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What Are the Most Popular Majors for International Students in the U.S.?

Thursday | July 25, 2019 | by Xiao Lu

popular majors international students

What you study in school will have a huge influence over the next chapter of your life. Your academic background will guide your career goals and salary potential. After graduation, it might even become a factor of your eligibility to work or reside in the United States.

Before you choose your college major, you should ask yourself several important questions, including:

  • Does the area of study appeal to my interests?
  • Will this major lead to a solid career path?
  • With this degree, how difficult will it be to find a job in my home country?

Your personal preferences will ultimately guide your decision. But it does not hurt to take a look at what your peers are doing. By learning what other international students are choosing to study in the United States, you can start thinking about why certain fields are so popular and what benefits might be included that you have not considered yet.

For example, will an engineering degree provide a better salary for you, or perhaps help you get a job right after graduation?

In this post, we will examine the most popular majors among international students in the United States. You can see how the data changes based on what country you are from, and learn about a few recent trends. Ideally, this information will help you feel more confident when choosing a field of study at the college or university of your choice in the U.S.

Which Majors Do International Students Choose?

The chart below shows the top majors among international students:

According to the latest Open Doors data, the top three majors among all international students in the U.S. are:

  • Engineering
  • Business/management
  • Math/computer science

Fully 55 percent select one of these fields as their primary area of study.

Over the past four years, the computer and information sciences field has grown 31.7 percent—more than any other area of study. That is because those who major in computer science are at an advantage when seeking internship or job opportunities.

Computer-related occupations are the most in-demand foreign labor category, based on H-1B work visa petition statistics from USCIS.

After graduating, a typical computer science international student will get 12 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT) along with an optional 24-month STEM OPT extension. This combined 36-month postgraduate period can be a great opportunity for international students to obtain internship and work experience before heading back to their home countries.

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What You Need to Know About Optional Practical Training

Computer science was not the only STEM field to show growth in 2018: Engineering grew 7 percent and mathematics and statistics grew 21.2 percent. Booming technology industries have driven demand in the labor market. In response, the nation encourages talented scholars and future employees to consider coming to the United States to train, work, and potentially live.

China and India

Do international students from different countries of origin have different major preferences?

We compared the two leading source countries for international students, China and India, and examined the differences.

Unsurprisingly, STEM majors are most popular among Chinese students. Nearly half of the degrees earned by international students from China—at 44.6 percent—are STEM-related: engineering (19 percent), math and computer science (17.2 percent), and physical life science (8.4 percent).

However, there is a twist: Business and management proves to be more popular than any of those fields alone, coming in at 20.8 percent. China’s domestic demand for business management professionals has expanded in light of globalization. Popular business degrees among international students have also broadened from finance, accounting, and masters of business administration to include marketing, business analytics, and more.

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Top 5: STEM Majors for International Students

Indian students are also mostly driven to STEM. In fact, three out of four Indian international students in the U.S. major in STEM fields. Among these majors, 37.5 percent choose math/computer science, closely followed by the 35.4 percent that choose engineering.

Meanwhile, quite unlike the pattern we saw with Chinese students, Indian business majors declined from 15.3 percent in 2009 to 9.8 percent in 2017. That goes to show that where a person is from can have a big impact on what field they are more likely to study. It means that there are big-picture things for you to think about, rather than just choosing a STEM major because it is most popular with international students overall. If you were an Indian student, that might feel like the right fit; however, if you were a Chinese student, you might consider business instead.

What Should You Consider When Choosing a Major?

You should certainly study what you are passionate about and excel in!

But you may also want to think about the following practical criteria when deciding a major:

  • Future Career: Studying abroad in the U.S. requires lots of time and financial investment. Think about what value a major can bring to your future career development. What is the average salary in the industry? How do you envision your career path? Can you see yourself in this field? Reach out to alumni for more insights.
  • Immigration Benefits: If you want to pursue a career in the U.S. after graduation, a STEM major may be the best option for you. The 36 months of OPT that STEM graduates can use to gain work experience give students in this field an advantage.

Overall, engineering, business/management, and math/computer science are the three most popular majors among international students in the U.S.

However, international students from different countries of origin may demonstrate different preferences in majors.

While deciding which field of study to pursue, students should consider their personal interests, prospective career paths, and work permit privileges. Then they will be able to embark on an academic journey abroad that is most likely to lead to their success.

Keep Reading

How to Pursue STEM Studies in the U.S.

E-Guide: Funding Your Education in the U.S.

Xiao Lu

Xiao Lu is a Marketing Associate at World Education Services.