Stack of books
Stack of books

Major Matters: How to Approach the “Major” question on Your College Applications

This question often arises: Does it matter which potential major(s) I list on my college applications?

The simple answer: YES! An applicant’s intended major has become increasingly important in the college admissions process, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is that colleges need to admit an incoming class of students with a diversity of interests; they can’t have an entire class of future Computer Science majors! Additionally, as particular fields gain more attention and importance, such as in Business and Engineering, certain majors and programs become oversubscribed, and thus more selective. Greater demand drives up competition. Meanwhile, less popular majors can be in need of more students, making applicants in those areas more desirable. It’s all a careful balancing act. Your answer to the “major” question can be critical, and as is so often the case in this process, knowledge is power and seemingly minor distinctions can have enormous impact.

When deciding how to approach this part of your application, it’s therefore incredibly important to understand not only the comparative selectivity of different college majors, but also to gauge how your transcript and application will compare to that of other students applying in that field. Here are five key factors to consider when choosing a major on your college applications:

1. High School Curriculum and Rigor

When admissions officers evaluate your transcript, they will look most closely at your chosen curriculum and your performance in coursework that is most relevant to the area of study you intend to pursue. Ideally, this means that you’ve taken advanced coursework in relevant subject areas, and that you’ve earned good grades. Additionally, you will be compared to other applicants who are also applying to that particular program or major, so you’ll want to make sure that your preparation lines up with the college’s expectations. All of this means that mediocre performance in an AP Calculus course is going to have much greater implications for a potential STEM or Business major than it will for an English major. 

2. Academic Strengths and Aptitudes

Similar to your curriculum rigor and performance, standardized test scores are also considered in light of your chosen intended major(s). If you are submitting testing, keep in mind that it’s ideal that your strongest subject area score also supports your intended academic direction in college. This is less significant for students who have subsection scores in close proximity to each other (e.g., a 620 Reading and a 630 Math on the SAT). It’s more of an issue for students with a wider gulf between subscores (e.g., a potential Business major with a 640 Reading and a 560 Math).

3. Extracurricular and Summer Involvement

What have you done outside of class that has exposed you to your potential field of study? Think outside the box with this one! Getting an internship in your field of interest is a great idea if you can manage it, but it’s not the only way to gain useful experience. Working at a summer day camp could be relevant if you’re interested in studying Developmental Psychology or Education. Or maybe waiting tables at a hotel restaurant showed you that you’re interested in the hospitality industry. Your application tells a story about your time in high school, and colleges will be interested in how you’ve chosen to spend your free time. And while it’s important to be involved in student clubs and organizations at your high school, try to think beyond the walls of your high school, and find further ways to gain experience in or exposure to the areas you’re most interested in.

4. Depth of Interest as Evidenced by Application

This is a subjective measure, but no less crucial. Essentially, admissions officers will look to see that your chosen direction in college makes sense based on the content in the rest of your application. Even something like recommendation letters – who they’re from, and what they say – can make a big difference here. If you’re applying to be an economics major and you have glowing letters of recommendation from your math and government teachers that detail your acumen in those subjects, that can have a big impact. Similarly, if in your main essay you write passionately and compellingly about why you want to become a photojournalist, and you back that up with a really strong supplemental portfolio of work, that can also really bolster your application. Again, this factor is subjective, but it’s based on concrete evidence and themes present in your application.

5. Selectivity and Competitiveness of Major/School

Various programs of study at a given university can vary widely in terms of selectivity. Computer Science, Engineering, Pre-health tracks, and Business are all notoriously competitive majors at most colleges and universities today. The level of competitiveness tends to increase with the overall selectivity of that school, but assume that these will be amongst the most difficult competitive majors at most schools. On the other hand, certain less popular disciplines may become a priority for a particular school, as departments need to fill their major slots. In truth, the selection of any major or area of study can greatly impact your application, and thus your chances of admission–and this may change year by year. 

This is why it’s so crucial to not only understand the overall selectivity of a particular school, but how your intended major affects your chances. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, and things are only becoming more nuanced in this way in college admissions. There are real risks and benefits here, and understanding those nuances can be decisive. 

(Wondering how prepared you are for the college application process? Take our free Application Readiness Assessment now and find out!)