What if a school that I am really interested in doesn’t have the major that I want? Should I still consider that school? What if I have no idea what I want to major in? How should that affect my decision?
A comprehensive response to these questions must begin with the qualifier that there is much variability amongst applicants, colleges, majors and more. Of course, if you know what academic area you want to major in the ideal would be to attend a school that offers your intended major. But if you have identified a particular school that meets most of your other criteria aside from intended major, it may still be worth considering that institution. And regardless, there are many questions to ask.
How sure are you about the intended major at this point in your college search? What are the qualities that you find appealing in another college that does not offer that major? Might there be other ways to get exposure to that intended area through majoring in a related field or through internships? Is your intended field something more suitable for graduate study rather than undergraduate study? Also, keep in mind that it is said that many students change their majors in college.
Many applicants are undecided and have no idea about intended major or course of study in college. If that is you, know that you are not alone. I recommend that you focus more on other elements of the school environments, your own learning style and other personal preferences to help you narrow your own search. One big dichotomy is small liberal arts college versus larger university. Some students benefit from and prefer smaller liberal arts colleges that tend to focus on undergraduate teaching and where it can be easy for students to form relationships with their professors. Others prefer a larger university with many different colleges or schools under that umbrella which may offer a much broader array of courses to choose from, more research opportunities and the chance to be anonymous. Since applicants often have to select which school within the university they are applying to, students who are applying to larger universities who are “undecided” about major will usually need to apply through the college of arts and sciences.
When applying to a small liberal arts college you apply to the college at large and do not necessarily have to indicate the choice of major. Of course, many liberal arts colleges will ask you to indicate intended major if you have one but you do not have to know that upfront. When applying to a larger university, you will have had to identify which school within. And that process of choosing may have caused you to narrow or specify area of focus. For that reason applicants who are undecided might find the process of applying to liberal arts colleges more straight forward and open ended.
Jane H., MBA, has a proven record of providing personalized guidance to help students identify, apply and gain admission to the best colleges for them. She explains what colleges are looking for and why. She visits colleges and meets with admission officers to learn about their educational programs and institutional priorities.
While some seventeen year olds may be firmly committed to Neuroscience or Middle Eastern Studies, most high school seniors don’t even know such majors exist. Living in simpler times, I started college without knowing what psychology was, much less that it would be my major and ultimately my career. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I am fairly sure that a high percentage of the students who declare a major on their application do not end up with that major.
So why do colleges ask? I think they have several reasons. It gives them a rough idea of the interests of their applicants so they don’t overload or neglect one department or another, and it may help to assess the depth of interest of the young people who apply and whether those interests match what the student has been involved with so far. Also there are a number of popular majors which can be oversubscribed and for which they have only a certain number of slots. Nursing, Engineering and, in some schools, business are some of these majors. Schools have to be very careful that they don’t take more students than the major can accommodate.
Students are often afraid that not having decided on a major may make them look indecisive or like dilettantes. They put down the first thing that comes to mind hoping they will look more solid. This strategy is in error for several reasons. First and foremost, colleges are well aware that most high school seniors are not clear about what they want to study. They expect that for these students college will be a journey of discovery. Freshmen will take a variety of courses as part of their general education or distribution requirements, and somewhere along the line something will click,. At that time they will find a major they love and are good at. Most liberal arts colleges do not require students to declare a major until the beginning or end of sophomore year and most majors are easy to change. These facts reinforce the notion that colleges will not penalize students who are undecided.
Also, a college application should be a consistent and realistic portrait of the applicant. If a student declares an interest in business as a major, there should be other indications in the record that business is a valid interest: business courses in high school, an internship or summer job in a business field, involvement in Junior Achievement or some other business club. If a student wants journalism, but has taken no extra English courses and has no involvement in the school paper, there is something wrong with the picture. It looks more like a modern painting with the nose askew and the eyes to the side than it does a clear and understandable portrait.
Some students seek to game the system, declaring a major they have heard admits students with lesser credentials. They may believe that applying for education or hotel and restaurant management will get them in and then they can switch when they get there. There are a few flaws in that strategy. First, it may not be so that a particular major is a gateway to admission. If the school doesn’t get enough applicants with strong credentials, they may just take fewer students in that major and make up for it in the following year. Also, while most majors are easy to switch out of, many are not so easy to switch into. Consider nursing at Salem State or U. Mass Dartmouth. If you decide you don’t like it or you find it too difficult, you can switch out, but if you didn’t come in as a nursing major you can’t switch in, no matter what. They will take transfers from other schools before they take internal transfers into nursing.
So what is a student to do? If you have a passion that translates into a major, go for it! Declare the major and point out in the essay and by way of your record how this interest developed and where you hope to go with it. If you have some vague ideas, but are not sure if a particular field is right for you, take a closer look. Take an interest test, read up on what is going on in the area you are thinking about or take a course, a summer job, or a volunteer position that will help you clarify your feelings. Then if you feel strongly about the field, let the college know. If you have no idea what you want to study, don’t worry. Tell the college that you are looking forward to exploring a number of fields. Colleges will not find you less desirable because you are still open to new paths. In declaring a major and in all application questions, be who you are. The real you will be the one who gets in.
Dr. Shapiro is a licensed psychologist and college counselor who works with students and their families at her office in West Newton, MA. She spent 16 years as chair of the Counseling Dept. at Newton North High School and is a former president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling.