Should I Declare a Major When I Apply To College?

About a third of college students change their major at least once during their undergraduate study.  About 10% change their major more than once.  According to this report from Ohio State University Exploration program (which helps undeclared students figure out what they want to study), more than a third of their students changed their major between applying and the end of freshman orientation.

So if you’re not really sure what you’re most interested in, what’s the point of declaring a major when you apply to college?  Will it help or hurt?

YES – Declare a Major on College Apps

If you’re really quite sure of what you want to study, you should indicate this on your college applications!  If you’re truly sure about where your academic passion lies, we hope that you’ve at least begun to explore that passion in some way during high school – so your activities list and your transcript might reflect your interest.  These all tell admission officers a story about you that supports the major you selected.

If you may be interested in a major that is particularly competitive – nursing, engineering, business and some pre-health programs are the most competitive – you may want to declare that major to make sure you are admissible to that program.  Some universities will not allow students to transfer into the more competitive majors once they’ve matriculated.  Check with each college during your application process to determine how difficult it is to transfer internally.

NO – Don’t Declare a Major on College Apps

If you’re truly undecided, you may want to just let colleges know that!  Some of them pride themselves in curating programs to help undeclared students learn what their options are and chart out their academic path based on their newfound interests.

One time I went through a major-exploration exercise with a student, and I told him I didn’t want him to feel I was painting him into a corner with regard to choosing a major before he applied to college.  “I don’t even know what the corners are,” he told me.  We help students consider their possible majors, always knowing there are many more options than they realize, and that it is totally ok for them to apply undecided.

So when you read in US News and World Report their advice not only to declare a major on your college applications, but to consider STEM (what if you aren’t a STEM kid!?) and calculate salary ranges (what if this is not a driving factor for you?), consider that this is just one of many, many voices out there giving you advice about college admission that is not specifically tailored to your needs.

I’d rather follow the advice of a college professor who has advised actual students for decades, watching them declare a major and then doubt themselves, check off boxes as they rush through college without taking advantage of the opportunity to explore.  THIS is good advice.  If you’re undecided, that’s fine!

Evelyn Jerome-Alexander is the founder of Magellan College Counseling.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins, a Master’s degree from George Washington University, and a Certificate in College Counseling (with distinction) from UCLA.  Evelyn was asked in 2019 to serve as an instructor for UC Berkeley’s online College Admissions Advising courses and is a member of educational professional associations such as IECA (professional member), HECA and WACAC.

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