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How to Choose the Right Major

Choosing a major can feel like the most stressful decision of your life. Whatever you choose can affect your whole career. But what if you end up not liking the classes? What if you hate the field? These are perfectly normal thoughts to have, so we want to begin by reassuring you that choosing a major is often just a formality in the application process. In this article, we will offer tips and strategies for choosing a major in a way that will strengthen your odds of admission while keeping your future flexible. 

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By NOELLE COMPTON

When it comes to the college admissions process, the story is everything. As such, admissions officers are concerned with three primary questions. First, who are you? Second, where do you come from? And third, where are you going? For the applicant, creating synergy in a college application is important. Think of your application as a puzzle. Each piece, whether an essay, an activity, or a major, needs to fit together to fill in gaps while assembling a complete portrait of who you are. 

To this end, choosing a major is very important. In fact, we would argue that choosing your course of study is the first step in the application process. If you are certain of your major, then you should be choosing schools that will best facilitate your goals. However, if you are uncertain of your major but have a dream school in mind, the process is different (and this article is for you). You will instead need to look at your accomplishments and consider the story that you tell. Then, you can choose the major that you are most competitive for.

In this article, I will first discuss general application strategy. Here at The Admissions Angle, we lovingly refer to this strategy as… an Admissions Angle (we’re very creative). Then, I will take you through the different strategies for choosing a major depending on the type of school. And finally, I will discuss appropriate times for applying undeclared.

Strategies for choosing a major

If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out our article What is an Admissions Angle? In the broad strokes, an Admissions Angle is a strategy for college admissions comprising three parts: talent, passion, and admissions value. Your application materials should incorporate all three of these items in order to be competitive. 

Talent:

This part is simple: Are you good at your thing? What sorts of skills do you have? In other words, for whatever you’re planning to study, you should have some experience in that field. This could be related to your personal experience, but ideally, this is related to your extracurricular activities. If you want to study business, have you been involved in a business club? Do you have leadership experience? If you want to study biology, have you completed an internship? Have you taken the right classes? Additionally, your course load and grades should reflect this talent.  

If your application materials lack talent, the admissions officer will think that your application is unsupported. Therefore, if you have your heart set on a course of study for which you have no experience, you have two options. First, you can get some experience. Consider undertaking an activity from our suggested list. Second, you can choose a different major for admissions purposes and plan to change majors later. However, this is a process with major caveats, so we will discuss it more later in this article. 

Passion:

It goes without saying that you should care about your field of study. Passion is largely understood through the essay process. Do you sound excited when you talk about a given subject? Moreover, do you possess the character qualities that one would expect for such a major? For example, if you are trying to get into medicine or psychology, you should be passionate about helping people. If you are trying to get into technology, you should be solution-oriented and inquisitive. Choosing the right qualities to highlight about yourself in the essay can help demonstrate your passion. Moreover, it will help you stick to your tasks. After all, putting work into something you care about is much easier than putting work into something you don’t care about.

If you do not demonstrate passion in your application materials, the admissions officer will think you’re uninspired. This is bad for admissions. An enthusiastic student is more likely to try hard at school and get good grades. This same student will ideally go on to have a fruitful and fulfilling career. You definitely don’t want the admissions officer to read your application and think, “is his/her heart in this?”

Admissions value:

This is the crux of today’s issue. Admissions value boils down to the question, “is there a major for that?” But it’s also, “are my talents and passions aligned with the major I want to pursue?” This is tricky, so I will use three scenarios to outline my point: 

Scenario 1:

There are plenty of things that students are talented at and passionate about. But this doesn’t mean that a major exists for that thing. Consider video games. Sure, you might be good at video games, and you may love them. But can you major in video games? Sadly, no. It’s important to choose the right activities to invest your time in. 

Scenario 2:

Sometimes, students put loads of time into an activity that is very different from their desired major. Consider music. Let’s say every single one of your activities revolves around music, like marching band, pit band, pep band, honor band, etc. But then, let’s say you are planning to major in biology. You might have the skill and passion for music, but how does this have admissions value when it comes to studying biology?

