by Brian DeChesare Comments (428)

What Should You Pick For Your Major?

Investment Banking MajorNOTE: Please click here to get the updated version of this article – our views on the ideal major for IB roles have changed.

So, which major has the highest chance of getting you into investment banking?

You might think that only undergraduates have to think about that one, but it comes up even when you’re that beyond that stage: when you go for Master’s or MBA degrees, you need to pick a concentration or major.

You shouldn’t pick classes just to get into the industry – but you also need to make sure you’re not reducing your chances of getting in by picking the “wrong” major.

Considerations

NOTE: Please click here to get the updated version of this article – our views on the ideal major for IB roles have changed.

You need to consider 5 factors when picking a major:

  1. Enjoyment – Even if you pick something “easy” like Art History, it’s tough to get through it if you’re not at least somewhat interested.
  2. Your GPA – Quantum Physics might sound cool, but not if you get a 2.0 as a result.
  3. Time Requirements – You also don’t want to spend all your waking hours at the lab, because that reduces networking and activity time.
  4. Your Story – Will your major support the “story” you tell interviewers? Or will it be as illogical as The Joker?
  5. How Bankers View It – They may not know the specifics behind every single major, but they view some as “easy” and some as “hard.”

It gets complicated to weigh all these factors at the undergraduate level.

But it’s easy to do that at the MBA and Master’s levels, so let’s start there.

Business School

You won’t have a “major,” but you can usually pick a concentration or focus with your classes.

GPA is irrelevant because many top schools don’t even award grades – and while some classes may be more difficult than others, the perceived and actual differences are smaller.

So this decision is simple: pick a concentration that supports your story.

If you did sales & trading, got tired of it, and now want to move into corporate finance it won’t seem logical if you pick algorithmic trading classes.

But if you worked in banking and now want to move into venture capital, then “Entrepreneurial Finance” classes would make sense.

Master’s Programs

You applied to a Master’s program to take another shot at recruiting and to gain some prestige if you went to a lesser-known university.

So you only have one choice: do a Master’s program in Finance.

It makes absolutely no sense to go through the trouble if you’re going to spend your time analyzing English literature.

Related areas like Accounting, Management, and so on can work but Finance is the safest bet and the best way to support your “story.”

Undergraduate

Now we get to the fun part.

The choice of a major at the undergraduate level is more difficult because you actually need to take into account all 5 factors – enjoyment, GPA, time requirements, your story, and how bankers view it.

Rather than doing a SWOT analysis here (I’ll leave that to the consultants in the room), I would summarize it like this:

Pick a major that you’re at least somewhat interested in, where you can get a decent GPA (> 3.5 in the US system or equivalent abroad), have time for at least 1 major activity outside school, and that supports your story.

Interest

Ideally, we would all pick something that matches our interests precisely: video game design, the history of sports, or physical therapy.

But bankers won’t take you seriously if you have a major like this on your resume / CV.

So you have to compromise – one option is to do a more serious major and then pick something “fun” for your minor.

GPA and “Easy” vs. “Hard” Majors

Since bankers only spend 30 seconds looking at your resume, they have a simple classification system for majors:

  1. Liberal Arts / “Creative” Majors – Easy
  2. Economics / Finance / Some Sciences – Medium
  3. Engineering / Physics / Math – Hard

Before you reply or leave an angry comment, remember that these are not my own personal views – this is simply how bankers in a rush for time view the relative difficulty of majors.

Bankers expect you to have a lower GPA if you did a “hard” major and a higher GPA if you didn’t.

You still can’t waltz in with a 2.5 and expect to get interviews, but a 3.3 or 3.4 GPA doesn’t look as bad if you had a difficult major like Chemical Engineering.

Go for one of the “medium” difficulty majors – that way you can get a decent GPA and have time for activities outside of school.

Time for Activities

Once you’re out of school, activities don’t matter – but as a student you don’t have full-time work experience, so you need to rely on being “interesting.”

You can substitute internships, studying abroad, sports, or networking in for “activities” here.

