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In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions expert Caroline covers how to approach listing a major in your college applications. For more guidance on building a college list and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
Depending on the school, some college applications will ask you to list a major. Not all schools require this; some will ask you to apply to a specific undergraduate college—such as the arts and humanities, sciences, engineering, or business—within the university instead. Still, others will allow you to apply undecided.
If you know what you might want to study, selecting your major on your application will be relatively straightforward. For others, this can seem daunting. In this article, I’ll discuss how to choose what major to list as well as how your intended major might impact your application.
Your College Major Depends on the College
As you research your college list, you’ll naturally learn the strengths of each university. For instance, some schools might have particularly strong business programs, while others emphasize a holistic liberal arts education.
Often, a given university will have specialized schools of engineering, architecture, or other fields. This is particularly true for larger state universities as opposed to smaller liberal arts colleges or even Ivy League universities. These flagship programs often require their own separate application, and they can be quite competitive at certain schools.
Genuinely interested in a school’s flagship program, don’t let discouragement keep you from applying. However, you shouldn’t feel the need to apply to a specialized program, especially if you have not decided on your major.
You may be a more appealing applicant if you apply to a less popular major. For instance, at a school that attracts many applicants who intend to study government, a student who hopes to study Classics might garner attention from Admissions Officers. However, you should not lie about your interests on your application to stand out. Keep in mind that your intended major connects to your overall candidate profile, and an odd choice of major might raise concerns.
Of course, every school is different, and you should research the schools on your list as you consider your major. Some schools ask students to declare their majors before they arrive on campus, while others have students wait until sophomore year.
Before you apply, take a look at how you might fulfill your major at your top choice schools. Most schools publish their course catalogs, so peruse them to gain an understanding of how a finance major at Notre Dame compares to one at UC Berkeley or Villanova.
Totally undecided on a college major?
Truly undecided? Consider applying to a variety of schools with different specialties. For example, you might look at applying to both larger state universities and smaller liberal arts schools, as these two environments can be vastly different. You should also ensure that you have a balanced school list that fits your needs.
When it comes to choosing your major, some colleges have more stringent policies than others. For instance, some schools require engineering applicants to apply to a specialized (and highly selective) School of Engineering, while others might allow students to pursue engineering without a separate application.
If you have not decided on your major, don’t limit your options. For instance, if you’re considering a future in engineering but are not entirely sure, you may want to apply to schools that will allow you to pursue that path without a separate application.
Changing Your College Major
Though there are some exceptions, many colleges do not require you to declare your major until your sophomore year. When you select your “intended major,” it is just that—intended.
Different schools have different policies for changing majors. In some situations, it can be difficult to internally transfer, so research the internal transfer process at each school where you apply. If you are torn between two majors, apply to the one that is more challenging to transfer into than out of. The best way to learn about the internal transfer process is to talk with current students, look on the college’s website, and speak with the admissions office.
Second Majors and Minors
Declaring your major is undoubtedly an important decision, but whether you choose accounting, architecture, or history, it will not be the only subject that you study as an undergraduate.
If you hope to pursue multiple interests, you may want to complete a second major or minor. Most schools allow students to earn supplemental majors or minors outside of their primary major’s college. For instance, a student pursuing a degree in Engineering at the University of Texas may also be able to complete a minor in English even though these departments are housed in different colleges.
As you make your school list, look at whether the schools that interest you might allow you to complete a second major or minor. If you’re interested in pursuing a pre-professional degree but also want to study a humanities field, a double major or minor will give you the freedom to pursue your passions while still completing the prerequisite courses for your eventual career.
Don’t Game the System
You might be tempted to manipulate the admissions process by applying to a major with lower enrollments. While this might seem like a good idea, it can actually hurt your chances of admission.
When colleges look at your intended major, they do so within the context of your whole application. This means that an applicant with an exclusively STEM-based background who indicates a major in Russian literature might raise some questions among the admissions committee.
Additionally, the rest of your application will highlight your academic interests. As you choose a major to list, think about how you represent these interests in the rest of your application. For instance, you will likely struggle to write an essay about a major that does not interest you.
To make sure that your application is as strong as it can be, stay true to your interests. And if you genuinely don’t know what to study, the “Undecided” box is there for a reason!
Your applications mark only the beginning of your college journey. You have all of college to explore majors, minors, concentrations, careers, and all of the clubs and extracurriculars that your school has to offer. Though you may be set on a specific major as an applicant, you will learn about majors that you had never heard of by the time you arrive on campus.
At some institutions, upwards of 50% of students change their major at least once. In most cases, colleges won’t hold you to what you indicate on your application. In asking for your major, they simply hope to see that you have given some thought to your academic plan.
If you are truly undecided, pick the major that your interests align most closely with now. Often, indecision stems from wanting to study too many areas rather than none at all. Interdisciplinary majors and minors can also be a great option for students with varying interests.
Remember, there is more than one path to every destination—you don’t have to major in chemistry to become a doctor, you don’t have to major in business to pursue a finance job, and you don’t have to study political science to become a lawyer. Even if you think you know, keep an open mind; there will be careers out there that don’t even exist yet by the time you graduate college.
This informational essay on college majors was written by Caroline Marapese, University of Notre Dame ‘20. If you want to get help with your college applications from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.