Major Stress on Deciding a Major Before You Apply?

Ah summer -- the time when everybody relaxes in hammocks whilst children run through sprinklers, blow bubbles and partake in other equally annoying warm weather activities. Meanwhile, I’m still trudging into the office and to assault potential students with an onslaught of recruitment materials or review hordes of applicants who feel our decision to deny them admission cannot possibly have been correct and that, if I just met them personally, I would see past their miserable academic records. Bah.

Fortunately for those of us who believe misery loves company, I know that most rising high school seniors are equally uncomfortable. Not only are they still stuck in class while they watch their graduating friends romp off to the beach, but they are also confronted with ever-increasing levels of stress. While most of the country plans road trips and barbeques, every rising high school senior I meet looks like someone faced with life-changing decisions that have to be made RIGHT NOW.

Relax, or at least be a bit less overstressed. In reality, you soon-to-be seniors still have LOTS of time to make LOTS of decisions.

Perhaps the most persistent misinformation I hear is the unshakable belief that students MUST immediately pick a major. Soon. Like, now. Yesterday would have been better. This misinformation is compounded by a general misunderstanding of college programs and what it really means to pick a college major.

As background, you should know that your college courses will likely be made up of three broad categories, all of which can overlap. The bulk of your courses are divided between your major, and your “core.” I use “core” in this case as shorthand for the core requirements of a baccalaureate degree. These are courses (or, more often, categories of courses) in common for all students at an institution. They may be called other names (core curriculum, general education, liberal arts, confusing mishmash of apparently unrelated courses -- stuff like that), but it all means essentially the same thing.

Your major will usually take up only about a fourth to at most (again usually) half of your courses. Nevertheless, your major is likely the question you get all the time from Grandma, right after which school you’re going to attend and why you don’t call more often. Hence your stress.

Probably the most important thing you should know about picking a major is that, with a few notable exceptions, they don’t matter NEARLY as much as you think. There are a few career fields, like engineering and nursing, where you need to take VERY specific courses to be credentialed to work in the profession, and/or move through the coursework required for those jobs -- so in those cases your major choice is significant.

Most jobs (and grad schools), however, care very very very (very very) little about your major. I know dance majors who became business executives, biology majors who became police officers, and business majors who went on to grad school to become psychologists. Even admission to medical school doesn’t depend on your major. You do need some specific courses (fun stuff, like organic chemistry) but you could, if so inclined, do those with a theater major. Actually, science majors often make great law school candidates, and business backgrounds can be tremendously helpful these days for medial careers.

In other words: Your choice of major, in most cases, does not need to determine the rest of your life -- just a portion of what you’ll study in the next few years.

What about how your major selection impacts your chances of admission? There are few schools where your choice of major has a significant impact, and those schools are usually very up-front about the fact. They are often admitting you into a very specific college of the institution and have limited space for each area -- so it’s like you’re applying to a specific college inside a bigger university. For most schools, however, majors aren’t a big admission influence, especially since we know well that most students tend to change majors a few times on their way to graduation.

Often schools will have some variation when the program needs different preparation. At Mason, for instance, I look particularly at math preparation more closely for engineering majors, and my dance majors require auditions. At most schools, however, this won’t keep you from being admitted to the institution; although you might be admitted outside your preferred major.

Of course, there are years when I need a few more music majors or a few more engineers and look for those in the applicant pool. Unfortunately, you will have NO IDEA if that is the case, so picking your major based on what any particular school MIGHT need in any particular year has as much a chance of hurting as helping your admission.

Fortunately, at most schools you can switch your major around pretty much any time. There are, however, a few where this is really challenging. Usually the schools that are stricter on admission to a particular program are also more challenging when switching majors. This may be confined to a few majors that have limited space (architecture or nursing, for instance) or might be a general policy of the institution. In any event, it’s pretty easy to ask about that before you apply.

In most cases, if the school won’t admit you to your major (or at least pre-major -- many schools make you go through a second application/qualification process, especially in fields like nursing), should you go to that school? If they tell you that getting into that major was very competitive and that few students transfer into it, it’s a strong sign that you might want to add some more schools to your list.

Remember also that not every school calls every major the same thing, and admissions officers can be terribly confusing on this point. If you know, for instance, that you want a particular field of interior design and the admissions officer says her school offers graphic arts, that’s not the same thing. Fields like business, international affairs, political science, and criminal justice, however, can be called by a whole slew of other names, so you need to check around.

Confused yet?

The main point is that a college major means, in general, a lot less than you think. By FAR the most popular major is UNDECIDED. Picking a major isn’t the same as deciding what you’re going to do with your life, and deciding on your college major doesn’t have to happen before you apply, or even in your first year.

So you can tell grandma you have the whole major thing all set. Now you can relax, kick back in the hammock, and stress about where you’re going to apply. I’ll be waiting here in my office, pummeling you with propaganda so you make the RIGHT decision, which would be to apply to MY school, of course.

Stay cool, and be seeing you.

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  1. In Defense of Liberal Arts Education, with Help from Our Founding Fathers - AdmitOne -

    […] wrote recently of how misleading it can be for students to get overly concerned about a particular major. It is just as important for success to place as much emphasis on courses outside your major, […]

  2. General Ed, Core Curriculum, or Whatever You Want to Call Required Courses - AdmitOne -

    […] Where this gets extra confounding is when you aren’t yet sure of your major (which, in my last post, I told you not to stress about). My advice is to pick your liberal arts/general education/core […]

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