Regardless of how you spend your time, you need to be able to talk about something outside of school work and summer internships.

If you’ve picked a more difficult major and really have no time, try to clear one semester or one quarter and use a study abroad experience as your “interesting fact.”

Story Support

Similar to the “Why investment banking?” question, there are 2 story categories:

  1. Non-business/finance major moving into business.
  2. Business/finance major moving into investment banking specifically.

So your major has to support whatever you’re saying here.

For #1, your major should be either your starting point (“I was interested in biology, but then got interested in finance…”) or your growing interest (“While in the biology major, I got exposed to finance in this one class / internship…”).

Some Examples, Please…

I knew you’d ask, so let’s go through them.

Example #1 – The Biology Major: She picks Biology (not “easy” but not as difficult as other choices), gets a 3.6 GPA, and has time to lead a volunteer group outside of work.

She does a lab internship her first year but then moves into business development at a biotech company, gets more interested in finance and does a couple related classes – and she gets into banking to advise biotech companies in the future.

Example #2 – The Accounting Major: He goes to a state school, majors in Accounting, gets a 3.7 GPA, and has time to be on his school’s Track & Field team. He did an internship at a Big 4 firm, got some exposure to Transaction Advisory Services, and now wants to move into banking.

While he learned a lot at the Big 4 firm, he wants to have a more direct role in shaping transactions and knows he can leverage his Accounting background to hit the ground running in banking.

Finance vs. Non-Finance Majors

You might now say, “Wait a minute – isn’t it always to your advantage to pick something like Economics/Accounting/Finance so you can tell a story around it and get decent grades?”

You can’t really go wrong with one of those choices, so if you have no other preferences then it’s a good idea.

Especially if you go to a lesser-known school, it’s in your best interest to pick a finance-related major because you have to work really, really hard to prove your interest.

At “target” schools you have more flexibility, because bankers assume you can handle anything.

School-Specific Considerations

One special case occurs when your school is well-known in a specific field.

The classic example is MIT – if you go there and major in Political Science, that would raise eyebrows no matter how accomplished you are. You’re better off picking something technical that plays to the school’s strengths.

At a place like Wharton, specific classes may be important in the context of networking – hundreds of alumni have been through the same courses and you can “bond” over the experience.

Are There Any Classes You Definitely Need?

Super-advanced math classes are not helpful, so forget about those.

If I had to pick 1 absolutely essential class, it would be Accounting.

When you start working, you don’t want to be figuring out what an income statement is – you should be familiar with all the lingo and know how the statements link together.

If your school actually offers modeling or valuation classes, those would be helpful as well – but not as essential as accounting.

What If You’ve Picked the Wrong Major?

There’s a decent chance you’ve already picked a major and completed a good portion of it – so what do you do if it’s the wrong one?

If you’ve picked something that’s too easy, the best way to fix it is to add finance-related classes and turn them into a minor.

If you’ve chosen something that’s too difficult, take the path of least resistance and do the bare minimum needed to finish it.

Adding in finance classes in this case would not be a smart move, because you’re already overworked – you’re better off showing your interest through internships or activities.

Undeclared?

Your major itself doesn’t matter.

It’s more about your major in the context of everything else: your GPA, your “story,” your internships, and your activities.

So make sure yours fits in with those and tells a good story – and if you really can’t decide, just pick Finance like everyone else.

NOTE: Please see the updated version of this article here – our views on the ideal major for IB roles have changed.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. I love the website as it gaves me a lot of help.

    1. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hi,

    I currently study Economics and Politics (Economics major) at a top UK University. Which IB department would be more suited to this degree? I was thinking equity research, where I could potentially use analytical and written skills I have learned during my course. Can you confirm? What would you advise in terms of departments?

    Thanks,
    Ali

    1. Nothing is especially suited (or not suited) to it, and you don’t even do much writing in equity research (see our articles on the topic). With a major that is not directly relevant, it mostly comes down to your internships and outside study. So you should pick based on your interests, not your major.

