How to Write the Why This Major Essay + Example
April 26, 2023
Writing the supplemental “Why this major” essay sounds like a cakewalk for approximately 4% of high school seniors—those lucky few who’ve known their purpose since kindergarten. For most, it feels more like a desperate stab at fortune-telling. How should anyone know what major they’ll choose at a school they haven’t yet been invited to attend? (Let alone what career they’d choose after graduating from said unknown institution.) In fact, if these students could flash forward two years, they’d see that a large number of sophomores will still be considering the question a week before they must pick their major.
The reality is, choosing a major often involves a lot more on-site research: visiting the offices of professors, talking to college advisors, testing out intro classes, etc. The “Why this major essay”, on the other hand, is rarely a commitment to a particular major. Rather, it’s a way for admissions officers to determine a) what subject(s) the student is interested in, b) how they’ve pursued this interest already, and c) how they would take advantage of the college’s resources while further developing in their field. Like the why this college essay, the why this major essay ultimately shows admissions officers if the student will be a good fit at their college. Yet here the scope of the essay is more focused. This makes the essay easier to tackle, so long as the student has done their research.
Researching the Why This Major Essay
Whether or not the student has already picked their intended major, it’s essential to do some preliminary research. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised to hear how many students dash off a why this major essay without ever visiting the college website. Most college websites will be neatly laid out, with an “Academics” page linking to the various majors and minors on offer.
For undecided students, this list of majors will spark ideas. Often, subjects not offered at the high school level simply aren’t on a high schooler’s radar. Less typical liberal arts majors might include Food Studies, Fashion, and Neuroscience. A larger university may have a whole school dedicated to Engineering, with engineering majors ranging from Biomedical Engineering to Civil Engineering. (Students applying to a particular school like this will want to read up on additional guides, such as Preparing for a Top Engineering College.)
Furthermore, students may find that a particular college combines several of their interests into one major. A major in Sustainable Development will require courses on environmental science, economics, and architecture. Some colleges even offer an independent study option, allowing students to combine several disciplines of their choice as they work on a specific senior project.
Once the student has narrowed down their interests to around 1 – 3 majors, they should take notes on any aspects of the programs that appeal to them. These can include the curriculum and courses offered, research taking place in the department, study abroad options, labs, etc. Department websites also provide insight into current and previous students’ thesis work. These notes will make drafting the why this major essay a lot easier, and will provide real evidence that the student is genuinely interested in the program.
Structuring the Why This Major Essay, Part A
Structurally, the “Why this major?” essay hinges on two complementary parts. These two halves don’t need to be equally weighted in words. Yet, they are equally valuable in forming a cohesive argument.
In part A, students describe their history with the specific subject they’ve chosen. Anecdotes provide an easy way in. A why this major engineering essay may begin with a student describing the time they fixed the science class aquarium by restructuring valves connecting to the water tank.
Next, the student should show how this interest turned into a full-fledged passion. Examples here could include specific units in high school classes, books they’ve read, internships, etc. Try to choose moments and details that together shape a journey.
Structuring the Why This Major Essay, Part B
This second part of the “Why this major?” essay is all about the future. The student must link their developed interest to their chosen major. Then, returning to their research notes, the student will show why the school they’re applying to will be unique in providing a relevant and resourceful education in that arena. Though most aspects of a program are worth mentioning, it’s best to avoid naming specific professors. Faculty can vary annually, and even tenured professors go on sabbatical.
A natural final step in Part B involves describing how the chosen major will lead to the student’s desired career. It’s normal for students to feel a bit baffled here. But remember, this essay is not a promise. Rather, talking about potential career paths will demonstrate that the student has some awareness and practical knowledge of the field, as well as some idealism about what they might accomplish in it. Look again at the department website for articles and links to alumni news for inspiration.
Make it personal, and passionate. No matter what major a student chooses, admissions officers will be impressed by a student who has taken their education into their own hands in order to pursue their interest to its fullest.
Focus in on specificity. Admissions officers will remember a student interested in mutations in indigenous tropical plants, though they may forget a student who’s simply interested in botany. Detail will also make the essay more articulate.
