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If you ask many high school students what they plan to major in in college, you’ll likely get similar responses: 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. There are two main factors that come into play in determining the answer to this question.

The Top Two Factors: Applying to an Unpopular Major

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Whether you’re applying to a liberal arts college or a specialized school, like a School of Communications, Nursing or Engineering

It’s important to understand how schools consider intended majors in the admissions process. While this will vary from 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, or more specialized, like nursing or business schools, are a little more likely to take departments into account or to admit students directly to their majors of choice.

For this reason, 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 to the liberal arts college and then choose your major down the line.

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Whether you’ve demonstrated interest in the major you indicate on your application

If you have not demonstrated interest and high achievement in a major but are applying to study that major at a college, that’s likely to work against you. Colleges want to admit applicants who have demonstrated strong interest in their area of study over time, and though your intended major does not always have to be directly related to your hook, it should at least be tangentially related to your activities and the classes you have taken.

Reasons Not to Apply to an Obscure Major

You haven’t demonstrated interest or high achievement in that area of study

If you have no computer science experience and have devoted the majority of your time to running your school’s theater club, starring in the school play and teaching drama classes to elementary school children over the summer, colleges will not look favorably upon your application to their school as a computer science major!

If your grades aren’t good or it seems like you’re just applying because it’s less popular

Your admissions officer is going to be able to see right through this strategy! If you think that the school is likely to have less applicants for its science department, and 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!

The ONLY Reason To Apply to an Unpopular Major: You Have a Similarly Obscure Hook

Not all students are interested in the commonly chosen majors like psychology and chemistry. Some already know that their interests lie in digital storytelling, paleontology or food science and have devoted their high school careers to exploring their passions in and out of school and through the development of a unique passion project. These students also have developed correlated hooks. If that sounds like you, then you should absolutely apply to the obscure major of your choice!

You might ask:

What if I change my mind about what I want to study?
Will colleges hold me to the major I indicate on my application?

This is a common and valid question; not every college is understanding and flexible when it comes to switching your course of study. The answer depends on the school you are applying to. Most liberal arts colleges will not ask you to declare your major until the end of your sophomore year or the beginning of your junior year. Other schools, however, will admit you to the major you indicate, and you may have to apply to another school within that university if you change your mind about what you want to major in after you get admitted. This is particularly true if your new major of choice is not housed within the school you applied to. For example, you wouldn’t have the option to study nursing as a business school student or engineering as a liberal arts student.

So, should you just apply undeclared?

Some students truly aren’t sure about what they want to study — in fact, most aren’t sure. And that’s all right! It’s totally natural. But, the answer is still absolutely not. You should view your intended major as a continuation of your hook.
Consider the aforementioned student who’s clearly passionate about theater. He or she would be a strong applicant for a drama- or theater- related major, because majors of this sort are clearly related to the hook they have worked so hard to cultivate through their extracurricular activities. This student could also apply to a business or entertainment program if their involvement in theater helped them realize that their passion is for the business side of show business. In contrast, they would have trouble convincing their admissions officer of their passion for chemistry and desire to work as a research scientist in the future.

If you’re not sure about what you want to study, you should apply to schools that will allow you flexibility in choosing your major and avoid applying to schools where you’ll have trouble accessing a plethora of different academic opportunities. The key to choosing your major will be taking many different types of classes and figuring out what you do and don’t like about different fields of study until you find one (or two) you know you want to commit to!

College Admission Advice from our Senior Mentors

Frequently asked questions about unpopular majors

What is the least popular major?

The answer to this question depends on the school you are asking about! Some schools have particular strengths in one subject area. For example, Georgia Tech is a tech school many students attend to study engineering, so the humanities and the social sciences are less commonly selected as a primary major. So, English is an unpopular major at GeorgiaTech.

Will applying to an unpopular major boost my chances of getting into college?

No, not necessarily! As explained above, the best way to boost your chances of getting into college is to develop a strong hook that allows you to demonstrate curiosity for and achievements in a particular subject or field of study!

Does your choice of major affect your chance of getting accepted to college?

The answer to this question depends on whether a school is seeking to admit you to their liberal arts program, or to directly to a major or specific program of study. If the answer to this first question is the latter, then, yes, the more your major of choice falls in line with your hook, the easier it will be to make a case for why you want to study it at the school you are applying to!

Can applying to an unpopular major hurt my chances of getting into college?

Yes, as admissions officers will most likely be able to tell if you are applying to a major that is completely unrelated to your hook, passions and interests as a work around!

Updated April 12, 2022. Originally published November 6, 2018.