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Choosing a Major for Your College Application
Introduction to applying under a specific major
Most colleges will ask you to specify your intended major when you fill out your applications. Before you stress too much about what to put down, remember that in most cases, this does not mean you’re sealing your fate forever. Except in special circumstances, a majority of colleges don’t even require you to declare your major until sophomore year, and it is very easy to change your path until then. Even afterwards, the process for changing your major is usually pretty simple.
In some cases, especially at large universities, you must apply to a specific school within the college. Cornell is one example; rather than apply to Cornell University as a whole, you must apply directly to the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, School of Hotel Administration, College of Architecture, Art and Planning, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Human Ecology, or School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Each school has different procedures and acceptance rates. (If you’re interested in attending Cornell, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Applying to Cornell.) In those cases, generally you may only apply to one school or dual apply for a double degree from multiple schools within the college if they allow you to do so.
Applying to a certain college within a school may be a binding choice, or there may be rules about internally transferring to a different school once you have matriculated, so it is important to figure out where you best fit before you fill out your application. However, most of the time, the major you initially specify on your application is nonbinding. You may even be asked to specify a few different potential majors. Often, this is mostly for demographic purposes and to get a sense of the class the admissions committee is putting together.
Some high school seniors have a definite idea of the path they want to pursue, but many have a vaguer idea—or no clue at all. When you’re considering different majors, think about your interests and passions. Consider the courses in which you excel, and see how they might fit into potential majors.
If you are deciding among a few different majors, do some thorough research. Often, colleges have representatives from different departments at open houses, and you can discuss the programs with them. If you are unable to visit the school in-person, discuss your options with your interviewer. See if he or she can put you in touch with former or current students or faculty in the departments you are considering. Of course, if you already know students studying an area in which you’re interested, it is a good idea to consult them as well. Also be sure to research potential majors at the schools to which you are applying on the school’s website and any collateral they send you.
Remember that once you are matriculated at the college you choose, you will probably have the option of declaring multiple majors and minors, so if you’re still struggling to pick just one, you may not have to choose at all. For more information on dual majors and minors, check out Majors, Minors, and More: Which Degree Should You Pursue?.
Also try not to write off a college just because it doesn’t seem to have the particular program you want to study. For instance, if you want to major in Creative Writing, it might seem like there are only a few colleges that fit the bill. However, even though some colleges may not offer it as a specific major, many have it as a concentration within the English department or offer it as a minor.
Additionally, try to keep your perception of a school at bay. Just because a college is known as an X kind of school doesn’t mean that’s the whole reality. For example, MIT, a college generally famous for its technology and science programs, also has many excellent humanities programs. If you are looking to major in less-common major at a school, you may be a more desirable candidate, because colleges want student bodies with diverse interests.
However, it’s important to play to your strengths. In some cases, you may see that some majors or schools within universities have higher acceptance rates than others. It may be tempting to put down one of these “easier” majors in the hope of upping your chances of getting in. However, you shouldn’t just put down a major that may have fewer applicants than one you truly want to pursue just to maximize your chances of acceptance.
As we discuss in Can Applying Under a Certain Major Affect Your Chances of Admission?, applying under a major that doesn’t match up with the classes you’ve taken and activities you’ve pursued can actually negatively impact your odds, because the admissions committee will probably see through it. Furthermore, it is highly possible that the major receives fewer applicants because it is a specialized, difficult, or less-common field, and applicants are more self-selecting when it comes to applying. That means it can still be very competitive, but because it is not as widely known, the people who apply know that they are well-suited to it.
It is important to find out what the college’s policy about declaring majors is. As we have discussed, many schools do not require you to commit to a major when you apply, but some might.
One instance in which a college might expect you to commit upfront is if there is a particularly competitive program that only accepts a limited number of participants. In an instance where you apply to a specialized program, like Johns Hopkins’s Biomedical Engineering (BME) program, you may be admitted to the college, but not the program itself.
Choosing a major for your application
If you have absolutely no idea about what major you might like to pursue, many schools offer undecided as an option when applying. However, if majors are not binding on your application, it is a good idea to put down something. Along with thinking about your interests and passions, ask your teachers, guidance counselor, and other mentors for advice. Also keep in mind that you don’t have to apply under the same major at every school on your list. Many schools have different majors as well as overlaps.
Don’t stress too much about choosing a major, especially since majors under which you apply are non-binding for most schools. Majors that are binding are generally very specific and competitive, so if you’re interested in one of these programs, you will need to prepare extensively and know for certain you want to pursue this program by the time you apply. If you apply under a less competitive major, you may improve your odds of being admitted, but don’t do so for the sole purpose of upping your chances. If you choose a less competitive major, it should be something that actually interests you.
You don’t need to have it all figured out just yet. College is a time to explore and develop new talents and interests—and you may even discover some that you didn’t even know existed!
For more advice on deciding on majors to pursue, check out CollegeVine’s posts:
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