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Articles / Applying to College / Pursuing A Self-Designed Major

Sept. 4, 2018

Pursuing A Self-Designed Major

Pursuing A Self-Designed Major
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Question: I am applying to colleges using the "create your own major" option, and I'm hoping to triple major in Music, Engineering and Biology. I emailed my school counselor and she said to contact schools before entering this triple major combination on my applications. She thinks some of them won't allow it. If the school says to create your own major, I should be able to do this without contacting the schools first, don't you think?


There is a difference between “creating" a major and electing to major in three different subjects. It sounds to “The Dean" that you're opting for the latter. It's certainly possible that, down the road, you might design a major that combines elements of music, engineering and biology. But so far it looks as if you're going to pursue three separate disciplines. In either case, you definitely don't have to contact the college first but I think it's a smart move to do so (more on that in a minute). And you might also have to tackle some math (not as an added major!) to figure out if you can fit the requirements for all three majors into four years ... if indeed you expect to adhere to the standard four-year plan.

For starters, you need to check your target colleges' websites to read about the requirements for each major. Typically, a major is made up of about 10 classes in the field (or in a related one), but some majors can demand as many as 12 classes. So let's say that each of your majors requires 10 classes, that's a total of 30. Then there will probably be “general education" requirements. These will vary from college to college and sometimes from “school to school" within a university. So a student who majors in music (which might be housed in a university's “School of Arts and Sciences") could have slightly different general education requirements than an engineering or bio major. Thus, although the “gen ed" requirements for each major should largely overlap, you may find that pursuing three separate majors will add an extra gen ed requirement or two. When you add those gen ed classes to the 30 or more classes in your majors, that brings your tally to at least 35 or 36. And this leaves little or no room for any classes beyond your major and your gen ed obligations. So if you also have an itch to learn about glassblowing or literature, you probably won't be able to fit it in.

At some colleges, four classes a semester is the norm, meaning that most students take 32 classes over their college careers. At other colleges, five is the norm, so 40 is the usual total. And ambitious students who want to get the most bang for their bucks will opt to take a course “overload" each semester, which would be a must for you if you're trying to finish three majors. (You may need to maintain a certain GPA in order to be permitted an overload.)

So here's some advice from The Dean: In order to have a fulfilling, productive and reasonable college career, you don't need to actually major in all three areas. You probably want to choose one or two majors and then leave the other(s) as a “minor" (A minor is a “mini major." Students usually take five or six classes in the field rather than ten or twelve. This allows the student to gain in-depth knowledge but without tying up nearly as many classes as three majors would demand.)

Alternatively, your three prospective majors seem like they could be combined into an intriguing single original major, and perhaps that's your long-term aim. For instance, here's an article about a man who created a system to enable people with disabilities to play and record music. This type of project might be right up your alley. And here's an article about the effects of music on human anxiety. This, too, combines expertise in the areas that interest you. Note, however, that when a college student designs an individualized major, it's important to specify which classes from which departments will make up this customized major and what the goal of the new major will be. There are usually multiple hoops to jump through as you gather the requisite faculty sign-offs, and your blueprint will be carefully scrutinized before it's approved.

As for your counselor's insistence that you check with colleges before you indicate your choices on your application ... although it's not necessary, “The Dean" suggests that you do. First, decide if you want to pursue three separate majors, as you've indicated here, or to combine them (in which case you should concoct a name for your self-designed major along with a brief description of the courses it might include and what your overall goals will be). Then email the regional admissions rep at each of the colleges you're considering. (The regional rep is the staff member who oversees applicants from your high school. You can find the name and address on websites or via a quick phone call.) Explain in your message that you're hoping to triple major (or that you want to create your own major, if that's what you've decided. In that case, describe it). Ask the rep if this sounds like a sensible plan. It's always wise to make contact with a regional rep because it helps to show interest in the college. There's no down side to putting these cards on the table. You'll not only be establishing a “relationship" with the admissions rep who could be determining your fate, but you'll also be satisfying the request of your school counselor, who will be writing your recommendation and thus playing a role in that fate as well. Above all, you might even get some valuable advice that will help you as you take your next steps.

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Written by

Sally Rubenstone

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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