  3. Williams

    I need help on what to do as i’m striving to work with an investment bank or private equity firm, I got a Bsc in Computer and information science With a CGPA of 3.32 in a private University in Nigeria,i fell in love with Finance and wanted to work in an investment bank or private equity firm. i travelled to France to further my education,so i got a degree in Msc Finance in France,after my master, i went for a 2month investment banking transaction analyst training in the UK, i just moved to the United state but i’m scared i might not get an opportunity in the Investment bankor private equity firm since i have no experience ,my bachelors degree is not in accounting or Economics moreover my bsc wasn’t taking in the state , is there anything i can do to help myself, I’m very hard working and also a fast learner. kindly advice me on what to do.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I may focus on networking with people you already know, and connect with people on LinkedIn. I’d work for boutique and 3rd tier firms initially.

  4. Hi, I am a Math Major in Operations Research and Statistics trying to break into S & T. i am wondering how much a computer science minor can help me and also what are my chances as a math major? My GPA is 3.80

    1. A CS minor can help, but contrary to popular belief, most S&T roles at banks are not incredibly technical and programming oriented… a math and CS combo helps in some ways, but your internship experience, passion for the markets, and trade ideas make the biggest difference.

  5. Alex Darium

    I am a sophomore at the University of Michigan majoring in Economics, Philosophy, and Computer Science with a 3.7 GPA. It will take me an extra year to graduate, will this hinder my chances of being recruited by an investment bank? I am on the board of an investment club and have done internships with a PE firm and PWM.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      No, I don’t think so. Seems like you’ve got decent experience too.

  6. Harold Roberts

    Hi Brian,

    I am a second year at the University of Chicago doing a double major in mathematics and computer science. I am interested in quantitative finance, but want to interview for investment banking as well. However, my GPA is a 3.5. Is it still possible to break in to IB, given the rigor of my majors?

    Best,
    Harold

    1. Yes, it’s possible, but it will be a bit more difficult. The difficulty of your major counts for something, but it doesn’t entirely make up for a lower GPA.

  7. Dario matos

    Hello I am a College student currently in a community college in nyc due to financial circumstances. I am choosing schools to transfer to and am thinking of Baruch college. I have been interested in being an IB since I was younger due to the environment around me (being on wall st. for after school programs). I would like to know if I honestly have a chance to break in to IB and which should be the best course of action I should take to be successful.

    1. I currently attend Baruch College and received a summer internship in IB at a BB my sophomore year. If you are willing to put in the work, you can break into IB. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Also check out baruchwsc.com, Baruch’s Wall Street Club, focused on helping students break into prestigious careers in finance. My email is available under “The Team”, I am currently the VP.

      1. M&I - Nicole

        Thanks for your input!

      2. Dario Matos

        Thank you very much for the help. Very insightful and helpful. I will be sure to check out that website. Remember my name as you will. E hearing from me in the near future! (Dario matos)

    2. M&I - Nicole

      http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/networking-investment-banking-jobs/ will help you. It is hard to comment on your chances but having relevant work experience can help you. So I’d try to work in a finance role part time if you can and gain some relevant extra-curricular activity experience (i.e. in finance club, etc).

  8. I’m a Finance undergrad and have only one major course left to take, and the options I have are “Risk Management” and “Derivative Securities”. Which one would be a better course to take for IB?

    Thanks!

    1. Either one is about the same, but probably Derivative Securities if you’re ever interested in working at a hedge fund or doing something more closely related to trading.

  9. Hello!
    I wanted to ask a Question..
    I am thinking about taking a distanced study programm “Banking and Finance” of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Is it worth to take it, I mean it’s one of the best schools in Europe, but it is in fact a distanced study programm. What do recruiter think about distanced studying? I am right now getting a Software Engineering major and would like to push it up with an Finance major, but can’t actually go to London.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I am not 100% sure about distance studies to be honest. While LSE is a good school I am not sure how recruiters would view the distance studies program.