Scenario 3:

Students often make the mistake of considering admissions value to be a yes or no question. But it’s not. Everything has some quantity of admissions value, and the goal is to amass as much of this admissions value as you can. To that end, there are some activities that have value, but not much of it. Consider community service. Sure, there is intrinsic value in projects that help society, but do these activities relate to your major? Moreover, will these things help you stand out? If you have an overabundance of community service on your resume, consider how you can translate these activities into leadership potential. Or, make sure your activities are focused on something with a connection to your major, like political activism into a political science major, or volunteering at a hospital into a public health major. 

An application without admissions value is unappealing. Therefore, when choosing a major, have a look at your resume. Ask yourself this: Based on the materials I am looking at, what sort of major makes sense? What can I support on an application to boost my odds of admission? 

Graduation Bound

Choosing a major for your personality

If you, like many students, are in a position where your talent + passion + admissions value do not point in a clear direction, try getting creative. Think about the essence of who you are and consider how you can build a story around it. Remember, the admissions officer wants to know where you came from and where you’re going. Beyond that, they want to see how your past will support your future. Can you make the case that your past activities in one discipline have prepared you for a future in another? 

In my article What Should I Write About on the Common App Essay?, I discuss the importance of highlighting your best characteristics. This is a practice that is also useful for supporting a major. When considering what to major in, think about the archetype of a person in that field. For example, if you want to major in engineering, what should an engineer be like? A lot of words might come to mind: analytical, methodical, inquisitive, thorough, patient, to name a few. Now, have a look at your activities. Can you demonstrate these qualities in your activities? Then, for your essays, can you take care to highlight these items in an anecdote? How about a people-centered profession, like sociology, public policy, or psychology. What should these ideal candidates look like? Compassionate, understanding, courageous, and versatile, perhaps. How can you demonstrate these characteristics in your application materials?

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Different strategies for different schools

Liberal arts schools are all about the spirit of inquisition and educational exploration. As such, these schools (e.g. Williams) are generally quite flexible about allowing students freedom in their curriculums. Liberal arts schools generally don’t ask you to declare a major until the middle of sophomore year, and some schools will allow you to change programs up until your senior year, as long as you can fulfill the requirements for graduation for the new curriculum. Still, when you’re writing essays and trying to stand out in the admissions process, it helps to express those specific interest in the things that you currently really want to study. These schools also encourage students to pursue multiple courses of study and explore the intersections among disciplines. For example, are you a theater-kid with an interest in psychology? Talk about a double major and discuss performance as therapy! In other words, pick the major(s) that you want and spend the essay or interview making a compelling case for yourself. Unlike the big state schools, liberal arts colleges spend a lot of time trying to understand the “real” you. Take advantage of this opportunity to show them!

When to apply undeclared

Students sometimes feel a lot of pressure to choose a major. They believe that this decision is among the most important in their lifetime, and that if they mess it up, their whole career will suffer. This is (usually) not true! However, in order to cope with this stress, many students decide to apply undeclared. We usually do not advocate applying undeclared, when it’s avoidable. However, if you are already in the 75th percentile for academic index, it’s probably okay to apply undeclared.

This said, it is still important to have an admissions strategy! Ideally, you have some service activities or athletics that can attest to your involvement in school activities to bolster your case. Make the case that you are a strong leader in your community. Discuss the two majors that you can’t decide between, or talk about your career goals. Tell them how you would use your first year of college to figure it out. In an undeclared major, there is a danger of coming across as wishy-washy. To combat this, show them that you have a plan for establishing your path.

Choosing a major doesn’t need to be scary

At the end of the day, choosing a major should be fun and exciting! If you start to feel stressed, remember that it’s almost always possible to change your mind once you get into a college. The important thing is that you wind up in the place you want to be. After that, you’ll be free to explore your interests, meet new people, and sample new disciplines. 

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