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Articles / Applying to College / A Major Decision

A Major Decision

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 12, 2016

I had no idea in what I wanted to major when I went to college. As I've mentioned before, I was in college because I was recruited for my tennis playing abilities (such as they were), hardly for my academic prowess. Not knowing which path to take in life at the age of 18 is not an uncommon dilemma.

So, I did the default major of Business Administration. Thinking back on that now, I recall wondering just what that meant. I had thoughts of running a business (which I eventually became involved in almost four decades later), but had absolutely no passion or motivation for some of the course requirements, such as Accounting, Statistics, and Marketing.

One of the Accounting courses' final projects inspired my first and only all-nighter. Across my many years, I have stayed up all night working only two or three times. This project drove me completely off the pier. I could not get my balance sheet to balance. This is when I discovered the reality that I was not a “numbers" guy. That was crucial information that has served me well during my life. Just as Dirty Harry said to Lt. Briggs at the end of Magnum Force, “A man's got to know his limitations." So, I learned mine at an early age.

This is an important time for all you rising seniors. Shortly (yes, quicker than you imagine), you will be assembling your college applications and very likely will be asked which major you intend to pursue. If you are like I was way back when, you may feel that the best approach is to be honest and declare Undecided.

You may be wondering about the consequences of making the undecided choice. If you are applying to an ulta-elite school such as an Ivy or other super-selective institution, you might feel some hesitancy, fearing that your indecisiveness would be a black mark on your otherwise outstanding application. That's a completely natural feeling.

Thus, how should you think about this? Well, I did some research for you and found what I think is one of the better articles to address both side of the issue. In Pros, Cons of Applying to College as an Undecided Major, U.S.News contributor, Bradford Holmes, presents an objective assessment for you to consider. Here are some excerpts from his analysis:

At the head of his article, he states his thesis, with which I entirely agree:

Don't declare a major on college applications if you haven't fully researched potential fields.

This is Square Zero for your college kickoff. Why be like I was? I had no knowledge or understanding of what a business-related major entailed. That's why I suffered in such classes as Accounting. Also, keep in mind that just because you consider yourself to be great in a certain area — maybe math or history –doesn't mean that you would be happy and/or prosper in that particular major.

Holmes goes on to note:

Depending on the program, declaring a major during the application process could help students get seats in required classes that are offered infrequently.

This falls into the “Pro" side of declaring a major right off the bat. The thing to keep in mind is how long it will take you to graduate from whatever major on which you finally decide. Five years is a very common (though unfortunate) window for for many undergraduates. Accordingly, entering college knowing exactly what you want to explore can be a significant help at registration time. First come, first served, and you should be among the first to register for a needed course.

When to Apply to College as an Undeclared Major

Holmes' wisdom is valuable here:

If you have a competitive concentration in mind, but would like to use the first year of college to build a strong GPA, it likely makes sense to apply as an undeclared major. This is a particularly good idea if your high school GPA is not strong in the major's related fields.

Engineering is one common major where this strategy may apply. Because engineering offers strong career prospects, making it a popular concentration, universities can be highly selective in which applicants they accept to their engineering schools. If you lack a history of high school success in science and math classes, it may be best to take college-level courses in the so-called STEM fields before you apply to the major. …

The insight about building a strong GPA is a good one, in my opinion. The freshman year can be traumatic for a number of reasons. It may be an excellent time for you to embrace your so-called distribution requirements. Those are the required courses that comprise the liberal arts segment of many colleges' core curricula. If you attend a school that has no core, such as Brown University, for example, then your freshman year can be a quite enlightening adventure, as long as you don't get carried away with adventurous course picks.

This is just a snapshot of Holmes' thinking on taking the undecided approach. See the article for all his thoughts.

When to Apply to College as a Declared Major

There are some situations in which it may benefit you to declare your major on your college application. While simply being sure about what field you wish to major in does not necessarily mean that you should declare early, if that major requires a specific set of courses from freshman year on, then it is in your best interests to declare. Doing so on your application could allow you to begin those requirements as soon as possible.

Sometimes, declaring a major during the application process can offer you benefits that you would not receive were you to wait a year or two to declare. If, for example, your major has a number of required classes that are offered infrequently, declaring your major early may gain you automatic admittance to these courses. If nothing else, it will also provide you with more attempts to register over your four years. …

Again, the registration advantage. In the ancient days of my college registration experience, I recall with a chill going out onto the basketball floor of Recreation Hall at Penn State University and seeing a sea of tables with hundreds of small cartons atop them. Inside the cartons were thousands of computer punch cards.

To register for a class, you had to approach a table that was labeled with the area you were targeting (“Anthropology," “Physics," etc.) and then hope that the section of the carton that held your desired class card was not empty. It was a maddening process. First come, first served — to the max!

The process is light years ahead of that these days. Thankfully! Nevertheless, keep Holmes' closing words in mind:

Deciding whether to declare a major on your college application should not be taken lightly. But don't, under any circumstances, declare a major on your application when you are not sure about it.

I couldn't agree more.

Okay, boys and girls, time to do a little research! It is a major decision. Make the right one!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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