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Am I better off applying for a more obscure major?

Nov 6, 2018

If you talk to most students about applying to colleges, you’ll likely get similar responses regarding their chosen major: Economics, psychology, engineering, and so on. Given the popularity of certain majors, it’s natural to wonder whether applying for majors that are less popular will give you a boost in the eyes of the admissions officers — less competition, better chances, right?

Not exactly. In order to understand why this may or may not help your chances, it’s important to understand how departments and areas of study affect admissions decisions. While this will vary school to school, the broad strokes go like this: Schools with a liberal arts curriculum are less likely to have delineated differences between departments that would make a difference in admissions, while those that are larger, like state schools, are a little more likely to take departments into account. It’s important to research the school you’re applying to, because while some have you apply to a specific school — say, the School of Communications — some just have you apply and then choose your major down the line.

If you have not demonstrated interest and high achievement in a major but you’re applying to study that major at a college, that’s likely to work against you. If your grades aren’t good or it seems like you’re just applying because it’s less popular, they’re going to be able to see through that. If you think that the school is likely to have less applicants for their science department so you choose to apply for physics instead of what you actually want to do, political science, you had better have a good record of achievement and interest in physics, too.

Will applying as a certain major mean I can’t switch majors? This is a common question, and a valid one: Not every college is understanding and flexible when it comes to switching your course of study. Overall, it’s risky to apply for a more obscure major if you’re not certain you want to pursue that as a course of study down the road—but you can mitigate this risk by checking that your school has a lenient policy on that front.

If you’re applying to a competitive major but find that your high school GPA isn’t strong enough to give you a good chance, it can be preferable to get into the school and then use your performance in the first year to justify a switch into that major. This is less common at liberal arts schools.

What about applying undeclared? Some students truly aren’t sure what they want to study — in fact, most aren’t sure. And that’s all right! It’s totally natural. In most cases, applying undeclared won’t hurt your chances. In some cases it will hamper your ability to pursue some majors down the line, but again, that depends entirely on the school. Liberal arts schools also tend to be better for undecided.

If you’ve read enough of our blog posts, you’ll know that most questions about the college process can be answered with a frustrating “It depends,” accompanied by the classic refrain of “Do your research because outcomes will always vary!” This can be annoying — there are so many colleges out there, and so much research to do! But remember: This is one of the most important decisions of your life, and you’ll get out of it what you put into it.

Maybe applying undecided is the path for you, or maybe you should apply for the exact major you’ve known you wanted to study since you were four. Every student is different, as is every college. And that’s a good thing.

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