When we start working with college admission candidates as early as 9th or 10th grade, we often ask them what they are passionate about or which subject they are most interested in. When we do, we understand that preferences and passions can change quickly, due to one great teacher, an interesting summer experience, or even a simple field trip to a lab, a museum, or a historical site. Nonetheless, the information is useful to us because it gives us a direction in which to start our journey. From there, we expect the nature of curiosity and talent to take its course.
The same is true of colleges. When you start filling out college applications, you will be asked what you intend to study. The question can take many forms, some more daunting than others. In very few cases are you asked to declare an actual major at the time of application. Instead, colleges are simply trying to get a feel for what their applicants intend to study so that they can cobble together a well-rounded student body. They know very well that many, if not most, applicants will change their minds by the time they are asked to declare their major, which typically occurs at the end of sophomore year.
However, as with many aspects of college admission, the question posed in the title of this article is neither simple nor universal. First, it must be recognized that the term “major” only refers to a collection of classes, or credits, within a larger body of classes taken by the student while at college. A college degree typically consists of 120 credits, of which approximately 40 credits must be earned by taking classes directly related to one’s major. The other 80 credits are typically earned by taking a college’s core requirements, electives, and extracurricular or curricular-related activities (labs, research, internships, etc.)
Next it is important to realize that, in addition to majors, students have the option of earning minors, and/or concentrations. These are like majors in that they require a certain number of credits, but that number is typically much lower than the number of credits needed for a major. Therefore, it is possible to not only have a major, or a double major, but also one or two concentrations or minors as well. Typically, concentrations or minors fall into two categories: secondary interests and areas of special interest. For example, a student could minor in dance if she has an interest in dance but has no intention of pursuing it as a career. Alternatively, a student could have a major in biology and minor in bioethics to enhance one’s understanding of the moral issues that arise in the field of biology.
Finally, it is important to understand that students are often applying to a school within a university as opposed to the university itself. This is sometimes referred to as direct admission. For example, if you are accepted at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, you are not accepted to the University as a whole. The same is true at many engineering schools where you apply directly to the school and not to the university. In fact, at many large universities you are applying into a specific school rather than to the university itself. These decisions are binding, whereas your choice of major or indication of an anticipated concentration, or minor, is not.
In addition, there is an important aspect of indicating which field of study you intend to pursue that we have not yet addressed. That is, how this indication may or may not affect your chance of admission. Colleges value the information that you provide to them in order to help them craft a well-rounded student body. Therefore, the information that you provide is both useful and important. Furthermore, colleges use the information you provide to help them determine whether attending that specific college is likely to help you fulfill your academic journey. There are two things to consider when you answer questions about your intended field of study. First, your answer should be consistent with classes and activities you have undertaken in high school. Second, for students who are particularly strong in a given area, it should be reflective of a college’s strengths. Colleges are more likely to accept a strong student into a particular program if they feel they can adequately or expertly provide support for a student’s chosen academic pathway.
As indicated earlier in the article, answering the question of your anticipated field of study on a college application is not simple. It is a bit like peeling back the layers of an onion. The more you do, the more you discover what lies under the surface. It helps to be honest with yourself and with each of the colleges you are applying to. Typically speaking, the honest answer is also the strongest answer and the one that will benefit you most over your entire four-year college journey.