student to be responsible for charting his or her college course.

“Your advisor is supposed to advise you, not tell you everything you need to do with your very specific case,” says Diana Oteiza. “I know people who have no clue what class they need to take for the next semester. They go empty-handed to their advisor meeting and just wait for the advisor to do all the work. You have to take charge -- you know yourself better than anyone else how many courses you can handle.”

Think of yourself and your advisor as a team. Double-major junior George Colligan, B.A. in history and B.F.A. in theatre, says his advisors are a tremendous help. “As I began to pursue my history major, my Dedman Scholarship advisors Dr. David Doyle [director of the University Honors Program] and Ms. Sally Spaniolo [associate director of the University Honors Program] provided me with a lot of encouragement and information on navigating the UC,” he says. His parents and best friends also reinforce his efforts. “You need to have voices in your life letting you know over and over again that it is possible.”

#3. Black Belt Time Management.

Like most students, Nathan Baldwin, B.A. in journalism and B.S. in applied physiology/sport management ’17, sometimes gets overwhelmed trying to balance classes, sleep, homework and a social life. Typically the overload happens when too many projects are due at once.

Diana Oteiza
Diana Oteiza, B.A. in advertising (creative track) and a B.B.A. in marketing ’16.

“I keep a list of things I need to do, both short-term and long-term,” he says. “When life starts to get extra busy, I make a different list of only the things I really need to do in the next day. That makes the workload seem much less daunting and it allows me to focus only on what I absolutely have to get done.”

Gabriella Bradley says keeping up with reading – a little bit every day – helps her stay on top of things. “Reading requirements build up so quickly,” she says. By reading every day, you can do five or so pages a night instead of trying to cram in 30 pages at deadline time.”

For Diana Oteiza, getting her homework during the week helps keep her weekends open. But sometimes the pull of the Internet is too much to overcome. “I realized I was wasting too much time scrolling down on Facebook, Pinterest, etc.,” she says. “I’d start writing an essay and at the first ‘Let’s look this word up on Google,’ I’d end up in some other website that somehow led me to BuzzFeed and then I’d waste two hours reading about the ‘27 Lessons You Learned on How I Met Your Mother.’” To keep the Internet vortex at bay, she downloaded an app called SelfControl. “It blocks any websites I want for a certain amount of time,” she explains.

Chris Warley, B.B.A. in finance and B.A. in journalism (Wm. J. O’Neil Business Program) ’16, saves time by writing down questions and talking to his professors during office hours. “It’s a lot more efficient to go talk to my professors than it is to spend a ton of time trying to figure things out on my own,” he says.

#4. ZZZs = B.A.s, B.F.A.s, B.B.A.s.

For some reason, many college students – particularly first years – go through a period of time thinking they can skimp on sleep and still stay sharp.

Sarah Israel says during her freshman year, she tried very hard to never sleep. “I tried cyclic sleep schedules where I would grab 20-minute naps throughout the day and not sleep at night,” she recalls. “I often went three days in a row without sleeping. But I quickly learned that my productivity actually decreased when I increased my working time throughout the day.”

George Colligan also tried cutting down on sleep but has learned his limits. “The more I burn the candle at both ends the less I enjoy the courses,” he says. “On the other hand, if I’m rested and on top of the reading or my rehearsals, classes are so much fun.”

SMU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Zoltowski says the amount of sleep needed varies by individual. “For undergraduates, a typical student will need 7-9 hours of sleep,” he says. “Anything less and your mind and body will begin to suffer, ultimately making you less productive.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is to listen to your bodies and to get sleep when it is needed. This also means putting down electronic devices that stimulate the mind through activity and blue light, both of which lead to sleep losses.”

His research on “blue light” bears this out. Cellphones, laptops and TV screens need to be turned off leading up to and during sleep.

#5. The Delicate Balance.

“The hardest thing I have had to learn in college is when to say no,” says Kelly Zitka. “To avoid spreading yourself too thin, you have to prioritize and be able to know when taking on that other task or going out that night might be too much.

“‘Balance’ doesn’t always mean making equal time for everything,” she attests. “It’s more about wisely using the time that you are given.”

Many double majors say maintaining friendships is vital. “With friends, it’s definitely quality over quantity,” says Nathan Baldwin. “Good friends actively want to spend time with each other, but they also motivate each other to reach their goals. Quality friends should encourage each other to do their best in school.”

George Colligan agrees. “For me it’s been very important to foster close relationships,” he says. “While I’m not on the scene at every party, I have a few great friends and I go to them and my parents for support and advice often, especially when my schedule gets out of balance.”

Sarah Israel makes sure she goes out with friends at least once a week, and Mimi Chong, B.A. advertising and B.A. psychology ’15, says she sometimes mixes studying with friends. “I remember more when my friends and I quiz and teach each other material,” she says. “Suffering those late nights together with your faces in your textbooks is bonding, too.”

Bonus Points

Our students offer a few more thoughts about double-majoring:

On AP and dual-credit classes in high school:

Absolutely worth it, says Briana Monsalve, B.A. communication studies and B.A. political science ’16. “Having both AP and dual-credit classes coming in as a first year definitely made it easier for me to take classes I like,” she says. “It helped me to not feel overwhelmed by having to take so many classes to fulfill UC requirements. Be sure you know which dual-credit/AP credits SMU takes so that you don’t take more classes in high school than you need to.”

On hitting the wall:

Mimi Chong says students get discouraged sometimes because they don’t see the end result as quickly as they’d like, which can wear down even the most dedicated student. To help relieve stress and regenerate, she recommends a phone call back home, a well-deserved nap or a really good pizza. “Whatever it is that helps you personally, do it and then remind yourself that each minute that passes by isn’t coming back so you need to make the most of it.”

On reasons to go after a double major:

Chris Warley says in the increasingly competitive job landscape, it is getting harder to stand out from the crowd of applicants. “Double-majoring helps,” he says. “Recently I secured an investment banking internship for this summer with Goldman Sachs. The interview process was very rigorous, but I set myself apart by being able to speak and write better than any of the other candidates. After I got my offer letter, one of the employees called me and said that my double major made me someone who they couldn’t turn down.”

SMU offers more than 100 majors. Read more about degree requirements in the SMU Course Catalog (updated every year), or make an appointment with the University Advising Center.

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