The Role of Majors in Applying to a Liberal Arts Program

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|December 4, 2020|4 Minutes

A liberal arts education assumes that students do not commit to any course of study before they are ready to do so. While there are several courses of study, such as engineering and art, where students do apply to a specific course of study, liberal arts applicants to American institutions will at most be asked to state an academic interest. In fact, many colleges require students to declare a major – such as mathematics, economics or sociology – only at the end of sophomore (2nd) year.

Admitting students with little reference to their majors recognizes the fact that they will change their minds as they discover new ideas and new interests. And liberal arts colleges think this is a really good idea! They want students to roam broadly through an interdisciplinary reservoir of knowledge, finding different lenses through which to look at questions that interest them.

It is easy though to confuse this opportunity to explore, with an academic drifting that lacks rigor and discipline. Many college applicants check the box that says they are undecided about an intended major because they are genuinely not ready to commit to a course of study. But others do so because they fail to see that going to college is ultimately an academic choice, not a simple rite of passage, and they are reluctant to think too 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!

More pragmatically, when you apply to selective liberal arts colleges without any thought about your academic direction, you weaken your application. At the very least it makes it harder to give a strong answer when, for example, Cornell asks you “about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.” Or when you have to “describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically.”

Thinking about your major before you apply has other consequences for your application as well. Your chances of admission will not improve because you checked Biology rather than Sociology. But in your explanation of that choice, you give a college the opportunity to gauge your “intellectual vitality.” Compare a student who writes of an interest in how human behavior is conditioned by culture, with one who wants to study Psychology “because my friends always ask me for advice.” Or compare one who limply expresses an interest in Mathematics “because I am good at it,” with a student describing the beauty of Mandelbrot sets. Perhaps a student has in fact been motivated to study Sociology because “I am a social person,” but her answer seems superficial and thoughtless at best, and simply not very smart at worst!

If you wish to persuade a college that you have intellectual depth and curiosity, you need to support your claim with action. Reading, learning from a part-time job, participating in research over the summer, and even engaging with your teachers beyond what a good grade requires are all good ways to develop your academic narrative. And when you research colleges – size, location, clubs – also make time to contemplate, with excitement and anticipation, the academic opportunities that will be at the heart of your college experience.