Over the last several years, I’ve noticed that business has become an increasingly popular intended major among my students. At times, I wonder if some of these students are truly interested in business or if they feel pressured (by their parents, society, etc.) to major in it in order to maximize their chances of professional and financial success.  With the ever-increasing cost of college, students and parents are right to be concerned about the return on investment (ROI) that particular schools and majors can offer.  But, is it necessary to major in business in order to work in the business field?

The answer, based on a session I attended at the recent Higher Education Consultants Association Annual Conference, is a definitive “no.”  The session was presented by the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at St. Olaf College, the Dean for Enrollment Services at Southwestern University, and the Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL).  St. Olaf and Southwestern are small liberal arts colleges, and CTCL is a group of 44 small liberal arts colleges across the U.S.

Not surprisingly, all three presenters are big proponents of the liberal arts.  Yet, their session did not consist of simply sharing anecdotes about the value of a liberal arts education or their experiences with it.  Rather, they provided information about what today’s employers are seeking and how liberal arts majors help students develop many of these desired skills.

According to St. Olaf’s Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, recruiters who visited St. Olaf shared that they were looking for the following in job applicants:

  • No major requirement
  • Intellectually curious students
  • Demonstrated leadership experience
  • Ability to communicate clearly and effectively to a wide variety of audiences
  • Analytical skills
  • Collaboration skills
  • Well-rounded creative problem-solvers with strong business acumen
  • Ability to understand and execute on long-term strategies
  • Comfort with ambiguity and risk-taking

All of these competencies can be gained through a liberal arts education.

St. Olaf encourages students to explore majors and to major in a subject that most interests them.  The college does not offer a business major, yet many of its graduates go on to work in business.  St. Olaf’s website has a First Destination Employment Database where you can search for recent graduates by major and see where and in what positions they are working.

Among the jobs held by recent grads with history majors are a Business Analyst at Target Corporation, a Corporate Social Responsibility Specialist at Alcon, and a Senior Business Analyst at Optum – UnitedHealth Group.  Recent graduates with English majors have such jobs as Merchandise Planning Analyst at Gap, Technical Program Manager at IBM, and Marketing Coordinator at RBC Wealth Management.

In addition to the aforementioned skills and characteristics, recruiters who visited St. Olaf said they seek applicants who have done experiential learning in college (i.e., internships, research, study abroad).  This type of experience is often highly predictive of graduates’ job success.

Experiential learning was a priority for Hillary Schubach, who majored in history at Duke University.  She only had access to a few business classes, so she made an effort to get internships in the field she was interested in.  These internships helped her secure her dream job in sports marketing, and she later earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.  She said, “After I graduated, no one ever asked, ‘why did you major in history?'”

In 2007, Schubach founded Shine/ MBA Admissions Consulting, which helps people apply to graduate programs in business and other fields.  I asked her about the admissions prospects of MBA applicants who don’t have an undergraduate degree in business.  She said they do extremely well, pointing out that MBA programs generally prefer candidates with at least 2-3 years of post-college work experience.  Therefore, applicants have ample opportunity to highlight the relevant skills they’ve developed through work.

Schubach also said a high GMAT or GRE score can give a boost to those without a Bachelor’s in business, as high scores demonstrate strong analytical skills and academic readiness for a graduate business program.  She said a high test score and a strong undergraduate GPA should be MBA applicants’ top priorities.  Additionally, non-business majors can supplement their credentials by taking “extra credit coursework” in subjects like financial accounting and statistics at an accredited institution (i.e., a university’s online extension program or a community college), and getting an “A.”  Another option is to complete a pre-MBA program, such as the Tuck Business Bridge Program at Dartmouth, Harvard Business School Online CORe, Invited MBA, or MBA Math.

Schubach concluded by explaining that graduate business schools actively seek people from diverse backgrounds, so non-business majors should not assume they won’t be strong candidates.  She said, “My MBA program included professional athletes, military veterans, physicians, and others, each of whom added extraordinary value.  Above all, business schools are looking for future leaders who will make a positive impact.  If you are a high performer who shares this vision, and you can demonstrate your readiness and fit, a business major is absolutely not required.”

In sum, whether your goal is to work in business right after college and/or to pursue an MBA, you don’t have to major in business to be successful.  You should choose a major you’re excited about because you will be more likely to do well in your classes if you enjoy what you’re learning.  Finally, don’t rule out a liberal arts degree, as there are many valuable business skills to be gained from a liberal arts education.