Do Uncommon Major Choices Aid Admission to Top Colleges?

Question: Is it easier to get into some of the most selective colleges if you are genuinely interested and talented in one of the less popular majors (e.g., English or French at Johns Hopkins where sciences are emphasized)?

You ask a good question. The first thing you need to realize (and you probably do) is that it is never easy to get into a very selective college. Even if your academic interests and abilities are different from the majority of other applicants, the most competitive institutions receive huge numbers of applications from extremely able students, so you are sure to be up against others who share your atypical strengths and passions.

However, it is indeed possible that some candidates are admitted to top schools because they plan to study in under subscribed areas. Each year, most colleges and universities have what they call “institutional needs.” These include academic departments that may have dwindling enrollments or to which they want to attract more students for a variety of other reasons. While these priorities are rarely made public (in other words, you won’t see a rotating banner on the Yale Web site that proclaims, “We want more Italian majors and astronomers next fall”), if your area of interest coincides with one of these “institutional needs,” you will have a better chance of admission than a candidate with similar credentials who is pursuing a more popular field.

Of course, often you can do no more than guess at what these priorities might be, and you simply can’t search through a course catalogue for the academic department with the smallest enrollment and then write on your application that this will be your intended field of study. Admission officials will be looking for prior accomplishments in this area or at least a reason why you hope to study this subject (e.g., a supplementary note that says something like, “My high school doesn’t have a classics department, but I have read the poetry of Catullus in translation and would now like to read it in the original Latin.”)

Feel free to query colleges directly about how your strengths or interests will be considered at decision time. For instance, if Johns Hopkins is attractive to you, and you expect to pursue the humanities there, you can ask admission officials (either in an interview or via e-mail) if your choice of major will affect your admission chances. While colleges don’t always come clean, it never hurts to ask.