Banking on a future business career? It might be best to study something else in college. Though finance, management, and accounting courses impart valuable job skills, top executives have to "think beyond the numbers," says Mary Banks, director of career connections at University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business. And while selecting undergraduate classes, aspiring top executives should follow suit.
According to Banks, nonbusiness courses—especially in fields like English, psychology, and foreign language—offer invaluable business know-how. Analyzing a book, for example, can help hone your critical thinking skills, while studying human behavior can (partially) explain consumer spending. Even a few semesters of foreign language could better equip students to join today's global workforce, says Michael Houston, associate dean of international programs at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "Students need to become citizens of the world," he explains. "They have to be able to talk about—and understand—more than just basic business."
BusinessWeek recently spoke with several business school authorities, all of whom recommended a variety of nonbusiness courses business majors should take. Following are their top five.
1. Writing and Literature: Communication skills are necessary in any field, and business is no exception. Whether you're drafting a marketing pitch or leading a presentation, you should be "clear, concise, and memorable," says George John, the chair of marketing at Minnesota's Carlson School. And several composition classes can produce that all-important editorial voice. Studying advanced literature—especially the more complex authors, such as James Joyce or William Faulkner—can also help you learn to "think and analyze critically," says Colorado's Banks.
2. Economics: Beyond illuminating basic financial theory, economics classes impart the historical context you'll need to make an informed business decision. Once you understand how inflation works and what drives consumer demand (among other concepts), you can understand—and, more importantly, analyze—past U.S. economic trends, including the Great Depression and 1970s-era stagflation. Then, says Banks, "you'll be able to tackle the tough questions, like 'How do we get out of this recession?'"
3. Foreign Language: As business goes global, there's a growing need for cross-cultural understanding. And even though you might not be working abroad, chances are your company will be. Studying a second language, especially Spanish or, in today's climate, Chinese, could give you a "critical edge" in the office, says Anne Pagel, director of undergraduate academic advising and student services at University of Arizona's Eller College of Management. And just knowing simple cultural skills, including the proper way to greet someone or give thanks, "can make you feel more at ease around a foreign client," she adds.
4. Psychology: If you're chasing a career that stresses marketing and sales—or any kind of prolonged social interaction—it helps to understand human behavior. Taking a psychology course can ensure you'll know how the brain works, what triggers an emotional response, and, to some degree, why consumers purchase certain items. You might even learn something about yourself in the process.
At UCLA, for example, there's a psych course called Thinking on Your Feet, which teaches students to recognize their own subconscious quirks (especially those that are off-putting). "No matter what you do, you're trying to do it through people," says Sara Tucker, director of the coaching and team skills program at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. "And psychology will help you interact with them."
5. Statistics: In the business world, basic math skills are essential—but not sufficient. "Everyone can add and subtract," Carlson's John says. "When you can look at numbers and see a narrative, that's a marketable skill." In a statistics course, you'll learn to manipulate jumbled figures into meaningful data. You'll be able to see old patterns and predict new ones. And if you wind up on Wall Street, you'll be better prepared to analyze those endless earnings reports and income statements—and, perhaps, make a million-dollar decision.