What does declaring your major on your college applications really mean and, more importantly, should you do it? Well, if you’re looking for a quick and easy answer, you’re not going to find it—here or anywhere. Whether you declare your college major on your applications or go into the process undecided, there are pros and cons to both choices. It’s tough, but that’s actually a good thing, because the more thought you give this, the better off you’ll be.
Sometimes, declaring a major on your application is basically saying to admission folks, “Hey, I’m really interested in this topic." And if you change your mind down the road, NBD. Other times, declaring your major is you saying, “I want a spot in this program at your school. Not that program. This one." And your application will be compared to the other students also looking for a spot, plus you could be making a pretty serious commitment to the path. The thing is, how a declared major is judged on your college application depends on the school and academic program (which means even more research for you, womp womp). There are, however, a few things everyone should keep in mind.
“Noting your intended major on a college application is generally a good idea because it shows admissions committees that you have a firm direction and plan for the future," says Stephen Black, a head mentor at admission consulting firm Admissionado. “Even if you’re not 100% sure that this will be your major—and virtually nobody is certain—it nevertheless shows that you are interested in exploring a particular field."
You probably have some inkling of what you want to study, and declaring a major might make you a more attractive candidate to your colleges—both for admission and financial aid. If you’re declaring an underrepresented major or you’re an underrepresented candidate in your major (to go for the fairly obvious, gendered examples: women in STEM fields and men in nursing), the school might be more likely to admit you. Or you might be eligible for major-specific scholarships offered through your school you couldn’t get otherwise. Of course, if you’re declaring a particularly competitive major, the opposite might be true.
“[Declaring a major] can certainly make a big difference. This is particularly true in the case of students applying to majors in engineering, business, fine arts, and other competitive fields," says college consultant Eddie LaMeire. Admission standards tend to be higher, “especially in terms of mathematical abilities, test scores, and course rigor. And, for these very reasons, students are competing against a higher caliber of applicants."
Because a declared major is evaluated so differently at any given school, it’s important to do your research. “Be aware of the admission process and options at the schools you are considering," LaMeire advises. “For instance, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a tremendous computer science program. It is also a very competitive. However, UIUC allows students to be considered for admission into General Studies in the event that they are not admitted to their first choice major. Conversely, in the case of UC Berkeley, students have one chance at a major. In the event that they apply to the College of Engineering and they're denied, there's no safety net of an alternate major to be admitted to."
However, this isn’t the case at all schools, particularly those in the liberal arts. Grinnell College is one of them. “The major students list on their application has no bearing on admission to the college," says Gregory W. Sneed, Director of Admission. “The fact that a student lists an intended major on his or her application tells us a little about the student’s academic interests, but we do not put much stock in it."
Scripps College doesn’t put much stock in declared majors either, says the school’s Director of Admission Laura Stratton. She, like many others, points out that most students simply haven’t experienced enough in their 17-ish years to make an informed major choice when they’re applying. And a lot of colleges take that into account. However, there are schools out there with more stringent major rules. “Some colleges do require that students declare a major at the time of application, and it is very difficult to change majors after enrolling," Stratton says.
That’s not to say you can’t change your mind after declaring a major at those schools—no major choice is ever binding. However, it might be harder to switch majors, particularly if you want to make a big jump. Say you want to move from business to engineering; your existing credits may not transfer into the program, which means more time and money spent making them up. Worse, there may not even be an open space for you in your college’s School of Engineering. (This is also why it’s not a good idea to try to sneak into a school by declaring an “easier" major and then switching.) Again, it all depends on the college—so ask the ones you’re considering.
“Picking a major in the admission process can be a stressful experience, but…in many cases, it is not even relevant in the admission process," Sneed says. (Insert sigh of relief!)
You’re ready to shout your intended major from the rooftops—good on ya! Since you know what you want to study, you can focus your college search that much more. For example, you can talk to professors in your subject at the schools you’re considering, which should give you a good feel for what your academic experience will be like and inform how you can frame your major interest on your application.
“Keep in mind that this major should be in line with the rest of your application, meaning that it's connecting your past experience with future goals," Black says. “For example, you wouldn't want to declare English as your intended major if your course work and extracurricular activities have been science-heavy up to this point."
You can then use your college applications to really showcase your interest in your declared major, both through the activities you list and in your essay. Illustrate your passion by writing about the side hustle you started in middle school selling homemade treats to kids on the bus or how excited you are to conduct research with a particular faculty member. You’ll give admission reps a clear picture of the kind of student you’ll be and make a strong case for welcoming you into their freshman class.
But just like you shouldn’t say what you think admission counselors want to hear in your college application essay, you shouldn’t declare the major you think they want to see on your application. Be genuine! “Students should try to remain as true to themselves, their experiences, and their interests in the college search process," Stratton says. “While it’s important that students [put their best foot forward], it’s completely acceptable for those same students to acknowledge that a prestigious or popular school may not be a good fit for them, due to academic restrictions such as pre-declaring a major."
And remember, even if you already know…or think you know…or sorta kinda almost know…what you want to major in, it’s still good to keep an open mind. As Sneed says, “College is a time to explore your interests." (You can also take comfort in the fact that declaring a major is not a lifelong career contract.)
Don’t know what you want to major in? All the experts agree: That’s okay!
“There are some students who have their lives planned out from the time they are in middle school. But the majority of students need a little more time than high school to figure out their academic interest and their professional focus," LaMeire says.
You’re also in good company: Most students—an estimated 50% to a whopping 70%—change their major at least once. Then there are studies that suggest students might be better served if they’re undecided; for example, research out of Western Kentucky University showed higher four-year graduation rates among undecided students. (And graduating in four years is a big deal, since it saves time and money!) This might be because the students had time to explore their options and made more informed major decisions, so they were more likely to stick to their choice and complete their studies on time.
Many schools even offer specific courses and other help for undeclared students to help them make a decision, such as University of Cincinnati’s Center for Exploratory Studies. And some colleges encourage—or even demand—major exploration. Franklin & Marshall College doesn’t even allow students to officially declare a major until the end of their sophomore year.
“It’s okay to be undeclared," LaMeire says. “Just don't appear scattered or disengaged." This means demonstrating your motivation in other ways, like good grades, extracurricular involvement, and perhaps discussing your future goals in your application essay.
If you have questions about being undecided, talk to your admission counselors—they are happy to help. Ask them straight up what happens when undecided students want to transfer into a particular major at their school: Is it a breeze? Are spaces limited? Do they still graduate on time? Undecided students can talk to professors too. In fact, sitting down with a prof in the subjects that interest you most can help give you some clarity on your major decision.
So how should you address your undecided-ness on your application? The essay is a great place to show your true colors. While you definitely want to steer clear of “I have no idea what I want to do with my life" talk, you can write about how you’re undecided because you have multiple interests and know your college is the perfect place to investigate them. “If you have absolutely no idea of what your major will be in college, that's okay!" Black says. “You don't need to declare it, but it's recommended that you show a high level of interest in future academic exploration."
At the end of the day, make sure you know the major policies for each school you’re considering, and keep your eyes on the prize: finding a college that fits. “The college search process is just that," Stratton says. “It’s a student’s opportunity to move through a process—and get to know themselves better while doing it—searching for a college that is right for them."