In the world of writing supplemental college essays, two topics are particularly frustrating for students. At Virtual College Counselors, we call these two prompts the “Why College” and “Why Major” supplemental essays. Here are a couple of specific examples for each of these prompts:
- “Why College”
- Many students apply to the College of Charleston based on our location, size, reputation and the beauty of our campus (temperate year-round weather also comes up frequently). While these are all important considerations in choosing a college, why is the College of Charleston a particularly good match for you? – College of Charleston
- Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University. – Tulane University
- “Why Major”
- Please share a bit more about your academic interests. What do you hope to study at CU Boulder? What has inspired your interests in this area? Or if you are undecided, what area(s) of study are you considering? Think about your prior/current coursework, extracurricular activities, work/volunteer experiences, future goals, or anything else that has shaped your interests. – University of Colorado Boulder
- What academic areas are you interested in exploring in college? – Elon University
For this blog post, we’re going to be focusing on the “Why Major” essay.
Table of Contents
Why a “Why Major” Essay?
I want to start this section with a brief quote from a blog written by our (awesome) intern:
“When you start applying to college, people will ask you what you want to do, what you want to major in, and where you want to be in four years. I don’t know whose idea it was to ask a 17-year-old such deep questions on a nearly daily basis. Some teenagers know exactly where they want to be, how they’re going to do it, and how to articulate it all back to an aunt they see every two years, but most don’t. Most teenagers have no idea what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Some of the most brilliant students I know still have no idea, and that needs to be okay.“
Why do I love this quote? Because no truer synopsis can be found of how most students respond when asked what they want to study. It’s also a valid point. These students have been molded by our education system to keep their minds open: exposure to multiple foreign languages, taking five different core subjects instead of focusing on one specialization, etc. For the vast majority of students, this is the first time that same education system that made them think broadly will require them to narrow their prospects. It’s only natural that a typical high schooler’s response would have a vague combination of confusion, loss, and betrayal.
Well, let me assuage your fears by telling you that most students don’t know what they want to major in and a large percentage of students will end up changing their major at least once. Don’t think about the “Why Major” essay as an attempt to gaze into a crystal ball and predict the rest of your career, much less where you’ll be in the next four years. Instead, think about what you’re interested in now and let that be the guiding force. To be fair, some colleges will have very rigid academic structures and it can be very difficult to change majors even to related fields. That being said, many schools won’t require a student to know their major upon admission and will have mechanism that allows students to change their major down the line. Some schools don’t require a student to declare a major until the end of their second year and others might not have majors at all. The takeaway here is that the “Why Major” essay is not binding for most applications and students need to remember that as they develop their responses.
As a high school junior beginning the college search, I was convinced that I wanted to study Psychology. One semester later, I was dead set on pursuing a major in Japanese. Fast forward to the summer after high school graduation and I knew Sociology/Anthropology was the route for me. It wasn’t until my first semester at college that I began to focus on my would-be major: International Studies-History. Even then, I remember several nights of anxiety and self-reflection about my choice of major and the fear of what that might mean for the future. I’m here to tell you that your major is important, but it is not the end all be all of decisions you will make. Take some time to poll the adults in your life and ask them a couple questions:
- “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
- “What was your favorite subject in high school?”
- “Did you feel certain about your major when you started college?”
- “Do you use your college major professionally?”
So, let’s tie this back to the topic at hand: “Why a ‘Why Major’ Essay?” A “Why Major” essay serves as an opportunity for students to demonstrate their intellectual interests/curiosities and how they’ve engaged with those ideas. No one is asking you to predict the future or embellish your academic experiences (and if they are, you shouldn’t attend that college). Be honest and authentic in your response, even if that means you’re undecided in your major choice. Here are four steps to help you write your response in a way that provides all the nourishing information admission officers are looking for while remaining true to yourself and your interests.
The “Why Major” Formula
In our “Why College” blog post, we mentioned that many students don’t have a highly detailed or personal story about why they are interested in a college. While that is totally fine for the “Why College” essay, you’ll need to provide a bit more insight for a “Why Major” response. Similar to a “Why College” response, any admission officer operating in good faith realizes that not every student is going to have a life-changing reason for wanting to major in a subject. Students are going to be expected to take some time and reflect on why they’ve chosen a subject and what that might mean for their time on a college campus. This is where the “Why Major” Formula comes in!
