How to Pick a Major on College Applications: What You Should Know

By Purvi S. Mody

how to pick a majorColleges don’t expect that you know exactly what you want to do with your life by the time you are seventeen. They do, however, expect that you have some sense of direction when you apply. The entire purpose of college is to get exposure to a wide range of fields and to also develop a set of skills that you will be able to use in the working world. Many students agonize over which intended major to select on the application itself; some hoping that this click of a button will make the difference between an acceptance and a denial.

So let’s clear up the confusion around how your choice of major can impact admissions:

What does your major choice tell the admissions office about you?

Colleges want to know about your interests and aspirations for a couple of reasons. One, from a selfish standpoint, they need to be sure that they are able to provide the right resources to students across interests. Most schools want a well-balanced incoming class with a diversity of goals.

Two, admissions officers are trying to get to know you better and do this by getting a sense of what you have so far accomplished in your life and what you hope to accomplish in the future. This does not mean that every activity must revolve around your intended major. But if you are passionate about French Literature, you should have taken French. If you are keen on conducting research in college, it is a good idea to show an interest in science beyond the minimum requirements to graduate. If you are interested in the cosmos, a developed awareness of astronomy is a must.

For certain universities, the college you choose can impact your chances of admissions. 

Within a large university, there are several colleges – College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Performing Arts, College of Business are examples. And each college will then house more specific majors. For example, if you apply to the Stern School of Business at New York University, NYU Admissions will simply view your application in the context of Stern. If you are not admitted to Stern, you cannot be admitted to NYU; the school will not consider an alternate choice.

This is true for many, but not all, business programs and a few engineering programs. UC Berkeley, for example, will only consider you for the Engineering program if that is what you mark as your intended major. For students applying to these schools, my advice is this: you have to decide what is your priority – the school or the major. If your’e having a tough time deciding, reading college reviews from students can help.

Picking a less popular major does not improve your chances of getting in.

This is where it also gets tricky. Many students have asked if they can put down some random, less popular and less rigorous major and then switch into the more difficult major once their child is enrolled. The chances of doing so are slim to none in some cases. So putting down Agricultural Science or Pomology as your major is alone not going to improve your chances. And remember your application has to make sense.

If there is no indication of an interest in the major you chose on your application, admissions officers are going to wonder if you are trying to pull the wool over their eyes. If you truly want to study business, engineering, or some other selective subject, make sure that your application supports this interest and that you have the experiences to back it up.

Remember that you aren’t “stuck” in the major you pick on your applications.

Colleges are also very well aware that you might change your major once you get there, but with a strong application, they will have faith that you will continue to create and achieve your goals successfully. Some universities may even ask you for your intended major but will also consider you for an alternate major or an undecided option because they believe you are a strong fit for the university.

Sometimes there just isn’t not enough space to admit you initially into your first choice major. At many of these schools, you should be able to get into your desired major after your first semester/quarter or year there. And other universities will ask you about your interests without tying you down to a specific major until you are nearing the end of your sophomore year in college. This is the point at which all colleges will ask you to select a major.

Purvi S. Mody is co-owner of Insight Education, an educational consulting firm that helps students throughout the country and internationally to achieve their educational goals. Get in touch with her via email at or follow her on Twitter @InsightEduc.

Photo:  Joe_T_Chicago


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