Application Process: Picking Your Major for the College Application

You indicate on the application what you want to study, right?  That wouldd seem reasonable.  But sometimes that may not be the wisest thing to do.

Before we discuss what to do, consider these:

– What you plan to study can be covered by different “majors,” and it’s very unlikely that only one major would get you the knowledge you need.  In most cases, different majors have overlapping requirements and courses so you have options in what majors to indicate on your application.  You always have spaces for elective courses outside of your major anyway.

– Many college students change their majors while in college.  As long as they can fulfill the new requirements in time for graduation, this is generally not a problem.

– Many college students have post-graduate plans that have certain requirements, but most often they do not dictate what major one must have in college.  Medical schools belong to this category.  For instance, for medical school admission there are certain course requirements besides MCAT test scores, but you can be of any major and still take those pre-med courses.

– Some graduate studies do not have any real/official course requirements in terms of exact course, and so theoretically you can be of any major and have taken mostly unrelated courses and still be eligible to apply.  Law schools belong to this category.

– Schools want to have students for all their majors.  Having too few students for a particular major causes serious problems, such as no classes for professors or grad students to teach, high cost of education per student, loss of certain funding, etc.  A friend of mine was the sole geophysics student at Harvard and thus the only student for several of the advanced courses.  He had a professor and a TA all to himself.  That couldn’t be cheap for the school!

– Some school do not allow you to change majors that are too “far” from your stated major.  Some restrictions come from real structural issues.  You are admitted to the “College of Letters and Sciences” with their stated requirements so you cannot switch to the “College of Engineering” which has much higher admissions requirements.  Some simply don’t want students to get in with a less demanding major like sociology and switch to a far more demanding major like biochemistry.

With all those in mind, what is a viable strategy for choosing your stating your intended major?  (Note I say “your intended major” and not “what you plan to study or learn.”)

First, research what majors are less popular.  Those are the ones that may have problems meeting their minimum quota and therefore should be less demanding in terms of admission requirements.

Second, research what majors are more competitive in terms of average test scores, GPAs, etc.  These are usually majors that are in demand due to official or unofficial graduate school requirements.  For example: biochemistry, biology and chemistry are popular with pre-meds and therefore they are very competitive.  English and government are popular with pre-laws.

Note: popular majors are not necessarily more competitive than those required by grad schools, but you do have to compete with a larger pool of applicants.  In case the applicant pool for a major far exceeds the capacity of the department’s ability to handle, they may tell the school to limit the number of applicants for their particular major.

Third, figure out whether you can switch to the more competitive major if needed.  If it’s a structural barrier, then the answer may be no.  If it’s due to different admission standards, you may be able to petition later and use your academic achievements in college as proof that you can handle the major.

Fourth, think about what you really want to learn and if it can be classified under a less popular major.  For instance, if your true interest is with writing, then you can choose literature or journalism instead of English.  In fact, you’ll learn to write no matter what humanity major you choose, and so your options are far more plentiful — sociology, anthropology, etc.  The reason is more pre-laws may choose English as their major, and fewer of them would choose literature, journalism, or sociology.

The truth is, for most humanity majors, you will learn a lot of the same things.  Most have overlapping courses and requirements.  Avoid declaring a more competitive one can help get you in.  Why compete with pre-laws by declaring English or government as your major?  Get in using a less competitive but highly related major and switch once you get in.  You can do it in the sophomore year but make sure you meet the requirements by taking the right intro courses during your freshman year.

Should one pick a super unpopular major just to get into a college?  I know people do that, and there’s nothing illegal about it.  It’s all up to you.  I’ve seen guys in “women’s studies” most likely for that reason…

My personal story: I wanted to study computer engineering and that was my declared major for all schools I applied to.  (We didn’t have Common App back then so it was easy to declare different intended majors for different schools.)  Once I got into Harvard and got the course catalog, I saw under the computer sciences/engineering section this alarming note: “Advanced courses to be taken at MIT.”  Well, I was rejected by MIT.  If MIT didn’t think I’m good enough for its computer engineering program, then why do I want to go there and get slaughtered?  So I looked for another major and picked economics (honestly, I can’t even remember why…).  (Today, Harvard has its own, well-developed computer science/engineering program so one does not have to go to MIT anymore.)

Note: I don’t know if some schools demand that pre-meds declare their pre-med intention on the application and prohibit non-declared students from pursuing the pre-med track.  I have never heard of such a restriction, but it is possible.