The act of formulating a clear and decisive plan is as valorized in the college admissions process as it is in most other realms of American life. Highly-selective colleges do generally give an edge to students who profess to have figured out their whole professional life by the tender of age of eighteen and possess a track record of activities and achievements consistent with those stated plans—hence, the pressure felt by applicants to list an intended major on their application even if, internally, the compass guiding their future path is spinning like a pinwheel in a windstorm.

In an attempt to elucidate all aspects of application-stage major declaration, we will answer the following questions:

  • Am I allowed to change majors after being accepted?
  • Why do some universities force me to apply to a specific college/school?
  • Will certain majors give me an admissions edge on my college application?

We begin with an overview of whether or not you are locked-in to the major you list on your college application. Spoiler alert: The answer should immediately ease some of your anxiety.

Am I allowed to change majors after being accepted?

Let’s go right to the source on this one and hear from a few uber-elite institutions who know that their applicants are having night terrors and heart palpitations about this very subject. MIT states that: “Students apply to MIT for general admission and select a major at the end of the first year with the help of their first year advisor.” They do ask applicants to list a “course of interest” but explain that this has no bearing on admissions decisions, acknowledging that “a large percentage of students at MIT end up majoring in something other than what they listed as their field of interest as applicants.”

Princeton similarly does not bind students in any way to the intended concentration that they declare on their application. In fact, they freely share that 70% of Tiger graduates earn their degree in an area different from what they listed four years prior on their application. William & Mary also doesn’t expect your intended major to translate to an actual area of study—rather, they see major exploration as a two-year process. W&M captures this sentiment on their website, explaining that the “courses you take in your first and second years will explore a variety of academic disciplines and give you a better sense for where you want to focus this part of your undergraduate studies.”

While many schools, even the most academically demanding in country like MIT, Princeton, and William & Mary aren’t expecting you to chart your academic course prior to even setting foot in a college classroom, other institutions will require you to select a particular undergraduate school on your application—and that’s where things get murkier and more strategic.

Universities that require you to apply to a specific school

At a liberal arts college, moving between departments is typically quite easy; at a larger university housing a number of schools/colleges, particularly ones with highly variable admissions standards, this may be quite challenging.  Large flagships like the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan, or the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well large private research institutions like Cornell University, Boston University, or Washington University in St. Louis, require you to apply directly to certain schools or colleges. For example, Dyson (Cornell), Questrom (BU), and Olin (WashU) business schools are all “direct admit” institutions, meaning that students apply specifically for entrance into that school. The three state universities referenced above all require you to apply directly to their colleges of engineering.

Fortunately, even at these highly-selective universities, switching majors within your given college is unlikely to cause trouble. A student at the University of Pennsylvania’s vaunted Wharton School of Business can freely change their area of concentration from Accounting to Behavioral Economics. On the other hand, switching from Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences into Wharton involves another harrowing admissions process after one’s freshman year.

Can I declare major in an underrepresented area to gain an admissions advantage?

In some cases, the backdoor admissions strategy of pretending to be interested in a relatively unpopular major can, in fact, be a viable maneuver. In other instances, such a move can prove disastrous. These two examples should illustrate the point:

Scenario #1 (When the strategy makes sense)

Larry is a high-caliber student who is 100% that he wants to be an engineer. Georgia Tech is his top choice school and he is aware that the mid-50% SAT range is 1400-1520 and that the average GPA is a 4.07. Larry, or L-Train, as his water polo buddies affectionately call him, has a 1410 and a 3.8 GPA. In other words, he’s a certifiably borderline candidate at Georgia Tech and is desperately searching for any kind of admissions advantage. Through a little bit of old- fashioned research, Larry discovers that almost 60% of the degrees conferred at Tech are in engineering, 17% are in computer science, and 10% are in business; however, only 1% of Yellow Jackets major in math making it a truly undersubscribed major. He then reads on the school’s website that the admissions department makes clear that they “expect to see evidence of your interest in and preparation for the major/college that you list on your application.” This actually works because L-Train was on the Math Olympiad team and scored a 5 on the AP Calc BC exam. Larry applies as an intended math major and sneaks into his dream school, with the option to transfer into engineering at any time.

Scenario #2 (When the strategy does not make sense)

Janice, who despises water polo and has an Uncle Larry who obsessively builds model ships in bottle, wants more than anything in the world to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon. Her 1360 SAT score is awesome but well shy of the 1500-1570 mid-50% range of admitted CS students. Always a cunning one, Janice finds out that College of Fine Arts students have a 1290-1490 mid-50% SAT range and a scheme hatches on the level of an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist—Janice is going to pretend to masquerade through the application process as an artist, gain acceptance, and then rip off her mask, revealing to those robber barons, Carnegie and Mellon, that a computer science major has just Trojan Horsed her way into their exclusive club. Months later she is shocked when her plan is foiled—the admissions committee was perplexed as why an applicant to the art program stopped taking art as a sophomore and struggled to cobble together even a basic portfolio—she was rejected.

Quick recap

In short, most students need not fret about what major they list on their college application. If you choose to list an intended area of study, you should do so in an area that makes sense given the other particulars of your application (i.e. the focus of your extracurricular involvement, course selection, honors and distinctions, etc.). Generally, you will be able to easily change your major at a liberal arts college, but are likely to encounter more difficulty transferring into a highly-competitive school at a larger university. Listing an underrepresented major on your application is a sound strategy only if a coherent and compelling case can be made for your selection.