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Thinking about studying finance? This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about the pursuit of a finance degree at the undergraduate level.
Finance is a very broad term that generally refers to the management, creation, and study of money. A finance student will typically focus on how companies acquire and spend money. Every reasonably-sized company will have a financial team to manage the company’s budget and maximize future success, so a job in finance affords a considerable amount of opportunity and flexibility.
Many educational institutions only offer finance degrees as part of a wider business or management degree. However, in recent years, more and more schools have been offering majors in finance. Make sure you check what major options exist at any schools to which you are considering applying.
Additionally, a finance degree can come in many different forms. Most commonly, you can get a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Finance, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Finance, or a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) in Finance. Though all three of these degrees will similarly set you up for postgraduate success, there are some important differences that are worth discussing.
The fundamental difference between a BS degree and a BA degree is that a BS will focus much more exclusively on core curriculum, whereas a BA will require you to take more social studies and humanities courses. If you are looking for a more well-rounded education, a BA might be better suited to you; however, if you are looking to focus on your finance education, a BS is probably best.
It is worth considering a BBA in Finance, as well. A BBA degree will incorporate more classes that deal with management and leadership. A student graduating with a BS in Finance might be well-suited to a job as a financial analyst or advisor, whereas a student graduating with a BBA degree might be better equipped to handle senior management positions.
Whether you favor a BS, BA, or BBA degree will depend on your personal preferences, but be sure to examine which degrees are offered at any educational institution you are considering. Finance is a broad term and there are many different approaches to the study of it, both in the United States and internationally. Find the one that is best for you.
Many students take finance alongside accounting or major in business studies and choose between specializing in finance or accounting. This can be a difficult decision, so we will quickly examine the important differences. Accounting deals primarily with financial statements, past records, and balancing budgets. Accountants provide and analyze raw data about past and present performance.
Those who work in finance are focused on future growth and designing short-term and long-term strategies to maximize returns. In short, an accountant is focused on the past and a finance specialist is focused on the future. Finance is generally considered to be much broader and more flexible than accounting. When considering which of the two you might want to specialize in, consider your individual skills. An introverted student who loves working with and studying numbers will be well-suited to the study of accounting. An extroverted student who enjoys competition and studying the markets will be better suited for the study of finance.
Preparing to Apply
Students considering applying to study finance as undergraduates should ensure they take relevant college preparatory or Advanced Placement classes during high school. The most important classes for prospective finance majors are Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Statistics, and Calculus.
If your school offers elective classes in subjects like Business Studies, Computer Science, Debate, Communications and Speech, or Accounting, these would also be excellent options to strengthen your application. Though it is less significant, having strong grades in English and History and an academic interest in languages or humanities will further increase your chances of being admitted to your chosen school.
It is also important to score highly on the math portion of either the SAT or the ACT since this reflects strongly on a students’ ability to complete high-level math classes at an undergraduate level.
Finally, you should try to participate in relevant after-school clubs and local organizations in your community. Excelling at debate, writing about finance for the school newspaper, and starting or leading an investing club at high school are the types of things that can really make you stand out.
What do you study as an undergraduate finance student?
Students of finance are likely to be studying in their university’s business school. The curriculum reflects the expertise required in the business world and generally includes classes like:
- Human Resource Management
- Principles of Business
- Business Ethics
- Business Law
- Business Communications
- Business Analytics
- Project Management
Depending on which school you are studying at, you will also likely have to take a required number of classes in humanities. It is recommended that you take courses related to finance, like Debate and Leadership, Enlightenment Philosophy, or American History.
What can you specialize in?
Finance students are generally able to choose a specific specialization before or during their time at university. The options available to you will vary from college to college, but the following examples are commonly offered:
- Corporate Finance
- Capital Markets
- Investment Management
- International Finance
- Financial Counselling
- Asset Management
- Applied Mathematics in Finance
You do not necessarily have to decide how to specialize before you apply—you will be given ample opportunity to explore different areas of finance in college—but if you are already fairly sure of a path you want to take, it makes sense to verify that the specialization you want exists at all the colleges you are applying to.
What kinds of students have success in finance?
Finance encompasses a wide variety of careers and professions; as such, many different types of students can expect to enjoy success. Nevertheless, there are certain attributes that are extremely useful in the study of finance. Successful finance students are typically highly motivated and driven by innovation and competition. Strong math skills are a basic requirement and the ability to lead, debate, and follow is strongly valued in the finance world.
If you are interested in numbers and the application of math, investment and the movement of markets, or problem-solving and dealing with a constantly shifting environment, you will likely find great success in a finance career.
It is important to understand that as a finance graduate you will have the opportunity to work at almost any company in the world. Regardless of a business’s aim, they need a finance department to balance the budget and project and direct future growth. While a finance degree can be a stepping stone to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, it can just as easily land you a job working for a non-profit or a local cooperative. The options are limitless and entirely dependent on your preference.
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Choosing Where to Apply
When considering which finance schools to apply to, you should first verify whether the colleges are accredited. Accreditation simply means that a school has been “accredited” or approved by an independent regulatory body. This ensures that a college’s business and finance education meets a certain standard. Employers will strongly favor candidates who have been to accredited institutions.
In the United States, accreditation is usually provided by either the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). There are other local and international institutions that you may want to look into depending on your personal needs.
You should also look into the research opportunities that exist at any school you might apply to. Additionally, consider what opportunities exist for work experience and internships at each school you are applying to and what the local postgraduate job market might look like. If you want to study finance, schools in Boston, New York, and California are likely to offer greater immediate opportunities for gainful employment.
It would be wise also to examine the available majors, curriculum, and specializations at each college you are considering. Some schools will offer a vigorous education in pure financial theory and application, whereas other schools will incorporate a far wider range of subjects into the curriculum.
Consider how narrowly you want to focus your studies and how much time you want to dedicate to other academic pursuits.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you should consider your own finances. The cost of college can vary enormously and you should take into account your personal situation before ultimately deciding which schools to apply to.
In-state tuition is generally much cheaper than out-of-state tuition, so if you have the option to attend a suitable school in your local area you should strongly consider it. Additionally, public schools are usually cheaper than private schools.
If your grades are strong but affording college is difficult for you, talk to your teachers, guidance counselors, and academic advisors. There are countless opportunities for scholarships and thousands of people who dedicate their lives to ensuring that those opportunities meet the right students.
Speak up, advocate for yourself, and ask for help! Everyone can achieve a degree in finance if they have the right ability and work ethic.
Best Undergraduate Schools for Finance in the Country
The following schools are some of the most exceptional places to study finance in the United States.
Georgetown, McDonough School of Business (public policy, foreign affairs, government, international finance)
Georgetown is a private Jesuit university in Washington D.C. It was founded in the 18th century and is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country. Georgetown’s location in the heart of the nation’s capital means it offers unique opportunities for finance students who are interested in working in government or international banking.
The McDonough School of Business offers business majors in seven categories (including finance) and is expanding to add an eighth and ninth in 2023 and 2024, reflecting the college’s commitment to innovation and growth. Additionally, the McDonough School offers unparalleled opportunities for students interested in international finance.
The Global Business Fellows Program offers students the opportunity to pursue their interests in finance, international relations, and public policy. Recently, the school has also announced a new interdisciplinary degree that allows students to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Business and Global Affairs (BSBGA).
Finance students at Georgetown will also receive a well-rounded education, including mandatory courses in philosophy, theology, diversity, and integrated writing.
The University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business (corporate finance, capital markets, banking, venture capital, investing, quantitative finance)
The University of Pennsylvania (colloquially called Penn or UPenn) is located in the center of Philadelphia. It is a private, not-for-profit university with a large student body and a far reaching alumni network.
Penn is home to the Wharton School of Business, one of the most famous business schools in the world. Wharton offers an undergraduate finance concentration program; hundreds of students graduate with this degree every year.
Students can specialize in subjects like Corporate Finance, Capital Markets and Banking, Private Equity and Venture Capital, Investments, and Quantitative Financing. The Wharton School is particularly esteemed for its research and innovation in the field of Corporate Finance; students interested in this branch of studies will find no better place to study.
Penn also has some of the most prestigious master’s and doctorate programs in business studies, so if you have aspirations to go on to higher learning or to be a professor of finance yourself, Penn represents the best possible opportunity.
Consider that UPenn is an extremely competitive school that admits less than 10% of students every year. However, UPenn finance students graduate to an average starting salary of $80,000, primarily as a result of the large number of corporate finance majors who graduate every year.
The University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business (investment theory, ethical side of finance, non-profits)
Notre Dame is a private Catholic University in South Bend, Indiana. It is home to the Mendoza College of Business, which is routinely ranked as the best business school in the world by independent publications.
Students at Mendoza College can opt for a Bachelor of Science in Finance or Financial Management. Classes include Investment Theory, Corporate Financial Reporting, and Managerial Economics.
The Mendoza College of Business emphasizes a need to focus on the ethical side of financial studies. Students are expected to graduate with an appreciation for how finance can serve the greater good, making Notre Dame an exceptional school for financial students who wish to work in nonprofit organizations and other similar roles.
Notre Dame offers small class sizes, yet has the feel of a big school with a massive alumni network. The campus is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in the United States and, unlike most of the schools on this list, is not located in the heart of a financial hub.
Bentley University, Department of Finance (corporate financing, capital markets, financial planning, double-major)
Bentley University is a little different than most of the other schools on this list. It is a relatively small university located in Waltham, Massachusetts, that focuses almost exclusively on business studies.
Bentley was founded in the early 20th century as an accounting school and has maintained this academic focus throughout its history. Students can major in finance alone or combine a finance degree with a degree in economics or accounting. Additionally, students can choose to specialize in Capital Markets, Corporate Financing, or Financial Planning once they have completed the foundational material.
Bentley offers an unparalleled focus on finance education. Its students go on to a median salary of just under $90,000 and graduate with comparably little debt. The Department of Finance offers postgraduate career support and can boast that 98% of graduates are placed in a job in the first year after graduation.
New York University, Stern School of Business (corporate finance, investment banking*, investments/capital markets, etc)
New York University (NYU) is located in the heart of downtown Manhattan, giving it a strong connection with Wall Street and the world financial markets. There is nowhere in the world that is more advantageously positioned to study finance.
The Stern School of Business was founded in 1900 and has remained an innovative leader in financial education and research ever since. The school offers a BS in Business with the option to specialize in finance. The finance curriculum is divided into two categories: Corporate Finance and Investments/Capital Markets. This reflects the school’s expertise. For students looking to work in corporate finance or investment banking, the Stern School of Business offers unique opportunities.
Boston College, Carroll School of Management (fundamentals of finance and investing, good for comprehensive knowledge of finance)
Boston College is a private, not-for-profit university. Students can graduate with a bachelor’s degree in finance from the Carroll School of Management, one of the leading management schools in the world.
The Carroll School requires finance students to take classes in accounting, corporate financing, theories and fundamentals of finance, and investments. Students can also choose from a wide range of finance-based electives, meaning that Boston College is a good choice for students who want a comprehensive and broad knowledge of finance.
If you are looking for a well-rounded finance education on a lovely campus on the outskirts of Boston, the Carroll School will give you everything you need. In addition, the current Carroll faculty features some of the most prestigious professors in the world in the field of finance and management. Now is a good time to apply.
Santa Clara University, Leavey School of Business
Santa Clara was founded in the 1850s by Jesuits and is one of the oldest universities in California. It offers a BS in Commerce with a specialization in Finance or Financial Management through the Leavey School of Business, as well as a separate degree in finance alone. Santa Clara has a smaller student body (about 5,000) than most schools on this list and also has a much higher acceptance rate (about 45%).
The Leavey School requires finance students to take five classes in Investments and five classes in Corporate Financial Policy, but also requires completion of courses like Theology, Philosophy, Critical Thinking and Writing Skills, Civic Engagement, and Diversity. This ensures that students will receive an incredibly well-rounded education with a focus on commitment to the community. The Leavey School also offers a popular minor in Real-Estate, making it a strong choice for students who wish to study the intersection of these two disciplines.
Santa Clara University is located in Silicon Valley meaning it is a good school to consider if you are looking to graduate to work in finance in San Francisco or the surrounding area. It also offers unique opportunities for students interested in working in emergent tech markets.
Carnegie Mellon, Tepper School of Business (two majors – finance and business administration, applied mathematics)
Carnegie Mellon is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Tepper School of Business offers just one degree: a BS in Business Administration. However, students can choose to specialize in areas like finance, marketing, and econometrics.
Students at Carnegie Mellon can also take a BS in Computational Finance, which is an interdepartmental major offered jointly by the Tepper School and the Mellon College of Sciences. Students earning this degree will be able to focus on high-level math classes related to finance. Finally, Carnegie Mellon also allows all students to take an additional major in Business Administration alongside their chosen major, meaning many students graduate with a degree in Finance and Business Administration.
Carnegie Mellon offers excellent research opportunities and is a perfect school for you to consider if you want to have a high level of flexibility with your financial studies or if you know you want to study applied mathematics in finance.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management (fin-tech)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston. It is one of the leading research universities in the world and, through the Sloan School of Management, routinely contributes innovative ideas to the world of business and finance.
MIT offers a Bachelor of Finance program that puts a strong emphasis on the intersection of finance and technology. Students will take classes in computer science and theoretical and applied mathematics alongside their traditional finance and business management curriculum.
The Sloan School requires students to take finance classes in Managerial Finance, Corporate Finance, Accounting, Microeconomics, Probability, and Statistics.
This is a good school to choose if you enjoy working with computers and applied mathematics. At MIT, you will receive a unique finance education that will prepare you to be at the forefront of innovation.
Cornell University, Dyson School (upper-management)
Cornell University is located in Ithaca, New York, and is an Ivy League school. Cornell offers finance degrees through the Dyson School’s Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Economics and Management.
Finance students studying at the Dyson School will take courses that combine economic theory, management theory and leadership training, and financial analysis. This is a brilliant school for students who want to work in upper management (e.g. as Chief Financial Officer).
Cornell University offers unparalleled resources for graduates and boasts a wide alumni network. Students of finance typically graduate to lucrative and stable positions in financial analysis and administration. The relatively close proximity of the school to both New York City and Boston means that students can also take advantage of a wide range of postgraduate work opportunities.
Conclusion: Best Undergraduate Finance Schools
This list highlights just a few of the exceptional places to study finance in the United States. Now that you have a better idea of what to focus on, you will be able to conduct further research yourself. Be sure to carefully consider what you want from your finance career before applying to each school and verify that your chosen schools align with your goals.
Finance is a wonderful career that promises individual reward and the knowledge that your work makes a difference. Good luck!