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Articles / Applying to College / Do Uncommon Major Choices Aid Admission to Top Colleges?

Do Uncommon Major Choices Aid Admission to Top Colleges?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Jan. 16, 2003

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.

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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