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Last updated August 29, 2023

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What is a college major (and why does it matter for admissions)?

Key Takeaway

Choosing a college major is a critical part of the college journey. Your major influences your degree type, career path, and application requirements. Popular majors have high competition, so take relevant high school courses and extracurriculars to stand out. Don't apply for a less competitive major intending to switch later—it's unethical and often ineffective.

When you go to college, you’re going to need to choose a major. For some schools, you have to choose a major before you even apply.

"But what if I don't know what I want to do in the future?" you might ask.

You’re not alone! Very few high schoolers know what they actually want to do with their lives when they apply to college.

But deciding on a general pathway is an important step to choosing a college.

In this post, we’ll walk through what a college major is and how your major affects your application process.


What is a college major?

A college major is an academic discipline you concentrate on during college. You become a college-educated expert in whatever field you study, and it’s the field you earn your degree in.

If you're a biology major, for example, you'll spend most of your time studying biology. You'll learn everything about the subject to prepare you for a job in the field or more study at the graduate level.

Many people go on to careers related to their college major, but a lot of people also have jobs completely unrelated to what they studied.

There are thousands of major options out there. You’ve probably heard of many of the most common ones, like English, physics, history, engineering, or education.

But college majors get a lot more specific—women and gender studies, astrobiology, environmental history, science and technology studies, and more. Some colleges even have the option for you to design your own major.

When you get a bachelor’s degree, you need at least one major.

Your major will likely determine the type of bachelor’s degree you earn. If you’re pursuing a more humanities-based major, you’ll probably get a Bachelor of Arts degree. If you’re majoring in a STEM field, you’ll likely get a Bachelor of Science degree.

Every college and university has its own course requirements that you’ll have to fulfill if you want to major in that specific discipline. You’ll probably have to complete general education requirements as well as introductory, intermediate, and advanced coursework in your major. You may even have a capstone project or thesis to write your senior year.

If you’re torn between two academic subjects, most colleges also allow you to double—or even triple!—major. In that case, you’ll need to fulfill the requirements for each of the disciplines you’re majoring in.

How Your Intended Major Affects Your Applications

Your intended major can play a big role in your college application process—especially at bigger universities or in competitive programs.

First off, colleges and universities are often organized around majors. Each major has what’s called a “department” that all the faculty and students belong to. English majors, for example, would belong to the English department.

At larger universities, departments are often organized into schools or colleges. Most English departments fall within the College of Arts and Sciences. If you want to be an English major, then you have to apply to the College of Arts and Sciences. (Note that these divisions are more common at larger universities and less common at smaller schools like liberal arts colleges.)

Consider popular majors like engineering, business, and computer science. Often, these majors fall within a School of Engineering or a College of Business.

Because these majors are popular, they get a lot of applicants. And since the applicants will all be vying for a limited number of spots in the major, the applicant pool can get really competitive.

If you're applying to these types of majors, your application might be evaluated by faculty members from those departments. They tell the admissions office what they're looking for in applicants, so your application may even be held to a higher standard or require more specific coursework to be admitted.

When you apply to a competitive major, admissions officers often want to see that you've taken high-level courses in high school related to that major. They also like to see that you’ve been involved in related extracurricular activities.

There are three takeaways here.

  1. Depending on the kind of institution you’re applying to, your intended major may determine what school or college you apply to—be it the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering, or something else.

  2. If you’re applying to a very sought-after major like engineering or computer science, you’re going to have more competition.

  3. The more you can make the narrative of your application show that you’re a good fit for your major, the better.

Now, what should you do if you want to apply to a competitive major? Is there a way to game the system?

Should I Apply to a Less Competitive Major and Then Change?

In short: no. Don't apply to a less competitive major planning to switch to your preferred major later. It might seem like a smart way to avoid competition, but it’s not a good option and doesn’t actually work.

First, think about the ethics. It's dishonest, and admissions officers can generally spot it. Second, even if you ignore the ethics, this approach has practical problems. Many universities have strict rules about changing majors, especially into competitive programs. You might end up tracked into the major you applied to simply because you still aren’t able to transfer into the major you actually want to study.

So if you’re interested in a popular major, build your school list accordingly, and plan a lot of good target and safety schools.


Choosing a college major, an academic field you focus on, is a critical part of your college journey and application process. Your major can influence your degree type, career path, and application requirements. Popular majors often have high competition. You can stand out among the applicant pool by taking relevant high school courses and extracurriculars. Don't apply for a less competitive major intending to switch later—it's unethical and often logistically ineffective. No matter your major, always think about creating a robust list of target and safety schools.

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