Pros and Cons of Declaring a Major on Your College Application
December 18, 2019
Depending on the schools you’re applying to, declaring a major on your college application could help your candidacy — or set you on a path you’re not keen to follow. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision.
What does declaring a major on your college applications really mean? And more importantly, should you do it?
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a quick and easy answer, you won’t find one — here or anywhere else. There are pros and cons, both to declaring your college major on your applications and to saying you're undecided. It’s a tough call, but that’s actually a good thing; the more thought you give this question, the better off you’ll be.
Why declare a major on your college application?
Sometimes, declaring a major on your application is basically saying to admissions folks, “Hey, I’m really interested in this subject." And if you change your mind down the road, NBD.
Other times, however, declaring your major is more serious. It can be the same as saying, “I want a spot in this program at your school. Not that program. This specific one." If this is the case at a particular school, then your application will be compared to those of other students also interested in that program. Keep in mind, too, that you could be making a pretty serious commitment to a particular path.
In other words, declaring a major on your application varies from school to school and from program to program (this, of course — womp, womp — means more research for you). 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, Head Mentor at the admissions consulting firm Admissionado. “Even if you’re not 100 percent 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 acceptance and financial aid. If you’re declaring an underrepresented major or you’re an underrepresented candidate in your major (to use fairly obvious, gendered examples: women in STEM and men in nursing), the school might be more likely to admit you. Or you might be eligible for major-specific scholarships that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.
Of course, if you’re declaring a particularly competitive major, that could complicate your admissions prospects. On the one hand, declaring can help you distinguish yourself. “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. On the other hand, you may find yourself competing with a more intensely focused group of peers. In competitive fields, 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," LaMeire adds.
Because declared majors are evaluated differently from one school to the next, 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 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."
While declarations of majors can make or break candidates’ admissions prospects at some schools, they feature less prominently — sometimes not at all — at others. This tends to be particularly true at liberal arts schools. Grinnell College, for example, is one example. “The majors students list on their applications have no bearing on admission to the college," says Gregory W. Sneed, Director of Admission at Grinnell. “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 feels similarly, 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. That said, she cautions that at some schools, major declarations can have a strong impact on students’ college careers: “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 at those schools — major choices are almost never technically binding. It might be hard to switch majors, though, particularly if you want to make a drastic jump across disciplines or across schools on campus. Say you want to move from business to engineering; your existing credits may not transfer into the program, a circumstance that may require spending more time and money to make these up. Worse, there may not even be an open space for you in the program, major, or school you’re trying to move into. (This is also why it’s not a good idea to try to “sneak" into a school by declaring a so-called easy major and then switching.) Again, your prospects depend greatly on the college you attend — so ask the ones you’re considering how readily students can switch majors.
What if you’ve already decided on a major?
You’re ready to shout your intended major from the rooftops — good on you! Since you know what you want to study, you can focus your college search that much more precisely. For example, you can talk to professors or students in your intended department at the schools you’re considering. This should give you a good feel for what your academic experience would be like, plus it will inform the way in which you frame your major interest — and how you answer the “why this college?" question — on your application.
Another thing to bear in mind is consistency with the rest of your application. “This major should connect your past experience with future goals," Admissionado’s Stephen Black says. “For example, you wouldn't want to declare English as your intended major if your coursework and extracurricular activities have been science-heavy up to this point."
You can then use your college applications to showcase your interest in your chosen prospective field, 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 your excitement at the prospect of conducting 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 a spot in 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 true to themselves, their experiences, and their interests in the college search process," Stratton from Scripps 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 from Grinnell 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.)
What if you’re undecided?
Don’t know what you want to major in? All the experts agree: That’s OK!
“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," college consultant LaMeire says.
You’re also in good company: Most students — an estimated 50 to 70 percent — change their major at least once. Some research even suggests that students might be better served if they’re undecided; for example, students at Western Kentucky University showed higher rates of graduating in four years when they waited two years before declaring a major — 83.4 percent, as compared with 72.8 percent who declared and didn’t change their major before graduating. (And graduating in four years is a big deal, since it saves time and money.
Though these findings can’t support any claims of causality, it’s possible that because students had time to explore their options and make more informed major decisions, they were more likely to complete their studies in the expected amount of time.
Many schools offer specific courses and other help for undeclared students to help them make a decision. The University of Cincinnati, for instance, helps students via the Center for Exploratory Studies. And some colleges encourage — or even demand — major exploration. Franklin and Marshall College doesn’t allow students to declare a major officially until the end of sophomore year.
“It’s OK to be undeclared," college consultant LaMeire says. “Just don't appear scattered or disengaged." This means demonstrating your motivation in other ways — by earning high grades, demonstrating extracurricular involvement, and discussing your future goals in your application essay.
If you have questions about being undecided, talk to the admissions office at the schools you’re considering. Ask questions like: What happens when undecided students want to transfer into a particular major? Is it a breeze? Are spaces limited? Do they still tend to graduate on time?
How should you say you’re undecided on your application?
The essay is a great place to show your true colors. While you definitely want to steer clear of anything to the effect of, “I have no idea what I want to do with my life," you can write about how you’re undecided because you have multiple interests and know that this college is the perfect place to investigate them all. “If you have absolutely no idea of what your major will be in college, that's OK!" admissions expert 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 from Scripps 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."
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