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How to Choose Your Major Strategically

Choosing your major can feel like a big step. This is the subject you will study for four years and may shape every career you have going forward. More than this, however, the major you select can impact your chances of college admission directly. 

Some universities separate their student body into separate colleges, each of which handles its own admissions, and so your chances of admission depend on which college within the university you apply to. Cornell is one school that handles admissions this way. These schools also make it hard to change between colleges, so you have to be certain of your choice. Other schools group all students into a single college, like Harvard, but some majors are still more competitive for admissions.

In this article, we’ll explain why some majors are more competitive for admissions, and how you can take advantage of this to pick your own major strategically, thereby increasing your chances of admission.

What Makes Majors Competitive?

Some majors are more popular than others. This is not shocking, but still impacts colleges significantly. The more students who want to study a subject, the more resources need to be devoted to that subject, and the more other departments may be cut back.

However, due to how tenure works at universities, and top universities’ desire for tenured faculty, it is very difficult or impossible to fire professors. This is designed to protect scholars from retribution if their research turns up unpopular or controversial results, but it also means that some departments at universities have a much higher student-to-professor ratio, because there is far less student demand for these classes.

Just because a major is more popular does not make it better inherently, merely that more students want to study it. While the most popular majors vary between schools, they usually include biology, economics, business, and engineering. Many students believe that these majors hold the key to grand and successful post-graduation careers, and they aren’t always wrong.

There is an increasing push into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics [Sometimes Medicine is substituted for Mathematics {Economists have tried to make the E stand for Economics, but that has generally failed}]) fields among college students, as Silicon Valley has risen to challenge Wall Street as the most popular destination for high-flying careers post-graduation.

Many colleges and universities have responded by increasing investment into these departments, hiring additional faculty, and offering additional opportunities, but they do not want to neglect their other departments. As interest in STEM subjects increases, many academics worry about a decline in the Humanities. While the validity of these fears is uncertain, there is some truth to them. Fewer students than ever are applying to major in the Humanities, and this affects admissions decisions.

Strategic Major Selection for Admissions

As colleges increasingly see more STEM applicants and fewer Humanities enthusiasts, they feel pressured to create some kind of balance between the two. While they may not place strict limits on Engineering or pre-med students, there are only so many they can admit, due to the limited number of faculty to teach these classes.

In universities with separate colleges for engineering, the competition for spaces is more pronounced and far fiercer. There are a definitive number of spaces for students, and many more applicants than available spots. Some students are tempted to apply to less competitive colleges within the same university and transfer later. We are warning you now: this usually doesn’t work well.

Universities with multiple colleges often make it difficult to transfer between colleges, especially when transferring into the most popular colleges (like business and engineering). Further, if your resume is covered with coding projects, engineering clubs, and science olympiad, and you apply as a history major, admissions officers are going to need some serious convincing to believe your sincerity.

There is, however, still some wiggle room. Not all majors within a college, even a college of engineering, will be equally popular. By finding and applying as one of the less popular options, you can slightly increase your chances of admission. What these majors actually are varied by both college and year, so we recommend you research any college you want to try this for carefully.

For schools with only one college, you should apply as the major which best suits your background, but here too there is wiggle room. Math departments are often far less popular than engineering, though many activities set up an applicant to apply for either. While many pre-med students apply as biology majors, it is not required, and other fields within the sciences are often less competitive.

If your resume demonstrates multiple interests, your options are even more open. If, for instance, your activities indicate an interest in both biology and history, then applying as a history major may be more advantageous for you, even if you change your mind once you reach school. Universities with only one college often make it easy to change majors within that college, which makes this a viable option, though finding a space in the major you want is not guaranteed.

If your resume mostly contains non-academic pursuits, such as sports or arts, then you are much freer to select a major (unless you are trying to major in the arts, at which point it gets very competitive again for places at top schools). We do not advocate complete fraud with your selected major, but a second major to your primary can be helpful, such as Statistics in place of Business, or Mathematics in place of Computer Science.

Finally, many schools which have separate liberal arts and engineering colleges offer Computer Science as a major through both. These majors offer the same classes and are taught by the same faculty, but the one offered through the engineering college is often far more competitive for admissions.

Final Thoughts

Choosing what you will major in is a tough decision, not least because it will be the #1 subject of small talk for your first week at college. While you don’t have to know perfectly what you want to study, we hope that knowing how your choice can impact your chances of admissions will be helpful in your college application journey.

Many students are anxious about choosing the right major, and this pressure can make for a stressful time. If you want help choosing your major, or with any other aspect of college admissions, schedule a free consultation today. We have a depth of experience helping students deal with the intricacies of college admissions, and are always happy to hear from you.

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