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Can Applying Under a Certain Major Affect Your Chances of Admission?
With admissions rates dropping each year, many students are eagerly searching for any way to boost their chances of admission. One way in which applicants to selective universities hope to give themselves an edge is by applying under supposedly less popular majors. The argument is that with less competition in the field, an applicant’s chances of acceptance increase. But does this common belief actually hold water? Read on to find out!
No Two Schools are the Same
There’s no one answer to whether or not applying under a less popular major will in any way affect your chances of admission. One of the most significant factors in answering this question is the school in question. Small liberal arts colleges, including liberal arts colleges contained within research universities (such as Harvard College of Harvard University), typically have a favorable student-faculty ratio and small average class sizes, across majors. Because there is no one major in which the number of students exceeds the capacity of the department, acceptance rates typically remain fairly similar regardless of the major.
At some schools (typically large, public universities), certain majors are impacted, meaning the number of students pursuing a degree in that major exceed the resources available to the major’s department. As a result, classes can fill over capacity, students struggle to meet their major requirements, and attaining a degree can often take longer than the expected four years.
To avoid placing even further strain on already under-resourced departments, schools may admit fewer students in an impacted major than they would to other programs. Competition for impacted majors is accordingly stiffer, as many students compete for few spots. Students hoping to circumvent the higher admissions standards may choose to declare a less common major on their application or apply undeclared. But do these strategies actually work?
Will applying under a less competitive major boost my chances?
If you’re a student hoping to study an impacted major at your dream school, applying under a completely unrelated major might seem like a smart way to get your foot in the door. However, this strategy can probably hurt you more than it can help.
When you apply to college under a major (as opposed to applying undeclared, or without a major), admissions committees evaluate your accomplishments and demonstrated interest in that field. For example, a student interested in studying economics may be involved in their high school’s finance club, have a summer internship at a local bank, and take a schedule heavy in social science classes like AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics, and AP Government.
Suppose said student is interested in studying economics, but knows the economics department at their dream school is extremely impacted and competition is stiff. The student, hoping to maximize their shot at admission, applies as a biology major instead, which is less impacted. However, their academic and extracurricular profile is loaded with economics-related classes and activities. Unless the student’s personal essay can plausibly account for the discrepancy between her activities and classes in high school and her declared major, her shot at admission will likely suffer.
In addition, many schools feature an essay prompt which asks students to elaborate upon their interest and experience in their declared major. It would be difficult to write a convincing essay on your passion for English Literature if you’ve been preparing for an engineering career throughout high school. While some students do have a change in heart when applying to college and decide to go in a completely different direction, most don’t — and admissions committees will be able to tell the difference.
However, it is important to acknowledge that adcoms understand the fickle nature of high school seniors; most college students change their mind about their major a couple of times in the period between completing their application and graduating, so your intended major is not necessarily a defining characteristic of your application. The difficulty with changing your major primarily arises when the major you intend to switch into is impacted.
What about applying undeclared?
If you’re applying undeclared because you’re simply unsure about what you want to study, no problem! Evidence has shown that applying undeclared does not have an adverse effect on a student’s chances at being admitted. However, if you know exactly what you want to study, applying undeclared is largely counterproductive.
The point of applying without a major is that you have freedom to explore and sample different paths and fields of study. The downside is that you are not given access to some major-specific classes, mentorship programs, and extracurricular or internship opportunities that declared students have. As mentioned previously, students in impacted majors often already struggle to complete their major requirements in 4 years. Applying undeclared, if you know exactly what you want to study, can delay you even further, as you’re denying yourself access to major-specific opportunities that can help you hit the ground running once you get to college.
I was accepted under a different major or as an undeclared applicant. Now what?
Even if you’re accepted to your dream school, you’re not guaranteed a spot in your major unless you applied under that major. Oftentimes, the process for switching majors or declaring a major in an impacted field can be tricky. Some schools have a separate screening process for students hoping to transfer into competitive majors, or lengthy bureaucratic steps one must take to switch majors. If your major is especially competitive or impacted, these setbacks probably won’t make attaining a degree in a timely manner any easier for you.
Different School vs. Different Major
Not all schools have all majors under the same administration. While many liberal arts colleges contain all their undergraduate majors under one hood (Harvard College, Williams College, and Barnard College, for example), many others separate disparate fields of study into distinct schools, or “colleges.” Cornell, for example, has 7 undergraduate colleges; UC Berkeley has 6. Universities often separate liberal arts students from engineering or other professional education students: both Princeton and Columbia have a liberal arts college and a school of engineering and applied science.
Transferring between colleges is nowhere near as simple or easy as changing majors within a college. Oftentimes, the application review processes for individual colleges are entirely separate, and the admissions committees from one college have no interaction with the applicants to another college. As a result, transferring between colleges sometimes requires an entirely new application process, along with a slew of other administrative steps required of students. The idea of going through the admissions process, albeit a truncated version while also balancing a full college course load, is appealing to few.
Ultimately, your major will probably not be a make-or-break factor on your application, unless you choose to apply under a major inconsistent with your interests in experience. While getting accepted to your dream school might seem worth any additional complications you’ll face trying to switch into your major, the added stress that changing majors can bring won’t be a welcome addition to your already stressful freshman year. Your best bet in the end is applying under the major you’re truly interested in, putting your best foot forward, and relying on your experience and qualifications — rather than tricks — to get accepted.
For more about applying to college, check out these CollegeVine posts:
- A User’s Guide to the Common Application
- What Do I Do if I Forgot Part of My Application?
- How to Decide Where to Apply Early
- What is the Ideal Timeline for the College Application Process?
- What is the College Application Review Process Like? What Goes On Behind Closed Doors
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