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Articles / Admissions / Can Choosing An Uncommon Major Boost Admission Chances?

May 28, 2020

Can Choosing An Uncommon Major Boost Admission Chances?

Question: If my son is a borderline candidate at the liberal arts college he wants to attend, will it help if he indicates an unpopular major on his application?

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 son’s academic interests and abilities are different from the majority of other applicants, the more competitive institutions receive large numbers of applications from extremely able students, so he is sure to be up against others who share his atypical strengths and passions.


However, it is indeed possible that some borderline candidates are admitted to top schools because they plan to study in under subscribed departments. 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 son’s area of interest coincides with one of these “institutional needs,” he may indeed 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 your son can’t simply search through a course catalogue for the academic department with the smallest enrollment and then write on his application that this will be his intended field of study. Admission officials will be looking for prior accomplishments in this area or at least a reason why he hopes 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 son’s strengths or interests will be considered at decision time. While colleges don’t always come clean, it never hurts to ask. Also make sure that your son’s choice of major is not binding. At liberal arts colleges it rarely is, but don’t proceed without making certain.

As an on-the-bubble candidate at a favorite college, your son will also probably improve his chances of admission by applying “early decision,” if it’s offered by the school in question, but it’s hard to advise him to go full-steam-ahead with that plan without knowing more about him, his academic record, the college he has chosen, and your family’s financial need.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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