10 Most Challenging Degrees For Overachievers

Written by College Cliffs Team At, our team, comprising seasoned educators and counselors, is committed to supporting students on their journey through graduate studies. Our advisors, holding advanced degrees in diverse fields, provide tailored guidance, current program details, and pragmatic tips on navigating application procedures.

Reviewed by Linda Weems I got started researching colleges and universities about 10 years ago while exploring a second career. While my second career ended up being exactly what I’m doing now, and I didn’t end up going to college, I try to put myself in your shoes every step of the way as I build out College Cliffs as a user-friendly resource for prospective students.

Updated: February 9, 2024, Reading time: 22 minutes

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It can be challenging to make the transition from high school to college. Many elements change, and these changes can follow anxiety.

When students transition from high school to college, they must adjust to new living quarters, class schedules, and co-existing with a diverse group of individuals, not to mention classroom competition.

In college, you may have to compete academically for a spot within a team, area, or even your preferred major. Being able to register for your determined future may rest on your ability to perform on tests. College classes are so much more complex.

Plus, you have limited room for error. These demands are even more challenging for those who struggle with self-doubt and unpreparedness.

Generally speaking, this transition sounds complicated to most, but it is a challenge that most college students overcome. However, the pressures are relevant for people who pride themselves on their perfectionist tendencies – the overachievers.

Who Are The Overachievers?

If you are uncomfortable with incomplete tasks, cannot bear the thought of arriving unprepared for class, or panic over receiving average grades, you may be an overachiever.

While the average performing student values preparedness and wants to ace every exam, overachievers tend to become anxious over these parameters on a different level. College can be very difficult, but for overachievers, the most agonizing part is not accomplishing their objectives; thus, they tend to work harder than most!

Typical behavior of an overachiever:

The Case of the Overachieving College Student

While there are numerous advantages to working hard and exceeding expectations, this can easily have devastating effects if you do not know how to handle the pressure! Overachieving students can end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed, especially since they often ignore the signs!

Filling your mind and body with physical activity such as writing, reading, or even preparing speeches includes all the knowledge you are forcing your mind to keep. All of this can eventually lead to an overload or academic burnout!

How hard can it be to complete a degree? Many gauge the difficulty level of college programs based on one crucial factor: the length of the program and how much work the student must put in to complete the courses.

The longer it takes to accomplish a task, study for exams, and meet the other program requirements, the more difficult that major must be. The irony of it all is that overachievers are easily drawn to them! They find pleasure in difficult academic moments.

Degree Programs That Challenge Overachievers

We have rounded up some of the most challenging degree programs and courses offered by colleges all over the United States that we believe overachievers are cut out for!

Where data is available, we mention the average time spent by students preparing for classes and the average IQ of students attending these programs.

RELATED: The 20 Best Tips For Optimizing Your Energy As A College Student

Chemistry Classes
College Cliffs is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

10 Most Challenging Degrees For Overachievers

California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 19.01
Mean IQ: 139

According to the average GPA of students in the program, chemistry is one of the most demanding majors, even for an overachiever. Furthermore, it is widely regarded as the most challenging major at Caltech, as it demands the most number of course completion units/hours.

Caltech, as everyone knows, is one of the most competitive private institutions or universities in the United States, with an acceptance rate of 8.10%, an average SAT score of 1555, an average ACT score of 35, and a rough average unweighted GPA of 3.5 out 4.0. 

You will find thousands of diverse, overachieving students in this university!

Most commonly, Chemistry is divided into two branches. You’ll most likely start with Inorganic Chemistry and proceed the following semester with Organic Chemistry, which deals with carbon-based compounds.

This degree covers many gray areas and necessitates critical thinking, but each topic builds on the previous one. As a result, if you don’t understand one issue yet, you can find the next chapter almost tough to comprehend.

If you ask any chemistry student what the most challenging chemistry issue was for them, they will give you a wide range of responses.

