Can Choosing An Uncommon Major Boost Admission Chances?

Question: If my son is a borderline candidate at the liberal arts college he wants to attend, will it help if he indicates an unpopular major on his application?

You ask a good question. The first thing you need to realize (and you probably do) is that it is never easy to get into a very selective college. Even if your son’s academic interests and abilities are different from the majority of other applicants, the more competitive institutions receive large numbers of applications from extremely able students, so he is sure to be up against others who share his atypical strengths and passions.

However, it is indeed possible that some borderline candidates are admitted to top schools because they plan to study in under subscribed departments. Each year, most colleges and universities have what they call “institutional needs.” These include academic departments that may have dwindling enrollments or to which they want to attract more students for a variety of other reasons. While these priorities are rarely made public (in other words, you won’t see a rotating banner on the Yale Web site that proclaims, “We want more Italian majors and astronomers next fall”), if your son’s area of interest coincides with one of these “institutional needs,” he may indeed have a better chance of admission than a candidate with similar credentials who is pursuing a more popular field.

Of course, often you can do no more than guess at what these priorities might be, and your son can’t simply search through a course catalogue for the academic department with the smallest enrollment and then write on his application that this will be his intended field of study. Admission officials will be looking for prior accomplishments in this area or at least a reason why he hopes to study this subject (e.g., a supplementary note that says something like, “My high school doesn’t have a classics department, but I have read the poetry of Catullus in translation and would now like to read it in the original Latin.”)

Feel free to query colleges directly about how your son’s strengths or interests will be considered at decision time. While colleges don’t always come clean, it never hurts to ask. Also make sure that your son’s choice of major is not binding. At liberal arts colleges it rarely is, but don’t proceed without making certain.

As an on-the-bubble candidate at a favorite college, your son will also probably improve his chances of admission by applying “early decision,” if it’s offered by the school in question, but it’s hard to advise him to go full-steam-ahead with that plan without knowing more about him, his academic record, the college he has chosen, and your family’s financial need.