  10. How does an Economics and Mathematics double major with a 3.4 GPA look in investment banking applications? I also have a Finance minor with that.
    I know that 3.5 is the benchmark but how does it look seen my heavy course load?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Sometimes systems do the cut-off for you so they may not look at your heavy course load. You may have to rely heavily on networking versus applying online.

  11. I’m a double major in Economics and Biochemistry entering my senior year. I will be staying an extra year to finish both degrees. I pretty much switched from Biochem to economics during my junior year because I decided medicine wasn’t for me anymore and I wanted to explore different options. I have a 3.6 GPA at UT Austin, worked as a leasing consultant for 3 years throughout college, and have a lot of EC’s.

    What do you advise as the best path to pursue a career in IB or Finance? I’ve applied to internships for this upcoming summer but I am worried because they see I am technically a senior they will disregard my application.

    What can I do to solidify myself in the case I do receive an interview with no finance/accounting background?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Perhaps getting some experience at a local/boutique finance firm may help. Otherwise, perhaps you can try advisory in big 4 firms. You can solidify yourself by gaining some experience as I’ve suggested.

  12. I am an incoming freshman at The Ohio State University strongly interested in investment banking. I am majoring in Electrical Engineering and am in the Honors program at OSU. I have already completed an internship at an Aerospace company, but am not sure on how to construct my ‘story’ (I have always been interested in business and finance, specifically M&A, and won 1st place in my state in an economics competition). Do you have any recomendations on what I should do during my time at school or what kind of internships to which I should apply in order to increase my chances to land an IB Internship?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d try to look at finance/investments club and internships in the area (perhaps at your school’s bank) to increase your chances.

  13. I am going take International Business Administration in Vienna University of Economic and Business, which is the best Economy University in Austria, specialized in East European Economy. I can take Information Systems major too, which makes the duration 1 semester longer. Is it worth to go for it? Moreover I am preetty interested in maths, so I am thinking about taking Statistics and Mathematics in Economy OR FInancial and Actuarial Mathmatics as a second Bachelor as free-time activity. Would it give me an advantage to study 2 Bachelor Programms ?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I think Finance and Actuarial Mathematics maybe the most useful one. In terms of taking Information Systems, yes this can be useful especially given how technology has changed the world and finance.

  14. Hello, I have a son who wants to move into investment banking specifically. I directed him to this article, but he can’t decide on a college. He decided to major in finance and minor in accounting, just to cover all of his bases. Do you have a suggestion for which college he should go to?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d say top tier target schools such as Stern, Georgetown, UPenn, Harvard, Columbia, etc

  15. I’m an incoming freshman at Notre Dame, but I am not guaranteed to Mendoza College of Business there. In the scenario I fail to get into Mendoza, what major would you recommend? I was thinking of Econ major w/ couple finance classes, or doing Poli Sci major and Business Econ minor w/ couple additional finance classes.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes Econ major with Finance/Accounting minor may help – I’d check with the school and see if that’s feasible.

      1. I cannot minor in finance/accounting or anything part of Mendoza. But, I can take business electives and minor in Business Econ. What would you rank these major or major/minor combinations from most employable to least: Finance, Econ, Poli Sci w/ Bus. Econ minor, and Management Consulting Major.

        1. M&I - Nicole

          I’d say Finance, Econ, Poli Sci then management consulting

  16. Haley Martin

    I’m a female sophomore at Boston college pursuing a double major in Physics and Economics. I was on the volleyball team my freshman year (division one) but had a career ending injury. I’m looking to get into IB, but because my summers were spent in training, I haven’t had any internships. I carry a 3.5 total GPA and am in the Honors program at BC. Do you have any advice on activities to get involved in or how to begin to network? I was also considering a minor in computer science (have overloaded every semester and as a result will have a bunch of open classes in the next 2 years. What would you recommend as a minor?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If you can join a Finance/investment club, I’d do that to increase your chances. I’d also start networking with alumni in the industry, as well as connect with people via LinkedIn. http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-linkedin-profile/

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