A degree in biology (sometimes called the life sciences) can open the door to a wide range of career options. Some potential career paths are well-known—medicine, clinical psychology, and research, for instance. But many biology-related career paths are less obvious. Biology majors may find themselves in business, law, public health, education, and even the arts.
Majoring in biology gives you critical skills you’ll need to succeed in any career, according to Ryan Draft, instructor of Neurobiology at Harvard Summer School and academic advisor in neuroscience at Harvard College.
“Your STEM degree is going to prepare you for whatever you want to get into after graduation,” says Draft. “You’ll have communication skills. You’ll have quantitative skills. You’ll develop the ability to work both independently and in a group. And you’ll have the ability to think critically.”
Many students discover their interest in biology during a high school biology class. But even students who take AP biology may find that it’s a big leap into the world of college biology.
Here are a few things you should know about college biology classes and some tips for succeeding as a biology major.
What’s the Difference Between High School Biology and a Biology Major?
There are two main differences between a standard high school biology course and college-level biology courses: what you learn and what you’re expected to know.
What You’ll Learn
High school biology classes offer a broad overview of biology as a general field of study.
AP Biology, for example, provides an introduction to many topics, from organic chemistry and cellular biology to evolution and ecology.
College biology classes, on the other hand, typically focus on just one topic within the broader field of biology. And the coverage of that topic in that class is far more detailed.
Even introductory biology courses are more focused than AP biology. Courses such as Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology or Introduction to Organismic and Evolutionary Biology are common first-year prerequisites.
These prerequisites provide foundational knowledge that you’ll build on as you move into more specialized classes. Biochemistry, ecology, marine biology, microbiology, and neuroscience are just a few of the many specializations you may choose as advanced courses.
What You’re Expected to Know
The other difference between high school and college biology—and one of the biggest challenges for new biology majors—is what you do with the material you learn.
Exams in high school biology test whether you have memorized key facts.
In your college biology classes, you’ll be expected to apply those facts to a variety of different situations and scenarios.
“As an instructor, I expect that my students have memorized the important information. On my tests, I present scenarios which students are required to analyze. They may need to predict an outcome in a certain experiment, for example, or judge whether a certain hypothetical scenario is reasonable given what they’ve learned,” says Draft.
The transition can be challenging for new college students. But Draft says that meeting those new expectations just takes practice.
“Take the practice tests as if they were real exams. Then, bring the questions you struggled with to TA [teaching assistant] or instructor office hours or help sessions to figure out what stumped you,” Draft suggests.
Is Biology a Difficult Major?
One of the most common questions high school students ask is, “Is biology a hard major.”
College biology courses go into each topic in far more depth and cover the material far more quickly than a high school class. As noted, the way in which the material is tested can be challenging. And junior- and senior-level courses build upon the knowledge you gained—and hopefully remember—from introductory classes.
So college biology classes may be more difficult than your average high school class.
But, according to Draft, biology is a highly accessible subject, especially if you’re really interested in it. You don’t need to come into an introductory biology class with a specific knowledge base or level of talent.
“The difficulty in biology lies in its complexity,” says Draft.
“You have to develop an intuition for the principles that underlie this seemingly endless, chaotic diversity of protein cells in life. There’s a lot of knowledge to learn, a lot of jargon, and a lot of specialized techniques. But becoming fluent, developing that intuition, just requires hard work and time,” Draft says.
Tips to Succeed as a Biology Major
“To get the same grades in college that you did in high school, you have to work differently and you have to work harder,” says Draft.
However, a few simple changes in your study habits can make the difference between getting an A and falling behind.
Do the pre-reading before each class
Pre-readings offer critical introduction to the material that you will learn in class.
Doing these readings when they are assigned—before the appropriate class—will help you follow the class material as it is being presented by the instructor.
Skipping the pre-reading, or waiting until after the class, puts you at a real disadvantage.
“If you show up unprepared, you’re not going to be able to take in the information because it’s coming at you so fast. Completing the pre-reading before class gives you a scaffold to build on during the class,” Draft says.
Improve your time management skills
Time management is a critical skill during college, regardless of what major you choose.
Your schedule in college will look very different than it did in high school and you are more independent. It’s up to you to figure out how to use your time efficiently.
“Every course you’re in is going to require work that can’t be done the night before it’s due. So you really have to plan out your course. Look for the deadlines of all the different assignments and work on them ahead of time,” Draft suggests.
Take—and Use—Hand-Written Notes
With the advent of technology, most students today take notes on their laptops. This isn’t always ideal, according to Draft.
“Take notes with a pen or pencil and paper. It may be ‘old school’ but it’s a great way to keep yourself focused on the lecture. Computers offer too many distractions,” says Draft.
And once class is done, organize your notes right away.
“You have to dedicate some time to organize and review your notes. Create an outline, and look for things that don’t make sense to you. Doing this regularly will help you become a more savvy student and better at understanding what you don’t understand,” Draft says.
Utilize available resources to get help
In high school, you may have been able to ace every class on your own.
In college biology classes, getting help to succeed is the norm.
Your instructor and teaching assistants want to help you succeed. Take advantage of their office hours, discussion groups, and help sessions, even if you think you’ve mastered the material.
Peer tutors, academic resource centers, and other university resources can provide additional assistance if you still need help. The more you avail yourself of these resources, the easier the course will be.
And don’t wait until you’re behind by a class or two to get help. Be proactive about identifying areas where you need assistance and seek out that assistance immediately. The longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes to catch up.
There’s no doubt about it—your first college biology course is going to be a challenge. But succeeding in that first course will open the door to a fascinating major and a plethora of amazing career opportunities. Putting in the effort to make that first class a success will pay off in the long run!