As previously stated, the average number of hours spent preparing for class is quite significant. This class should take up a considerable portion of your homework and study time each week.

Most overachieving students are attracted to this degree because of how much time they will spend in the lab doing hands-on learning. It includes concluding discoveries or inventions, which will make overachieving students proud!

However, this degree will demonstrate a right and a wrong, with no room for middle ground or differing viewpoints, which can be frustrating.

While some love the pressure, some give in. And once students are outside the lab doing fieldwork, they may need more advanced education. 

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Harvard University

Harvard University


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 18.49
Mean IQ: 128

Majors in biophysics are included in the most challenging degrees for overachievers, requiring an average of 18.5 hours a week to prepare for class.

Moreover, The Harvard Biophysics Program welcomes candidates with solid undergraduate backgrounds in quantitative sciences (particularly physics and mathematics) and a desire to learn more about biological and biomedical research.

Students who study biochemistry, often known as biological chemistry, check the chemical processes and chemicals in living things. Biophysics is similar in that it employs fundamental physics principles to investigate organisms and natural events. In essence, the two fields are very similar and differ in their approaches.

You will most likely need to take biology, chemistry, physics, and math subjects, as well as specific classes in genetics, cell biology, physiology, neurobiology, evolutionary biology, and computing as a biochemistry/biophysics major.

Overachievers pursuing this degree are fascinated with quantitative and mechanistic issues. Math and physics courses are frequently required in this program, too. 

It will also necessitate an understanding that the questions can and will lack definitive answers. As a result, most proposed hypotheses may be poorly stated and require additional research, just as others do.

The reason why an overachiever decides to enroll in this program is its variety of specialties available. Once registered, students will work with and learn more about nature while employing advanced tools. 

This degree, however, is challenging for everyone. Every day, you must stay up with new advancements and discoveries beyond the classroom. There is also plenty of learning and remembering – all are essentials for the next step the students are planning to do. 

Plus, this degree increases the risk of professional harm, especially for those working with illnesses and microorganisms.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 18.00
Mean IQ: 137

Mathematics has a reputation for being an elitist and challenging subject. The Mathematics Department at MIT is one of the best globally, covering various topics from pure mathematics to computer science. While it is difficult, it is far more rewarding when you get things perfect and on track, especially in the second.

This degree has contributed to the initial deterrent effect. Some mathematicians affirm without reservation that mastering mathematics takes time and effort. The rewards are not immediate; they will continue to elude you unless you put in the time and effort to master its laws and language.

First, you must realize that degree-level mathematics is simple mathematics, not some computational approach in which you punch calculators and obtain ‘answers’ after applying a formula. At this level, you’re concentrating on the subject’s foundational theories, proofs, and theorems.

Second, it takes much perseverance, particularly in the second year, when you’re likely to be exposed to these new materials for the first time. You’ll discover, possibly for the first time, how tough it is to excel at a subject with which you have little affinity.

Third, you may start doubting your commitment, enthusiasm, and consistency. You’ll need solid internal beliefs about why you can’t do less, study less, and party more. Because of how hard it might be, you may need to devote more time than your ordinary college friend.

Overachieving students with this degree are somewhat flexible since this degree works well as part of a dual degree or minor. People may presume you’re a genius if you have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

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University of Chicago

The University of Chicago


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 18.01
Mean IQ: 136

The most challenging aspect of learning economics is that students must apply what is known in physics as a “first principles approach” to figure out what is going on. Economics usually has a tiny amount of factual knowledge to reason your way up from there.

Furthermore, the difficulty of Econ at UChicago is likely to be higher than at other top schools. The school is math-intensive compared to its competing institutions.

While overachievers have high IQs, there is no denying how frustrating the graphs in this degree are – terrible graphs! Most people have trouble interpreting graphs, understanding a “curve,” and differentiating one concept from another. 

Why does supply slope up and to the right, and demand slope down and to the right? Why?

While there are many different types of curves, the point is that visualizing how to graph a mix of prices and quantities is often challenging. Other angles, slopes, the elasticity of lines at an end, and perhaps a smidgeon of mathematics later, it’s time to fetch the migraine relief medications.

Plenty of students dislike doing arithmetic in economic situations since not everyone is one of those folks who can glance at a set of equations and instantly know everything there is to know about a problem.

People who have trouble with math must first visualize what is happening before attempting to solve the problem. In general, people understand topics better in graph form than in numerical form.

The great thing about an Econ degree is that you’ll have the option of working in various sectors. This degree can help you build critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will be useful in your professional and personal life.

This degree, however, cannot guarantee success if you are not a math wiz – or at least someone who enjoys maths. Regardless of how you were in high school with math, you’ll most likely end up regretting your decision to math majors. It’s possible that studying graphs, charts, and spreadsheets every day will get tedious.

Philosophy courses

New York University

New York University


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 17.1
Mean IQ: 136

According to the Philosophical Gourmet Report, the New York University Department of Philosophy is ranked first in the US and first in the English-speaking globe. It is also ranked first globally by the QS World University Rankings for 2021 and is well-known internationally.

Philosophy is a challenging subject for a variety of reasons. 

One, philosophy’s content is immaterial. We’re dealing with things that are entirely abstract and non-sensorial in terms of our first-person experiences.

Two, rather than the substance of experience, philosophy frequently involves general statements about knowledge itself. That’s a way of thinking that most people aren’t familiar with, and it’s also a way of thinking that’s tough to grasp and comprehend.

Third, philosophy frequently needs us to remain consistent across situations; it necessitates applying many concepts and beliefs. Ethical standards and epistemic frameworks are uniformly applicable. In epistemology, for example, there is a viewpoint called coherentism.

And that viewpoint says that things are only justified if they are consistent with previously held views. Someone who believes that the meaning of words is within the mind, for example, would reject any platonic account of importance.

Why? Because a spiritual version would imply that the definition is located outside of the head and in a non-material domain – the beliefs are incompatible.

For these reasons, overachievers can have a hard time studying philosophy. Of course, with experience and practice, one can improve at these things, but philosophy can be complicated for someone unfamiliar with such ways of thinking.

If you are the type of overachiever who is fascinated with writing and has strong analytical skills, this is for you. These skills will be helpful in life – professional and personal. This degree will allow you to appreciate serious pondering more while also learning new skills in another subject.

However, if you graduate without another area of knowledge, it’s often more challenging to get work outside of teaching. And, in favor of scientific truths, society frequently dismisses philosophy.

Physics classes

Stanford University

Stanford University


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 19.7
Mean IQ: 136.5

Coursework at the college level is complicated at Stanford University. The Department of Physics was one of the first departments to be established and is now known to have the best physics department. 

Most people consider physics to be one of the most challenging courses available.

One of the reasons physics is so tricky is that it requires so much math. Your middle school math teacher most likely told you that algebra builds on itself. One step at a time, you learn. Then, you combine all of the procedures to acquire the answer to a more complex equation.

College physics, like any other academic discipline, necessitates a typical classroom curriculum. Experiments will also be part of your lab work.

Physics needs you to put your knowledge into practice. You must move beyond the theoretical and begin putting your education into practice. A hands-on approach appeals to some overachieving students.

They like applying what they’ve learned in class to conduct real-world experiments and model what might happen in a more realistic setting. On the other hand, others will be scared by physics lab work and hide behind their books.

Even if you are an overachiever, you must be prepared to thrive in both environments to excel in a college physics course. You’ll need to sit through lectures and understand what lecturers have to say. You should be comfortable working independently to complete the required reading and homework exercises.

Finally, memorization isn’t adequate when it comes to lab work. You’ll need to apply what you’ve learned and conduct experiments successfully. It implies you’ll be doing a lot more than just reading and writing.

You’ll need to hypothesize, plan, carry out your strategy, and finally gather data to validate or reject your idea. Then, you’ll need to evaluate all of the information and come to a decision.

