To Declare or Not to Declare a Major: Does it Matter?
Wondering whether your student should declare a major when applying to college?
You’re in good company.
In a presentation with R2C founder Debbie Schwartz, Rebecca Chabrow, Director of College Counseling at Linden Hall School for Girls, and College Counselor in Residence at Road2College, weighed in. Here are the highlights:
Do Easier Majors Provide Better Chances of Being Accepted?
In short. Not necessarily.
Easier majors are usually also popular majors. Popular majors mean competition can be higher. However, some of the most popular majors may also be the hardest and most selective. Some of the reasons for popularity include greater earnings potential.
Here are some examples of majors that are the least, and most selective:
Majors that are the least selective
- Social Sciences: Anthropology, Communications, Criminology, Economics, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Geography, History, International Relations, Linguistics, Political Science, Sociology, Urban Studies
- Mechanical Engineering
Majors that are the most selective
- Business: Business Administration, Accounting, and Finance
- Fine and Performing Arts
- Computer Science
To provide you with some perspective on acceptance rates, in 2018, UCLA admitted 14% of applicants overall, but the acceptance rate for some programs was much lower:
- Nursing: 2%
- Theater, Film, and Television: 4%
- Computer Engineering: 6%
- Aerospace Engineering: 7.6%
- Computer Science: 8.2%
- Engineering Undeclared: 9.5%
- Materials Engineering: 33.1%
Although not all schools share their admissions stats, look for them on their websites. It will help your student get a sense of their chances for admission in specific majors.
Does Applying Undecided Impact Admissions Chances?
If your child is applying to a specific professional program, or to schools in Europe, where you apply to a particular department and decisions are based solely on academic performance in that field, it generally doesn’t matter if a student applies as an undecided major.
More selective schools like MIT don’t require a student to declare a major until the end of freshman year. Larger schools like the University of Michigan require students to apply directly to certain schools or colleges within their system, which means declaring a major.
So, bottom line: if your student really doesn’t know what they want to study, they should find a school that doesn’t require them to declare a major.
Schools understand that most 17-year-olds aren’t sure of their career path yet, and of those who are, many of them will change their mind once they’re in college.
Beginning college students who change their majors within three years of enrollment
According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Education:
- 33% of students in Bachelor’s programs change their major
- 24% changed their major one time
- 9% changed their major two or more times
Pros of Applying Undecided
By not declaring a major right away, students can get courses under their belt, explore a variety of subjects, get to know professors and other students, and join clubs related to majors they’re interested in. Some schools even offer special classes for those who are undecided to help them select a course of study.
If your student knows that their college application isn’t strong enough for competitive programs, but hopes to transfer into one of those programs later, applying undecided can give them a chance to excel in some coursework at the college level first.
Cons of Applying Undecided
The program your student is interested in:
- only accepts students as freshmen
- has so many major-only courses they won’t be able to graduate in four years
- disqualifies them from additional financial opportunities such as scholarships
How Hard Is it to Change Majors?
Changing majors within a given college is not that difficult, especially in small, liberal arts schools.
For those changing to a major which has similar requirements, the transition is much easier than it is for those transferring to another department within their school. This may require adding courses, recalculating costs, and adjusting the length of time needed to get their degree. Much of this has to do with prerequisite courses.
Ms. Chabrow says that generally speaking, for students who transfer to a more competitive major, it can be challenging and harder than for those who transfer to something that is less, or equally as competitive.
Does a Declared Major Freshman Year Benefit the Student?
There are pluses to declaring a major during the application process with some (not all) majors/programs. They include:
- scholarship money available only to those who do
- being able to take prerequisite classes as early as freshman year since it can be difficult to catch up later
- being a part of living/learning communities–these are for students who like to live and work with other students focused on the same major/concentration
- if the major helps the student get into the school via a less competitive program with similar career opportunities as the more competitive major
- being able to get into a major that has similar course requirements as other potential areas of interest (allowing them to still graduate in four years)
- the ability to strengthen their application if they have a specific interest, participated in related activities, and write about that interest in an essay
- applying to a school where there are not a lot of people in a major, the school wants to add more students, and/or your child is a candidate that is not well represented in that major
The best advice is to make sure you know how the admissions process works at the schools your child is considering.
Some allow them to be admitted into general studies programs if they don’t get their first choice major.
Others may deny admittance based on the major declared, without a second choice.
Have your child ask the school questions, such as:
- What’s involved in transferring majors?
- If I were to transfer, can I still graduate in four years?
- How limited are spaces in my major of interest?
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