There are plenty of components of the college application that deserve your focused attention. From essays to activities lists, even what major to choose, there are many choices to make. In fact, one of the most common questions we get about the college admissions process concerns major selection. From our experience helping 5,000 students through workshops and individually through the process, we conclude something unusual. In our view, your major selection is probably the most overhyped entry in college admissions.
Of course, there are exceptions where college major significantly affects admissions chances. In general, however, the choice requires one tenth of the effort most applicants devote to the drop-down menu selection.
Anecdotal stories and confused seniors on College Confidential can create confusion about how much major selection actually matters. Some students get in with a more esoteric or “easier” major, but that does not correlate to the quality of the college application, the luck with that particular reader, or the rest of their story.
The major should generally tie to the story you are telling in your application. Still, it does not need to correlate completely. For example, if want to study engineering but love to write? A main Common Application essay about your work in writing, and supplemental college essays talking about your interest in communicating complex scientific topics simply, works well.
The perspective approach works in these cases because we help students fundamentally find what they love to do first. Focusing on writing Shakespearean essays without truly believing or loving what you are doing… is moot. This is why putting your major declaration ahead of other components can make it the most overhyped component of college admissions. Instead, think deeply about what you and follow through with those activities.
So now you have activities that you care about and a story that revolves around a few different activities. Try to find commonalities between these activities and think about the types of majors that emphasize those skills. If you love to think critically about complex systems, maybe an engineering major is right for you. Alternatively, if you love to write, consider journalism.
Many of the Top 25 schools allow you to switch between schools and majors, even if it is not easy. These switches can occur as late as the end of sophomore year of college.
This flexibility in the American system results in students changing majors three times on average in their undergraduate career.
Colleges know this and that is why the major selection is not critical to their selection of students. Instead, they are looking for intellectual vitality, commitment and excellence in your activities, and ability to search and conquer pursuits independently as a thinker and student.
The bottom line here is to think about your story and where your primary strengths lie and choose a major that generally aligns academically and career-wise. You will probably change the major, but putting some thought into it at application time can help you figure out career options down the road, which is why it is there in the first place.
Seven and eight-year medical programs, Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, and the EECS program at UC Berkeley are some of the exceptions to this rule. These programs are notably more competitive because of the number of applicants they receive and the focus of these students. As you can see, they often have a focus on a trade (medicine and business above, respectively) or are accelerated in some fashion.
Generally, students encourage students to apply to these programs and other more general programs within their whole college portfolio.
In the end, major selection gets a lot of attention because it is another lever of choice. But actually most students change majors many times in college; so statistically, it is relatively overhyped in college admissions. Thinking about the major is important to figure out personal strengths and interests. Actually, that is the reason it is listed on the application at all. In some cases, it is meaningfully impactful to admissions. However, in 90 percent of cases, it is another question to prod students to the ultimate goal: introspection.
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