Those looking for easy A’s should stay away from the physics department. Those who choose physics appear to find it intriguing and gratifying despite the difficulties. The combination of lecture and laboratory work keeps things fresh and exciting.

Furthermore, physics frequently transcends the realm of reality. You usually identify physics with notions like time, space, speed, gravity, and astronomy, which we often don’t fully comprehend.

These ideas aren’t easy to grasp. While there are some real-world applications, these notions are frequently beyond our comprehension. That is, in many cases, the point of physics.

Physics is the most fundamental building component of science in several aspects. Although this may be a straightforward concept, many individuals find the microscopic view considerably more challenging to grasp.

Just keep in mind that physics isn’t always what it appears to be. However, there are occasions when you must work in a world that does not exist. We’re discussing concepts such as quantum physics and astrophysics.

This entails researching the unknown or things so little that we must use our imagination to conjure up the tiniest object possible and aggressively divide it in half a million times. Physics isn’t like biology, where the composite cells are visible at work.

It’s not like chemistry, where you can combine the contents of several beakers to reach the desired outcome. Physics will force you to think macro—more extensively than you can imagine. It will then push you to do the exact opposite. Prepare to be both innovative and a math whiz.

Since overachievers take pride in doing their best in physics, they might have a chance to be a part of life-changing breakthroughs like treating cancer or discovering sustainable energy solutions. People could think you’re a genius!

The only disadvantage, most would say, is the difficulty in getting a job after graduating if you are not top of the class. When seeking employment outside the lab or teaching sectors, you may require a more advanced education, which implies more hours of studying.

Architecture Classes

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 19.85
Mean IQ: 136

Architecture is more complex than many other degrees since it requires creative and technical thinking and knowledge of various fields such as art, physics, history, geography, and philosophy. Architecture is also a very time-consuming course.

The difficulty of a degree, on the other hand, is a subjective matter.

Architecture is a broad topic that incorporates a variety of different disciplines. Art, arithmetic, science, geography, history, philosophy, and many other subjects are examples.

At first, some students may find this intimidating and overwhelming. Still, this is one of the reasons why architecture is such a fascinating subject to study by overachievers.

The majority of basic disciplines of architecture will be during your first years of university. Then, as you progress through the system, you’ll have more opportunities to concentrate on the aspects that most interest you. It is especially true during the master’s program when you choose one of your favorite architecture topics and study it in depth.

The amount of time architecture students spend working is one of the key reasons many believe that this degree is one of the most challenging degrees.

Unlike students in other fields, architecture students do not spend all of their time reading books or sitting in front of a desktop or laptop writing essays. Some of the course’s most time-consuming elements are also the most fun.

Model making is an excellent illustration of this, as a promising architecture model might take many days to complete. You can still relax with your favorite music and talk to anyone at this time — it can be relaxing.

If you plan on getting famous, being an architect is probably one of the easiest ways to achieve your goals (provided that you make good connections). To this degree, you can make a difference faster! Moreover, trends are constantly changing, so you won’t get bored designing different models.

However, after four years in an undergraduate degree and a couple more years in an internship, you’ll be ready to start working as an architect full-time in about eight years. Also, the weight of responsibility can be stressful. Architects are under much pressure to design attractive structures that perform what they’re supposed to do.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 19.0
Mean IQ: 120

If you’re a STEM wiz, an engineering program might be right up your alley! You might not think of this as one of the most challenging majors.

Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management, and Geotechnical are six branches to choose from, and within these areas are hundreds of degrees to pick from. However, regardless of which program you take, you will almost certainly have to put in much effort.

If you are an overachiever, or if your soon-to-be college student is, they will surely fancy this degree. Many intelligent students fail to pass; they may take Chemistry, Calculus, Statistics, Physics, and other disciplines.

Overachievers could get into literally hundreds of areas, with sometimes excellent compensation and regular working hours right out of school. A degree in engineering allows graduates to work in a range of industries. Many go on to become doctors, lawyers, technical writers, teachers, and businesspeople.

