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Articles / Applying to College / Will "Undecided" Major on Applications Hurt Admission Odds?

Aug. 15, 2010

Will "Undecided" Major on Applications Hurt Admission Odds?

Question: My son is not sure yet what his major will be but he knows it will science-related, and maybe engineering. Will that hurt him during the application process when he is asked to specify a discipline?

When the choice of major that the candidate indicates on the application is not binding (i.e., the student is not making a formal commitment to it), then I always advise students to write down something rather than answering "undecided." It usually works in a student's favor to show that he or she does have specific interests and for the admissions committees to have at least an inkling of what these interests are. Since most applications allow space for two or three prospective majors, the student can toss out a range of options which may be similar to each other (e.g., math, computer science, physics) or not at all (e.g., Spanish, chemistry, art history).

But ... at some institutions, candidates are applying to a specific major or program, and thus the choice is important. It is usually changeable down the road, once the student has matriculated, but often such changes come with hassles. At these colleges, most students can get out of a major they don't like, but they can't always get into the one they prefer. So, the first step for your son is to distinguish between the colleges on his list where his choices are expected to be binding and those where they aren't.

Moreover, because one of your son's possible majors is engineering, this can be a whole different--and more complicated--ball of wax. Most universities have separate colleges of engineering. Thus, a student who wants to be a biology or chem major might be applying to the "College of Arts & Sciences" while an aspiring engineering might be applying to a completely separate "College of Engineering" within the institution. So, by throwing engineering into the mix, your son's quandary becomes more complex.

Unfortunately, his best bet is to contact all of the colleges on his list and find out:

-if the choice he indicates on his application is binding

-if a possible engineering major means applying to a separate program or school within the institution

-if the college allows a first and second choice, when the major on the application is binding

-how the college responds to students who list "Undecided" as their choice but may possibly want to go into engineering

He may find this information on college Web sites, but--if this turns into too much of a treasure hunt--he should contact the admission office directly. He may also want to contact each engineering department directly, too, to find out their policies on when and how an undergrad who is truly undecided needs to make a commitment to this discipline. I think your son would have an easier time if he were stuck between political science and English lit. ;-)

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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