Up for the Challenge?
You are all at the starting point of a marathon, which has a few routes for you to choose from. You are thinking about which route to take. You may take a challenging one, because it best trains your muscle and stamina. Or you may choose an easy one, just wanting to finish the run without sweating too much. No matter which type of runner you are, you need to know first which are the hardest routes so you can embrace, or avoid, them. Now imagine the route is a university major and you are about to choose a course that will accompany you for the next 3-4 years. You need some heads-up on the route information. And Digital Senior is here to help.
There are certain paths that are obviously hard. They are law, medicine and the Renaissance Engineering Program, a flagship scholarship engineering program at NTU. We exclude the three options, also because they only take into a small number of students.
It is important to recognise we are undertaking an almost impossible task of comparing majors, since individual students are different in terms of their academic strengths, preferences and career interest. But we believe we can still do a quick comparison using some objective criteria, unrelated to individual circumstances. Hence we are looking into three objective criteria: the course workload, the cutoff point for admission and the student composition.
Biological Engineering: Embrace the Intensity of Learning
First let’s look at the major that studies molecules: biological engineering. Well, to say it is a subject that studies molecules is doing a huge injustice to the extent of coverage the major has. You will study things as tiny as electrons or things as big as manufacturing plants. This major is known for the amount of knowledge an undergraduate has to learn.
And the course load for biological engineering says the same story. In NTU, one needs to take 140 academic units of modules in total, translating into 18 hours of study per week. NUS has similar requirement too. “It’s not that bad since usually the average workload for a university degree is 15 hours per week?” You may ask this question. Yes, in terms of number, biological engineering looks rather innocent. But the truth lies with how academic credits are awarded.
For some of its laboratory lessons, they carry 1 credit or 2 credits each, but you will definitely spend a multiple of hours on that. Doing experiments and writing lab reports are by far one of the most time-consuming activities. It is not as simple as finishing a piece of tutorial. Writing a good lab report requires constant revisions, as one needs to pay attention to data analysis, logical reasoning and presentations in terms of tables and graphs. Yet the school may be stingy in awarding credits. Hence 18 hours per week is never just 18 hours. The credits you get say very little about the number of hours you should put in.
ISE: A less familiar face in the Engineering School
Now let’s move on to a new comer in the engineering study: Industrial and System Engineering (ISE). What does one need to study for this major? Well, according to a current student, “ISE means I Study Everything.” Not quite everything, but a lot of things indeed. According to their website, this major combines ”engineering, mathematics, statistics, computing and social sciences”.
So here’s the challenge for many students. Due to the streaming policy in our education system, we have been getting used to either the “science” way of thinking, or the “art” way of thinking. Combine the two into one? Yes, that becomes ISE. A good ISE student not only can solve differential equation fast, he can also write well. Traditional engineering foundation is no longer enough, as one also needs to study programming, builds statistical models and discusses the management of modern supply chain. One needs to be a lot more versatile and adaptive in order to do well.
Other than the more holistic requirement of one’s intellectual qualities, ISE also poses the strongest competition among engineering majors. Its 10th percentile for admission is AAAA, something comparable to law and medicine. We also observe a substantial percentage of motivated international students in the cohort. If you choose this major, you are in for some pretty stiff competition.
Accountancy: Not as simple as counting numbers
Enough of engineering. Let’s turn out eyes to the non-engineering world and we’ll come across accountancy as probably the most difficult subject according to our criteria. Accountancy is often compared with business. Though both of them are offered by a business school, accountancy degree specialises in learning the book keeping, while a business degree is much more general (you’ve got to study marketing, finance, HR and so on). Accountancy being more specialised, it is much more technical.
Ask a business degree senior, you’ll realise sometimes you can “smoke your way through” when writing some business essays. But in accounting, it’s all black and white, right or wrong. Hence the intellectual rigor required is higher. One may initially find the book keeping rules overwhelming, as there are may intricacies and exceptions. Hence you need to have a lot more practices compared to many other subjects to be good at it. Remember to balance your balance sheet!
The competition is rather strong too. It has AAA 10th percentile cut-off point. And it shouldn’t be surprising why this degree tends to attract students with better grades: having an accountancy degree means the ease of finding a stable job. A substantial number of accountancy graduates can land a job in the Big 4 Accounting Firms, or anything equivalent. The stability is alluring. So you are in for strong competition again.
The purpose of this essay is to give you an idea on the 3 hardest majors according to our criteria. As we keep emphasising, which major is the most challenging depends a lot on your own circumstances. Digital Senior would find architecture the hardest, because it seems just impossible to get the proportion right when drawing. Hence you need to do your own research and reflection to make up your mind.
Click here for the 3 easiest university majors in Singapore.