However, this degree will have high demands. And because the majority of your classes will be related to your eventual vocation, you will likely neglect to pursue other interests such as art or writing.

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University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 13.3
Mean IQ: 120

As you can see, UPenn is a very prominent university that ranks in the second tier of the country’s most prestigious schools. Only Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and MIT are ahead of it. This implies that if you choose to attend UPenn, you will be among the most sought-after students in the country.

For this degree, you’ll need both your left and right brains! If you are an overachiever, great! But some students with high IQs may find this degree difficult and tedious. 

Finance majors must have strong math, data analysis, strategy formulation, and communication abilities. People with expertise in all of the finance areas are in short supply!

Finance is complex, just like accounting or economics, because it is a technical, practical major. It’s difficult because the questions aren’t as open-ended as in sociology, literature, or art; there are excellent and wrong answers.

But, honestly, how difficult is it? Is it challenging to learn astrophysics, multivariable mathematics, or molecular biology? Probably not; financing is complex. But it is still difficult for people because there is a continuum of difficult things, and finance is on the more rigid end of the scale for most people because it requires some effort to grasp and learn.

Furthermore, finance, banking, and business are ever-changing fields, so you’ll need to keep up with your reading and study after you start working.

Medical school courses

Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School


Weekly Average Hours Spent Preparing for Class: 25.5
Mean IQ: 145

Even for high-achieving individuals, medical school is demanding and challenging, but what makes it so difficult?

One recurring topic is that achieving balance as a medical student is exceptionally challenging. It’s easy to compare medical school to a never-ending race.

Every hour you don’t study could significantly impact your ability to keep up with the content. It’s difficult to say goodbye to unstructured free time, and even simple good habits like exercise and a healthy diet for brain health can be challenging to maintain.

In medical school, one must study a vast amount of information. Many classes will provide you with 1,000 pages (or more) of material to memorize.

Trying to take in that much knowledge has been compared to drinking from a fire hose. It will blow you away if you aren’t careful. The easy difficulty of recalling and retaining information is one of the most challenging aspects of medical school for many students.

One of the most challenging sides of medical school is passing the board exams to become a qualified medical doctor. The most strenuous of all is the USMLE Step 1. Fortunately, your understanding of basic medical science will be as good as it will ever be at this point. If you study diligently, you’ll be able to pass the test and move on. 

The Step 2 test (usually taken in the third or fourth year) and the Step 3 final exam (generally taken in the fourth year or after graduation) will also be problematic.

Last but not least, it’s time to begin clinical work. The third year of medical school is a significant shift for most students, as you’ll likely be transferring to becoming a working student and engaging with patients for the first time. It presents a whole new set of communication issues, professionalism, and interpersonal connections in the workplace. 

The third year will very certainly be a sobering experience. You will have to listen and learn from older and more experienced people than your teachers, which will take a very long time.

Overachievers are drawn to this degree because of its international recognition. Graduates can work in a variety of nations throughout the world without difficulty. It essentially transforms a person into a global citizen.

The process of obtaining a medical license, on the other hand, is lengthy. If you wish to practice medicine, you will typically undergo a long process to get one. This part is the only unfortunate aspect of the industry.

RELATED: The World’s Youngest Doctors And The Med Schools They Attended


Is being an “overachiever” a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends on the context. Generally, being an overachiever can be a good thing since it shows a drive to excel and an ability to push oneself to reach higher levels of achievement. However, if individual is overworking themselves to the point of neglecting their health, mental well-being, and relationships, it can become a bad thing.

What are some valuable tips for overachievers?

Key Takeaway

Each of the ten most challenging degree programs for overachievers promises to offer a fascinating and rewarding college experience for students.

For those who were not born with the gene, overachieving can be a boring and tiresome way of life. But the truth is, overachieving can bring out the best in people!

If you have the IQ and the burning desire to pursue any of them, keep your mental health in check and get all the support, resources, and tools you need to succeed!