College applications: why your major matters

One of the most appealing aspects of an American liberal arts education lies in the notion that a student should not have to commit to any course of study before he or she is ready to do so. Unlike Britain, for example, where students apply to a specific course of study, American students applying to liberal arts colleges may at most be asked to state an academic interest. At many institutions students are in fact only called on to declare a major – such as mathematics, economics or sociology – at the end of sophomore year. (Note that engineering programs, for example, are very different, given the very high credit count of the accredited degree.)

Admitting students without reference to their major recognizes the fact that at college students will change their majors as often as they change their minds. It is also an encouragement to explore broadly and by roaming through an interdisciplinary reservoir, find the different lenses through which they can look at the issues that interest them.

It is easy, however, to confuse such an approach with a kind of academic drifting that lacks rigor and discipline. Many college applicants check the box that declares them undecided about their intended major because they genuinely cannot commit to a course of study. But for many it is simply a lazy way to avoid engaging with college as an academic institution or to think deeply about what they hope to achieve there. It is a bit like embarking on a trip without having wasted too much thought on either the route or the destination.

In the admission process to a selective liberal arts college, a lack of any academic focus can also help to weaken a student’s application. Some colleges will require applicants to express an academic interest even if their admitted students have a lot of leeway in changing majors. An applicant at Cornell’s College of Arts and Science, for example, has to be able to, “describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you.” Michigan asks applicants to describe how a particular college within the university will meet their academic interests. It may be possible to answer these questions without committing to a specific major, but it will probably be a lot easier to set out an intellectual evolution that has a major at the end of it. When a student is exploring what a school such as Cornell or Michigan has to offer, he or she should therefore spend as much time checking out departmental and program websites, as student activities and housing arrangements.

Even when a selective university does not require any commitment to an academic field, it is still interested in gauging what Stanford calls the “intellectual vitality” of its applicants. A student who wrestles with how best to pursue, for example, an interest in South East Asian culture – is it best to major in Asian Studies, International Relations, History or even Anthropology? – reveals just such a vitality and engagement.

Contrast such an intellectual tussle with a student who limply expresses an interest in mathematics, “because I am good at it”; or who wants to study psychology “because my friends always ask me for advice” and sociology because “I am a social person.” (These actually appeared in applications!) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these ideas and in truth they probably do motivate many students. But they are superficial and thoughtless at best, and applicants to selective colleges do not want to give admission readers reason to doubt their depth. So while high school students should be encouraged to explore the many ways in which colleges differ from each other, from size and location to study abroad options, they should also be prodded to consider, with excitement and anticipation, the academic opportunities and choices at the heart of their college experience.

By Andrea van Niekerk