Common Mistakes and Lingering Questions
As mentioned above, not doing the research before writing a “Why this major?” essay can lead to serious mistakes. Imagine submitting an essay about why you intend to major in International Politics, only to learn that the college’s major is called Global Politics and Economics. Here are some other common mistakes:
1) Not committing fully to any idea. Students who shy away from definitively selecting a major may do so out of a sense of honesty. Perhaps they don’t feel it’s right to wax on about Medieval Studies when they’re also interested in Historical Preservation. While trying to give both subjects a fair chance, the student can come across as only lukewarm for both. Colleges may pass over an applicant they see as apathetic. (Plus, colleges see students’ evolution as being in their best interest, and won’t hold it against you if you change your mind.) So, throw yourself fully into one major, or both, just make sure the excitement comes through. And, consider mentioning how your second or third interest may become your minor.
2) Parroting the website. Admissions officers know what their website says. That’s their job. Students who find themselves copying or paraphrasing the website can adapt this information to themselves by answering the question, how would I take advantage of this particular feature?
3) Picking the wrong major. Students may feel pressured to pick a major that is perceived to be lucrative, or one that is less popular because they believe it gives them a statistically higher chance of getting accepted. While an applicant’s desired field of study is weighed in the admission process, attempting to “game the system” very rarely ends in success. Ultimately, choosing a major that genuinely aligns with one’s interests and accomplishments is almost always the way to go. (For more on this question, check out Should I Declare a Major on My College Application?)
Sample Why This Major Essay Prompts
While the Common App Prompts ask for fairly lengthy responses, the why this major essay works to complement the main essay, and can be pretty short. Short essays around 100 words will require a cursory nod to each eventful moment in the student’s life that has led them to choose their major. Medium-sized essays (250-400 words) will allow the student to sharpen each experience with more detail.
Let’s take a look at several examples:
Purdue University asks students to “Respond in 100 words or fewer. Briefly discuss your reasons for pursuing the major you have selected.” The brevity of the prompt invites the writer to be straightforward and concise in kind.
Students applying to Princeton as B.S.E. degree applicants will find that the “why this major” engineering prompt is equally straightforward. However, it asks for more specificity. It reads: “Please describe why you are interested in studying engineering at Princeton. Include any of your experiences in or exposure to engineering, and how you think the programs offered at the University suit your particular interests. (Please respond in 250 words or fewer.)”
Why This Major Essay Example
Lastly, let’s see how one engineering student answered both Purdue and Princeton’s why this major essay/why this major essay engineering prompts. You’ll notice that the student recycled various information, but condensed and adapted the essay the second time around.
Why This Major Essay Engineering: Princeton
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig while learning to drive. Afterward, I hoped my mom’s Volvo would break down so I could put the engine back together, as I had with a lawn mower. I love rebuilding things to understand each part. In Electronics, I wrote code to make a robot move, yet was left dissatisfied.
I’d begun to see how our climate crisis is caused by greenhouse gases, a byproduct of technology. I felt deceived by misconceived notions of “progress,” by cars and engines. Only when building an Arduino-based automated watering system to measure moisture in our school garden did I realize how technology might fix our mistakes. A complex watering system might reforest our planet, though it would be an immense undertaking. As Pirsig wrote: “Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not.”
I wish to major in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Princeton University to develop the skills necessary to design technologies that will restore our planet’s balance. I’m inspired by the recent laser-based sensing drone developed by Princeton researchers, which can pinpoint greenhouse gas leaks. With a concentration in Energy and the Environment, I would learn about remote methane sensors using chirped laser dispersion spectroscopy. I plan to develop an independent project on vapor isotope analyzers. After obtaining my B.S.E., I hope to improve the water cycles in urban environments.
Why This Major Essay Engineering: Purdue
While building an Arduino-based automated watering system for my school garden to measure moisture, I realized that human technology does not only destroy environments, but can work to reverse the effects of climate change. Majoring in Multidisciplinary Engineering with a Humanitarian Engineering Concentration at Purdue University would enable me to explore and combine various engineering disciplines in order to design technology that engenders sustainable living solutions for our species while supporting biodiversity on the planet. I plan to construct my own vapor isotope analyzer as my thesis to study and ultimately improve the water cycle of urban environments.
Why this Major Essay – Additional Resources
Looking for advice on other aspects of the college essay writing process? You may also find the following blogs to be of interest: