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The Complete Guide to the Computer Science Major: What You Should Know

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Choosing a college major is a big decision—and it’s one that often requires a lot of time and thought.

But if you’re interested in technology and mathematics, you might want to consider majoring in computer science. This path can lead you to diverse job opportunities, a high starting salary, and excellent job security.

In this guide, we’ll answer all your questions about the computer science major, including coursework, difficulty level, career prospects, and much more. Let’s get started!

What is computer science?

Basically, computer science is the study of computers and related technology. It incorporates hardware, software, and computer theory, as well as more advanced topics like architecture, networks, databases, artificial intelligence, graphics, and even computer game design.

Computer science majors study how computers and humans interact, and they solve problems using technology.

What skills does a computer science major need?

It’s probably no surprise that a computer science major should have some computer savvy. You’ll dive into programming, networking, and the technical underpinnings of hardware and software.

You’ll also learn a ton of tech-related acronyms: MS, IT, OS, TCP/IP, HTML, and these acronyms are always changing! If you enjoy computers and can keep up with rapid advancements in technology, then you’re probably a good fit for the computer science major.

Mathematical skill is also important, as earning a computer science major typically involves substantial math requirements. You’ll likely learn about probability, statistics, computation theory, and so on—so computer science isn’t the best major for someone who struggles with mathematics.

In addition to computer savvy and mathematical skills, a good computer science major needs:

  • Creative thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Communication and teamwork skills
  • Independence and self-motivation
  • Ability to handle frustration

Being a computer science major means finding creative, technological solutions to problems, so you’ll need both logic and creativity. You’ll often research and complete projects with others, so communication and teamwork are also essential.

If you’re applying to a computer science program, it’s a good idea to take AP courses in math and science. The admissions team may focus on your SAT math score, so you’ll want to raise that number if it’s low.

And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you might want to begin learning the basics of coding (if you haven’t already). There are plenty of books, videos, and even courses available online.

How difficult is the computer science major?

The computer science major is considered challenging for several reasons:

  • The workload is typically above average.
  • It can take time to grasp foundational programming knowledge and programming languages.
  • Advanced mathematics is required, and students must take several math courses.
  • Students say that computer science is unlike any work done in high school, so there’s a bit of a learning curve. You must learn to “think like a computer.”
  • Programs don’t always work on the first try—or the second, or the third—so patience is key.
  • Students compare programming to solving complex puzzles.

To sum it up, computer science combines advanced mathematics and programming (which has its own language). You’ll apply your programming and mathematics skills to solve complex problems, often compared to “logic puzzles” or “geometry proofs” by computer science students.

The computer science major requires hard work and patience, and it can take some getting used to. But if you enjoy exploring computers, technology, and mathematics, you may find that you’re passionate about computer science—and that you’re definitely up to the challenge!

What classes should I expect to take?

The following list is intended to give you a general idea of the courses you can expect to take as a computer science major. Of course, the exact classes you’ll take depend on the requirements of the college or university you attend.

You might be expected to complete courses like:

  • Calculus
  • Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science
  • Programming and Problem Solving
  • Software Development in UNIX and C/C++
  • Linear Algebra
  • Data Structures, Algorithms, and Programming
  • Theory of Computation
  • Programming Languages
  • Probability and Statistical Modeling for Computer Science
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer Theory
  • Software Engineering
  • Computer Systems
  • Computer Architecture
  • Database Management Systems
  • Internet Protocols
  • Computer Security
  • Digital Media
  • Computer Graphics
  • Bioinformatics

To view coursework for a specific school, head to that school’s website and visit the course catalog and/or the computer science department’s webpage.

What’s the difference between a B.A. and a B.S.?

When it comes to computer science, you can earn a BACS (Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science) or a BSCS (a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science).

The exact difference between the two degrees will depend on the college or university you choose to attend. Generally, however, the B.A. is offered through the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, while the B.S. is offered through the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The B.S. usually has more requirements than the B.A. These additional requirements will likely include more math courses, more computer science courses, and perhaps a fourth-year thesis (depending on the school). Students working toward the BSCS may have a concentration or focus that students earning a BACS do not.

On the other hand, the B.A. generally provides a more interdisciplinary education, combining computer science with other related skills. B.A. students often must meet a humanities requirement that is not required of B.S. students.

To put it simply:

A B.A. in Computer Science is considered the humanities track, while a B.S. in Computer Science is considered the science track. If you go for the BSCS, you’ll take more courses in mathematics and science. If you go for the BACS, you’ll take more humanities courses.

Some experts argue that employers prefer to hire students with a BSCS because these students have a stronger background in mathematics and have taken more computer science courses.

In general, it’s best to earn your BSCS if your focus is on engineering and science. If you plan to apply computer science principles in fields other than science and engineering, or if you’re double majoring, you may wish to pursue the BACS.

What careers are a good fit for computer science majors?

Earning a degree in computer science will give you a wide range of career prospects, including:

  • Computer programmer
  • Computer systems engineer
  • IT manager or technician
  • Web designer
  • Graphic artist
  • Financial analyst
  • Actuary
  • Hardware engineer
  • Software engineer
  • Research scientist
  • Technical writer
  • System analyst
  • Network administrator
  • Quality control manager
  • Animator
  • Comptroller
  • Statistician
  • Software/hardware developer
  • Information security analyst
  • Computer network architect

Computer scientists can find careers in data science, artificial intelligence, software engineering, security, high-performance systems, web design, game design, and more. And with the constantly evolving nature of technology, it’s likely that these jobs (and others!) will be around for a long time.

What are some benefits of earning a computer science degree?

Benefits of earning a computer science degree include:

  • Exciting, diverse, and high-demand job opportunities. Just take a look at the jobs mentioned above—and keep in mind that it’s not an exhaustive list! Computer scientists can be found in engineering, healthcare, finance, education, and much more.
  • Job security. It’s clear that we’re in the Digital Age, and just about every company has tech-related needs. That means it’s a great time to be a computer scientist! In fact, according to the National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly 70% of computer science majors have at least one job offer before graduating from college, and computer science majors have the highest application-offer rate.
  • High salaries. According to NACE, engineering and computer science majors came out on top for the class of 2018. Computer science graduates are expected to earn an average salary of $66,005. And that’s just the starting salary!

In today’s tech-driven society, computer scientists are needed in just about every industry for a wide range of tasks. Computer-science professions are also among the fastest growing, so computer science majors will likely have excellent prospects and job security for many years to come.

In fact, the field is expected to grow by 19 percent in the next decade.

Additionally, computer science majors earn some of the highest starting salaries (along with engineers). In just four or five years, some computer science graduates work their way up to salaries of $100,000 or even $120,000 annually.

So computer science may be a difficult degree, but it certainly pays off in the long run!

Which colleges or universities have strong computer science programs?

Let’s take a brief look at ten of the best computer science programs in the country.

  • University of California-Berkeley. Berkeley students average $80,000 after graduation, and their computer science program is known for producing innovators such as Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT boasts a world-renowned faculty and is known for its academic rigor. Computer science graduates from MIT are highly sought after, and they earn an average starting salary of $95,000!
  • California Institute of Technology. The computer science major at CIT gives students a strong foundation in engineering and mathematics while also allowing the flexibility to explore robotics, graphics, networking, and more. Graduates are employed at Facebook, Google, Pixar Animation Studios, etc.
  • Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to offering one of the nation’s top undergrad computer science programs, Georgia Tech has an Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Computing (UROC) program that connects students with potential employers and internships. The spring research symposium also gives students the chance to display their research for cash prizes.
  • Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon is devoted to diversity in computer science, with 33% of computer science degree recipients being women (double the national average). Plus, the starting salary for graduates is $89,000!
  • Harvard University. If you have a passion for both computer science and other subjects, Harvard might be the school for you. Its program of study allows computer science majors to combine their studies with interests including psychology, linguistics, and economics.
  • Stanford University. One of the top undergraduate programs in the world, Stanford’s computer science program provides unique research, internship, and job opportunities. Students can also pursue a B.S. or M.S. degree in computer science concurrently.
  • University of Michigan. Michigan is a computer science powerhouse, offering degrees through both the College of Engineering and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Students are given plentiful resources, including being sent to exciting conferences and other networking opportunities.
  • Yale University. At the core of Yale’s computer science degree are data structures, mathematics, systems programming, computer architecture, and algorithm analysis and design. Software companies and Wall Street tend to heavily recruit computer science graduates from Yale.
  • University of Virginia. At UVA, computer science students have the chance to learn from top-rated professors and participate in their research. The faculty has generated over $11 million in sponsored research.

In general, Ivy League universities and schools with “tech” in the name tend to rate highest for computer science programs. Of course, these programs are notoriously competitive, so you’ll need to have good grades and strong SAT scores.

But these aren’t the only schools with good computer science programs—feel free to explore as many other schools and universities as you’d like!

Conclusion: Computer Science Major 101

Computer science combines elements of mathematics, science, programming, and creative problem-solving, making it a challenging major.

But your hard work will certainly pay off: Computer science majors also have among the best hire rates and starting salaries! Job prospects are plentiful, and the industry is projected to grow rapidly over the next several years.

If you’re passionate about mathematics and technology, and if you have the ability to think both creatively and logically, majoring in computer science may be just right for you!