With this exercise, any student can create authentic, compelling, and easily repeatable responses to the “Why Major” prompt by answering four questions.
Step 1: How Did You Discover this Academic Interest?
The first and most important step of this response is actually answering the prompt, and more specifically, answering the “why?” What are some academic subjects you enjoy and why do you enjoy them? Even if you’re unsure about majoring in that academic subject, fields of study that you enjoy are going to be the best place to start. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is my favorite academic subject?
- Is there a subject I am particularly good at?
- If I could substitute my least favorite academic class with another of my favorite academic class, would I?
- What is a topic that I find myself losing time learning about?
- If I could create an academic class not offered at my school, what would it be?
After we have some academic subjects in mind, we can shift our thinking from “what subjects do I enjoy” to “why do I enjoy these subjects.” This is where we can really start to uncover material for your response to the prompt. Once again, this response is less about predicting your future and more about demonstrating your intellectual curiosity and ability to explain it to other people. Once you have a subject in mind, start diving deeper into why you enjoy it.
Step 1 Example: High School Sawyer
- What is my favorite academic subject?
- Two of my favorite subjects are History and English (literature analysis preferred over grammar)
- Is there a subject you are particularly good at?
- I would echo my first response.
- If you could substitute your least favorite academic class with another of your favorite academic class, would you?
- In a heartbeat! Goodbye Math and hello to another History course. In particular, I’d love to look at the history of regions outside of the U.S.A. and Europe. Alternatively, I’d love to dive deeply into a specific historical element of modern culture, such as war portrayed in modern films.
- What is a topic that you find yourself losing time learning about?
- Anything about the history, culture, language, politics, etc. of Japan, Korea, and China.
- If you could create an academic class not offered at your school, what would it be?
- My high school did not offer many courses outside of the standard core courses and some electives. As a high schooler, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to learn an additional foreign language aside from French and Spanish. I also would have loved to see more pop culture-focused courses like History of World War 2 through Film or Philosophy through Graphic Novels.
- If I had to choose a major from the answers to these questions, what would it be?
- Some sort of History.
- Why History?
- I love discovering how we got to where we are. I’m interested in learning about the origins of systems and how those origins still impact us today.
- I love telling stories, and few stories inspire as much awe as true stories. If you don’t believe me, look at how many movies are marketed as “Based on a True Story.” Let’s take it a step further and look at one of my favorite pop culture influencers: The 1999 found footage film the Blair Witch Project. The actors played themselves, handouts were produced about them being missing persons, an amateur website was created, and there was even a partnered mockumentary with the Sci-fi Channel about the fictional legend of the Blair Witch and the three film students who went missing. That is an example of the power that stories grounded in reality have.
- I enjoy creative writing, which includes a fair amount of worldbuilding. History provides fantastic insight and examples that can inspire the creation of fictional worlds grounded in reality.
- I’m a big fan of “What if…” culture. What if George Washington hadn’t stepped down as President? What if Japan hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor? What if the Cold War was no longer cold? What if 9/11 could have been avoided? What would our world look like today? I could happily spend all day discussing how the theoretical alteration of past events would impact our current reality.
- I hold in high respect the concept that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In science, we emphasize the scientific method as a way to observe, hypothesize, test, and draw conclusions for the next iteration. I hold a similar view with the study of history as a chance to observe, hypothesize, test, and draw conclusions for the next iteration of humanity.
Step 2: How Have You Pursued this Interest Outside of the Classroom?
One of the best ways to make your case for being interested in a major is through engagement and experience in a related field. Let’s take a second and talk about one of the most popular majors across the country: Biology. Specifically, let’s take a look at Biology majors who are following a Pre-Med track. Ask any admission counselor and they’ll tell you plenty of tales about students who are determined to follow a pre-med track, and then go to medical school after graduation. Ask those same admission counselors about what happens next, and they’ll probably talk about how many of those students choose another major by their second semester.
To be clear, I don’t think that changing your major is a bad thing. In fact, if it were up to me, I would make every non-specialized college start their students as undecided. Nonetheless, this presents an interesting problem for many admission counselors in this country. At many schools, there are a limited number of seats for students to attend their school or a specific program they offer. So, if an admission counselor only has one spot in a pre-med program left and there are two applicants, what will make the difference? If an applicant can demonstrate that they have spent time in a medical setting through volunteering, job shadowing, or internships, then they have established themselves as a much safer choice for the college. After all, that student who has already spent time in a medical environment is much more likely to continue their academic and professional journey down that path.
Sure, this all sounds great in theory, but in reality, not every student has the opportunity to be immersed in a professional setting of their choosing. So how can students without professional opportunities or connections demonstrate their interest outside of the classroom? Here are a few suggestions that are applicable to the vast majority of high school students:
- You might not be able to land an internship or shadowing opportunity, but volunteering opportunities tend to be more plentiful. Even if the experience you have might not sound as glamorous, any experience in an interested subject is a major boon to the college application.
- Multimedia Engagement:
- Between podcasts, books, and documentaries (to name a few), there are a multitude of ways to engage with a subject that can fit a student’s financial constraints or busy schedule. Thanks to the widespread and rapid growth of the internet and technology, the barrier to finding and engaging with an interesting subject has never been lower.
- Online Learning:
- Thanks to technology, students can engage with several online learning platforms to expand or augment their high school education. One of the greatest benefits of this path is the flexibility offered to students. Many courses can be started at any time and are self-paced, allowing students to engage with the content as their schedule allows. Last, but certainly not least, many opportunities are reasonably priced, and some may even be completely free of charge.
Step 3: Why this Major at this College?
I’ll be the first to admit that not every school is going to having a compelling reason to study any particular major at their school. I took a lot of History courses in college and loved all of them. That being said, I was reading, analyzing, and synthesizing materials from books, articles, and primary sources. The tutelage of and conversations with my professors might have been unique, but a large part of my classroom learning experience would have remained the same elsewhere. The bottom line is that much of the classroom learning at college can be replicated across the board.
This isn’t to say that all classroom learning experiences in higher education are identical. Some colleges are going to offer very unique opportunities or majors for students. If you find a unique major, program, or academic emphasis, then it is worthwhile to include this in your response.
But what if you find a great college and can’t find anything unique or compelling about your major of interest? Well, I have two thoughts that might help you out:
- Sometimes you might have to broaden your view in order to talk about why you’re interested in a major at a specific college. What I mean is that you can start to look at departmental specialties or outcomes to see what how other students have fared at this college. You can also extrapolate some of your “Why College” talking points and apply them to your major. For example, if you are interested in a theater program, then the location of a school might play a large role in opportunities available outside of the classroom. Are you interested in marine biology? If so, then talk about the school’s proximity to an aquarium, zoo, wildlife preserve, or large body of water.
- The good news is that not every prompt will specifically ask you why you are interested in a particular major at their college. If you can find compelling reasons, that’s awesome and I encourage you to include them regardless of the prompt’s phrasing. If the prompt doesn’t specifically ask you this question and you can’t find any compelling reasons, then focus on the other pieces of your response.
Step 4: What Are Some of Your Long-Term Goals?
The last piece of your response should be focused on your long-term goals. This doesn’t mean that you should know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Spoiler alert: very few people (even fewer students) know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. As I said at the beginning of this blog, not knowing what to do with the rest of your life is normal and healthy. I am quite certain that I don’t have a functioning crystal ball, and neither does an admission officer, parent, or student.
While it’s okay to not know your future, it is not okay to not think about your future. Nothing you forecast about your future is binding and no one is going to rightly scold you for growing and changing as a person, academic, or professional. What is expected is that you are at least thinking about the future and assessing who you want to be, where you want to go, and how you will interact and engage with the world. Between kindergarten and 12th grade, I wanted to be a paleontologist, chef, actor, psychologist, FBI special agent, and member of the State Department (in that order). I am none of those things professionally (even if I still love fossils, bake excessively, and have been called dramatic on many occasions). The important part of the journey wasn’t becoming any of those things, it was thinking about what I was passionate about and how I could interact with the world. That’s what admissions officers are looking for, not a 100% guarantee of your future career for the remainder of your life. Be excited to learn and grow while keeping an open mind about the opportunities life will put along your path.
Also relevant: How to Write a “Why This College” Essay in 4 Easy Steps!
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors, Sawyer Earwood provides stress-free, personalized, and professional one-on-one college guidance around the globe from the comfort of a student’s own home. See his profile with contact information here.