How to Choose a Major for your College Application

Nearly every college supplement will include some question that basically amounts to “why do you want to go HERE?” Sometimes they will fancy it up to make it seem less harsh or direct, but it’s really just asking one thing: if you are qualified, and if we like the rest of your application, how would you make the most of your time at our school? The if’s are important because if you aren’t qualified and they don’t like your application, it really doesn’t matter how much you adore the work of that one professor in the English Department or how badly you want to walk onto the soccer team. However, if they are considering accepting you, answering this question correctly is crucial.

We can help you ace your entire college supplement but in this post, we’re going to focus on one tiny detail that can make all of the difference when you’re answering why you want to go to a particular school. That detail is informally declaring your intended major. Below are 5 steps that will help you pick a major for your college application.

Step 1: Don’t Avoid the Question

This is pretty simple. They asked you a question. They want to know why you want to go to their school, and part of answering the question is saying what you’d like to study. If you try to use the same bland and general answer for every college you apply to, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Also, if you say you’d like to major in something a college doesn’t offer because you forgot to double check before sending it out en masse, you’re going to be really embarrassed.

Step 2: Don’t Be Undecided

No, we do not expect you to actually know exactly what you are going to major in before you even know where you are going. The majority of people are undecided well into their Freshman or even Sophomore years and we don’t expect 17-year-olds to know that they want to study the linguistic patterns of tribes in East Africa. But while we know that you’re most likely undecided, and the admissions officers know that most of their students will come in undecided, you are not allowed to say that in your application (seriously, we forbid you). One reason not to be undecided is that saying that you are undecided kills about half of the things you could talk about in your answer. Deciding on a major means zooming in on a department, specific faculty, and courses you may want to take, which are all things you should be including in your supplement. The nuts-and-bolts reason to not be undecided is more about the business of higher education. Saying that you are undecided shows a lack of focused interest, which might be an early indicator that you will take more than four years to graduate. Colleges care a lot about their 4-year graduation rate, so when you say undecided, they see a red flag and a drop in their rankings.

Step 3: Figure Out What You Like

If you’re going to pick a major to emphasize in your application (which you are going to do) it should: 1. actually make sense given your academic and/or personal interests and 2. be something you can at least feign enthusiasm for. If you have never taken a music theory course and don’t play an instrument, you shouldn’t be saying that you would like to major in Renaissance tunes. However, you don’t need to be reading your chemistry textbook for fun to emphasize an interest in it on your application. We don’t expect you to be in love with something just yet, but you do need to like it enough to be able to logically link it to the rest of your application. If you have trouble coming up with possibilities there are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • What project did you love most last year?
  • What class did you look forward to?
  • Were you part of any academically-minded clubs like a robotics club, environmental club, or a book group?
  • You should even think about whether there are any sections of the news that you gravitate towards. Are you most interested in keeping up with American politics or are global issues more riveting? Does the travel section drag you in, or do you like articles on the arts best?

Step 4: Take What You Like and Translate It Into Programs

Once you have a thing or two that you like, think about where they fit into a university education. If you’re interested in women’s rights and gender equality, that might be in a Gender Studies program. If you have a thing for understanding systems, that might mean economics or even business. The point is, what you are interested in matters for where you are applying. Not every school has every major and not every school can cater to every interest. Yes, you’re right, Yale has a Film and Media Studies major, but if you actually want to be making films, you’ll want to look for programs that facilitate that, not just the study of it. On the flip side, if you’re interested in a more generic or broad major that almost every institution offers, like math or history, you’re applying to the school as much as you are to the major, so you’ll have many more choices.

More choices may sound like the better option (we love a good buffet!), but going for a generic major isn’t always the best choice. With broader majors, it’s extra important to zoom in further, which brings us to the final step.

Step 5: Zoom In

You have your interests, you have possible programs, departments, or tracks, and now it’s time to zoom in on what exactly will work for you. For the thousandth time, no, this does not mean you will actually have to major in the topic you are including in your application. You are not marrying it. The school will not punish you for picking interpretational dance instead of applied mathematics, so chill out. All you need to do is to take what you know you are interested in, look at the corresponding programs or departments you’ve identified within universities, and pick a major. There are a lot more majors and foci within majors than you might think and it’s always fun to see the variety of options available. Dive in, explore and pick a major that resonates with you and that you’re excited to do a little research on for your supplement. Bonus points if you find something a little strange and a tiny bit weird, but that totally works with who you are. :)

Case Study: We recently had a student who was totally lost on what to include as her potential major in her applications. Let’s call her Becca. She is smart, has good grades, and is well-rounded, but there wasn’t anything jumping out at her from the lists of potential majors - mostly because they all blurred into one overwhelming blob. With dozens to choose from, she had no idea where to even start, but she knew she needed to find something.

While we were working with Becca, she shared that her favorite class was environmental studies. We immediately thought that science might be a good fit, but she said that it wasn’t the science that interested her the most. Actually, she really didn’t care for the science aspect at all. What she liked were the stories they read by and about people who were being affected by climate change. She loved the narratives and the ways in which writers like Bill McKibben are putting people at the front of the dialogue around climate change. Becca spent time working on her high school paper and was always most interested in the interviews and profiles, but since she’d never taken a creative writing course, she hadn’t thought to incorporate her interest in storytelling and true-life tales into her college degree.

Since Becca was so interested in storytelling, and loves to write, we started looking at well-established creative writing programs that included a focus in nonfiction, and that have nonfiction writers on their faculty who specialize in telling other people’s stories.

After we identified some programs, we dove in with Becca to find one the one that she was most excited about, and that would allow for the most freedom if she decided that Creative Writing wasn’t the major for her after all. It was important that she pick a school that was well-respected all-around since she wasn’t completely sold on the major she was focusing on. Even though she didn’t know if she would follow through with creative writing, she went on to study it at Columbia, which is not only one of the best universities in the country, but also a great place for creative writing and, if she decides to mix things up, switching majors.

Becca didn’t know what to list as a prospective major in her application, and she had no idea that she’d actually go on to study it in college, but we think that identifying a major that was a good fit with a clear tie-in to her academic and personal interests is one of the things that made her stand out from other applicants. Don’t let indecision get in the way of you getting into your dream school. Pick a major already!


Last year, 88% of our students got into their first choice. We’d love to help you get to where you want to be.